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Opening Ceremony Beijing Olympics

Opening Ceremony Beijing OlympicsI was impressed with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; I was happy for China on their “coming out party” to the world. It was an interesting performance and keenly showed the degree to which China can organize and control large masses of people. It was almost frightening. Thousands of Chinese [...]

Opening Ceremony Beijing Olympics

I was impressed with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; I was happy for China on their “coming out party” to the world. It was an interesting performance and keenly showed the degree to which China can organize and control large masses of people. It was almost frightening. Thousands of Chinese with Christmas lights strung around them running around a stadium collectively making designs of flowers, mountains, and shapes with their bodies used as virtual pixels is impressive. And the message was clear: China is grasping with both hands at the superpower title of the 21st century.
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Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Budapest, Hungary- August 14, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos
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But as I was watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics on television at the Bubble Hostel in Budapest, a Dutch tourist sitting across the room from me said something to the effect of, “look at all the money they [the Chinese] spent on this performance when there are starving people sitting right outside the stadium.”

I came to a start. Where did he get such a statement from?

“What people are starving?” I asked him a little too sharply.

“The people of China.”

“No, the people of China are not starving; actually, they are doing very well for themselves,” I retorted in an unbecoming priggish manner.

“No they are not,” countered the Dutchman.

I then told him that I had traveled China from stem to stern for a year and a half, lived in a monastery in Qinghai, hitch-hiked from Mongolia to Vietnam, and went into the middle of nowhere in Yunnan and have yet to see any of these starving people. Conversely, I mostly saw people working hard, being industrious, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, eating food, driving trucks, digging in mines, picking tea, riding bicycles, driving cars, laughing, spitting, visiting prostitutes, and fighting. It is my assumption that starving people would not do any of these things.

The Dutchman did not reply.

I was taken in by the Dutchman’s comments not only because he had never been to China before and did not have any backing to his statement, but mostly because he was merely mimicking the voice of the Western media. A voice which seems hell bent on showing the rags of a nation as the whole for the amusement and pride of a Western audience. I think that we are on the precipice of a new Red Scare:

“China violates human rights!” “China does not let Chinese people go to church!” “China kicked people out of their homes to build things for the Olympics!” “China is a dictatorship!” “China is corrupt!” “Chinese people are going hungry while millions of dollars are being spent on people bobbing up and down in boxes to celebrate the Olympics!” “The Uigurs are uprising!” “Xinjiang is a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam!” “The Olympic tourists are in danger!”

I have been watching these reports on the BBC for the past few days, and it is my impression that the West is becoming vastly insecure about the success that China is obtaining. The streets of even the biggest or most far out Chinese cities tend to be relatively clean and safe, the businesses seem to be doing well in much of the country, and the people are active and industrious. I cannot say the same for my own country.

In fact, I have seen more hungry and destitute people in the Greyhound bus stations of the USA than I ever had in China. I grew up near a city whose downtown area is absolutely squalid, full of beggars, and most of the shops have long ago closed down and boarded up their windows. In lieu of this, the bustling, active, and generally well-kept Chinese city came as a surprise to me.

I fail to understand why journalism need to uncover some obscure point of exploitation and horror to be considered viable? Why does Western society take criticism and cynical-ism as indications of intelligence? No, Western journalists are not sitting in the comfortable homes of middle class Chinese families, drinking tea, riding in cars, and talking about how safe, clean, and prosperous China has become (true, this would be a little boring). Rather, they are finding every scrap and speck of dust on the underbelly of China to show it as a human rights violating, oppressive society.

If the Olympics were in the USA this year would foreign journalist make reports about the crackheads in the Greyhound stations? Would they talk of all of the visitors that are being mugged in the streets? Would they show the USA as a poor, human rights violating country? Would they run stories about how a gang of police once busted down my door with their guns drawn and beat me up because I had just moved into an all black part of a city and they wanted to find out what I was up to? Would they focus on the squalor and downfall of the Great Lakes cities? I don’t think they would.

All governments violate human rights, this seems to be a mutually inclusive part of governing. I am taken aback that George W. Bush and the leaders of Western Europe can even look China in the eye, let alone deliver lectures on human rights.

But I do know that China is awful, China is polluted, China is totalitarian, and China is gross, that parts of China are on the brink of environmental collapse, and that China violates human rights, but China is doing what works – at least for now – for China. The lens of Western culture cannot be applied equally to every culture in the world. The people of the West seem to be raised with the virtually incorruptible notion that their ways are best (even if they do not realize it), that their system of governing should be the modal for the world, and any other cultural variants should be made Western; all while pretending to accept and appreciate cultural diversity. Costumes, songs, crafts, and tourism is not culture. Culture is the feeling of repulsion that one feels when they cannot understand the ways of another society; it is the drive to say that something that other people do is wrong, unjust, and violating. One’s own socialization never surfaces more vehemently than while criticizing the ways of another culture.

