|It’s show time and the people of Beijing sense it. In the final hours before the lavish Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games, this capital city buzzed with anticipation. A decade in the making and $43 billion invested to pull it off, the Chinese seemed ready to celebrate their long planned “coming out party.”
We walked for nearly 7, shirt soaking hours in the central city and everywhere Chinese red bloomed. The national flag adorned storefronts. Cheeks of toddlers sported red hearts. Posters and banners seemed to cover every ancient wall near the fabled Forbidden City, where Emperors once ruled in a culture so closed only the most privileged were invited in. Today is a historic step to turn centuries of isolation into a new era of openness and hopeful acceptance of a different China, one that wants to play on the world stage. The theme for the Beijing Games, “One World, One Dream” was on display everywhere. For the first time, there is a sense that the Chinese want to embrace outsiders.
As we ventured further away from the main boulevards, down narrow streets where technology and time have not transformed life at light speed, we became objects of fascination. Taller, mostly blonde and clearly from a different zip code, my wife, 3 children and I weren’t hard to spot. If we lingered more than a moment on a street corner to study a map or seek directions, we attracted a crowd. Some stared and pointed. Many smiled sheepishly and the brave ones asked to have their picture taken with us. My two daughters (23 and 20) had their Brittany Spears paparazzi moment and awkwardly went with it.
It was Friday, but in the neighborhoods we wandered work was not a priority on this morning. Something much more important was hanging in the dense, muggy air. It had the feel of a national holiday. These people we passed weren’t going to Opening Ceremonies where tickets were selling at noon on the Chinese “gray market” for as much as $40,000 for the best seats in the Beijing National Stadium. They didn’t care. For the equivalent of 30 cents, you can buy a small Chinese flag and be a part of history. One young mother had a fist full of flags and red stick-on tattoos up and down her arms as two small children trailed behind. Cafes were stuffed with locals eating dim sum and the streets were thick with people. Everyone had a camera. We were only a few blocks from Tinanmen Square where 19 years ago the government tanks killed hundreds of protesting students as the world looked on. The mood in this city of deep history and now change is strikingly different as The Games begin.