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Bewildered in Beijing - and all because of the Olympics

PUBLISHED: 17:15 11 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 07 September 2010

Because-of-the-Olympics, you have to play your cards right in Beijing

Because-of-the-Olympics, you have to play your cards right in Beijing

HARRIET CHANARIN finds life slightly bewildering as China embraces the Olympics WE arrived in Shanghai one month ago. The same day our container of shipped furniture arrived. However, while my partner Matt and I quickly settled in, we still don t have the stuff we need to survive. My grand piano, my walk-in-wardrobe and my nuclear po

WE arrived in Shanghai one month ago. The same day our container of shipped furniture arrived. However, while my partner Matt and I quickly settled in, we still don't have the stuff we need to survive. My grand piano, my walk-in-wardrobe and my nuclear powered hairdryer are all still sitting in Shanghai docks: Because-of-the-Olympics. Container checking takes five days but Because-of-the-Olympics it now takes over a month.

It is not just my furniture that is unwelcome in China. I am too. Visas are hard to come by. You can't simply pop over to Honkers for a renewal, as one used to. So I'm flying home to pick up another visa.

But I don't mind. It is unbearable in this hot humid smog. When I leave my house it is like walking into an oversized version of those silly microwaved face towels you get with the bill at Tandoori restaurants. I sweat buckets and there is nowhere for the sweat to go. As you know most girls don't sweat. This is the first time in my life that I have sweated. It's embarrassing and really unnatural. So I thought I'd come home to save myself from melting.

It isn't just me who is avoiding China's stifling atmosphere. I hear the British athletes are stopping off at Macau until the last possible moment to minimise exposure to Beijing's pollution, which the WHO (is that the pop group?) says is five times over the amount deemed safe - or it could be for a wee cheeky gambling bender (according to The China Daily).

I feel it personally when the Chinese national papers take the micky out of our Olympic team, mostly in response to our constant nagging about human rights when we really should be focusing on the Olympics.

Because-of-the-Olympics, neurotically paranoid excessively nationalistic behaviour is all over the place. Last Friday at about 4.13pm and on our way to the train station for our overnight train journey to Beijing, the Chinese government issued a new rule for all foreigners: "carry your funky passport, whiteboy". By 4.15pm this rule was fully enforced and Shanghai train station security resembled an international airport's security. Unfortunately, our passports were elsewhere in obedience of another brand new Chinese law: registering at our local police station within 24 hours of moving into the area, or else.

We finally convinced the train station police that my genuine fake Chinese Louis Vuitton trunk doesn't contain imported fakes from Paris or Geneva and boarded our train in the nick of time.

This train was nothing like the Chinese trains I remember. It was sparkling new and filled with two-person bedrooms en-suite! Because-of-the-Olympics? And not only that, they were fully booked too, with a newly minted class of rich young Chinese couples.

Meanwhile at the unfashionable end of the train the previously minted peasants sat on hard seats, eating vacuum-packed chicken feet out of the packet. Fascinating people. We took lots of photographs before retiring to the dining car for the chef's speciality: vacuum-packed chicken feet out of the packet and onto a plate.

We arrive refreshed to a city I don't recognise as the Beijing I used to know and love. In my time, back in 2004, the Chinese were wearing everything and anything. Today I was shocked to find them back in a national uniform. Not that classic charcoal grey cotton communist Mao suit they wore everyday for a decade during the Cultural Revolution, but a one size fits all synthetic T-shirt displaying the slogan: 'I love China more than ever'.

I am told it was issued by the Chinese Communist party's propaganda department the day after the Chinese government found out how we Londoners welcomed the Olympic torch relay when it reached London.

And what of Beijing itself? It is clean and bright and tranquil and utterly transformed from the Beijing familiar to me. Only taxis with odd-number plates were on the road that day, Because-Of-The-Olympics. (It had been the turn of the even-numbered plates the day before). And, big surprise, my taxi driver spoke English.

When he drops us off at the Beijing Hotel, we discover that sitting outdoors to cool down and enjoy the view is banned, Because-Of-The-Olympics. And we can't go and listen to live music because that too is banned, Because-Of-The-Olympics. When we ask for more information they repeat: 'Because-Of-The-Olympics' more slowly, and loudly.

And besides the rain that poured down on the dot from 9pm to 9.15, the weather was perfect. Actually, this 15-minute downpour turned out to be the very reason the weather was so perfect - a very clever trick, Because-Of-The-Olympics.

Chemical pellets are fired above the city into the moist air to weigh down the particles and the resulting rain washes away the pollution.

Even more amazing was the absence of desert sand blown into my face from the Gobi desert. Perhaps it was just a good day, or perhaps it was Because-Of-The-Olympics. Had they poured water over it and turned it into a big concrete carpark? Whatever they did, it worked and the difference in air quality that weekend was remarkable. Unfortunately, I hear it hasn't lasted.

Like everything in China, you scratch the shiny glitzy surface of the new clean Beijing and it's crumbling beneath. The city (and country too) has come to a standstill with massive countdown clocks everywhere you turn counting down the days till 8.8.08 - a lucky number for the superstitious Chinese. Beijing's factory owners, also in love with China more than ever, have all offered or, I suspect, been ordered to close their businesses to help Beijing maintain clean air.

The authorities, who are also more in love with China than ever, treated the homeless and migrant workers who have just completed the Olympic stadiums in record time to a holiday in the countryside - perhaps indefinitely.

China isn't just proud to host the Olympics, it's more than that. She is head over heels in love with herself. Deaf and blind to everything else, a generation of Chinese have grown up with daily extra-curriculum classes called Olympic maths, Olympic English and Olympic so on. All these better-than-the-rest classes have created a very egotistical and arrogant generation that thinks it can take on the world and win. Perhaps it can. But that's not the point; surely one must pretend to be modest, like me.

Right now China is Olympic mad and once this decade of Olympic preparation is over, I'm going to be living among 1.3 billion anti-climaxed Chinese.

Even if they do well it will be depressing, in Olympian proportions. And if they do badly, I have no idea how they will cope.

To "lose face" is a Chinese concept still very alive and thriving. The word 'sorry' isn't in their vocabulary - well, not in used vocab anyway. When a Chinese person wants to say "I'm sorry", they say "I'm embarrassed''.

But I suppose we British are at the other end of the spectrum and apologise for everything. But a bit of modesty is good, isn't it? Even if it is as fake as my Louis Vuitton suitcase.

Harriet Chanarin


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