It makes me laugh to meet Western people who boast of their cultural awareness and openness while criticizing Islamic countries for their treatment of women, complaining that China violates human rights, while talking about democracy coming to the Middle East as if this is beneficial for the people, and taking a stand in “popular” global issues that I assume they know only from television, print media, and what is currently fashionable. If someone starts whining to me about human rights issues in a far away land that they know only through newspaper clippings, TV news, and magazine articles I cannot help but to wonder how they really know what they are talking about. Really, how do they know?

I don’t even know and I been to many of these places.

It is my impression that you either accept cultures for what they are – for better or for worse – or stomp out the incense and acquiesce with the mono-cultural foundations of the ideology of your own culture. I would never berate someone from the back-country or south of the USA for being culturally insensitive. You either take a country and a culture for what it is, or you don’t. I do not brag about being culturally accepting; I know that I am not. But I believe in what I experience rather than what runs across the CNN, the BBC, or from the lips of a dreadlocked fellow in a Tibetan clothing shop.

Sure, I don’t understand many aspects of other cultures. Many things that I experience in other lands seem pretty stupid to me. But just because something seems stupid does not make it unfounded. I believe that most cultures in the world have sense. Yes, I am baffled by the fact that it takes five grown Indian men in a shop to bag a single sack of tea, I cannot for the life of me figure out how Japanese people think, I don’t know why I need to act like a macho-ass in Latin America to prevent all guys in a fifty mile radius from trying to pick up my girlfriend, and I find the Three Gorges Dam repulsive. But I have faith that cultures do things for a reason, as silly and wrong as these reasons may seem to me.

I admit that I am a socialized, acculturated human being. I am not culturally defaced. I inherently know that I carry with me an entire truck load of ingrained stupidity. It is my impression that a multi-cultural perspective means being able to accept and identify your own culture as much as all others. This means knowing that YOUR own culture is just as stupid, wrong, misplaced, and backwards as every other one on the planet. It means that if you feel revolted by the practices of another culture that you should turn right around because the people of that culture probably feel just as revolted about you. A multi-cultural perspective means being able to shrug your shoulders, look on, and accept what you have been socialized to believe is wrong. It means recognizing that not all people who live in mud huts without money are poor.

China governs and makes decisions based upon what works well for China. They are Chinese and they take care of themselves as Chinese people always have. Their socialization is different than mine. They often seem stupid, wrong, rude, and intolerable. But I love China for precisely these reasons: I am taken aback in situations where all of the Chinese people around me seem to perceive as being normal.

“I think the Three Gorges Dam is good,” a Chinese girl once said to me like a robot.

If a Chinese lady tries to cut in front of me in a grocery line I put my elbow in her chest and tell her to back off. This feels wrong to me, but this is how it is done in China. I can remember reading in an ethnography once about how the anthropologist hated the society that he was researching because of the ways that they treated each other. He found that the ways that he was socialized to treat people had no regard in the culture that he was living in. For months he lived on the periphery of the society completely exasperated, until a fortunate event happened: he had finally had enough of living like himself and began to live like his research subjects. One day he was laying in his hammock and a man just walked up and overturned him out of it upon the ground. The man then sat in his hammock like it was a normal practice just take whatever he wanted without asking – it was. But after months of being bullied the anthropologist had enough and he knocked the man out of the hammock who had just debunked him moments before. To the anthropologist’s surprise the man was not angry, and he just got up off of the ground and calmly walked away. In this way that anthropologist learned that he, and not the culture he was studying, was out of step. From that day on he was accepted as being a part of the village, and he continued to overturn men from their hammocks.

“The nail that sticks out gets pounded back in,” wrote Chairman Mao. It is my feeling that this has always been the Chinese way. It seems un-accepting, mean spirited, and even fascist to me – especially as I am a nail that sticks out in my own culture – but this seems to work for the Chinese.

I hate discussions like the one I had with the Dutchman, but I had had enough. For days I have been keeping an eye on the BBC and watching the Olympics as I work at the Bubble Hostel. I have become appalled at how the international media is portraying China.

But should I expect anything else? Really, should the media of any country in the world broadcast stories that are not consistent with the preconceived notions of their audience? Should they really give an impression of the world that is not their own?

Should I expect the Dutchman to not make the statement that he did?

Perhaps I need a lesson in accepting the stupidity of my own culture as well as that of others?

Links to previous travelogue entries:

  • International Study Travel
  • Photo Copy Travel Guides
  • How to Drink Absinthe

Opening Ceremony Beijing Olympics
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About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3543 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • K2 Incense May 19, 2010, 10:09 am

    People are naturally experts on the world, didn’t you know?! 😉 I would have loved to have seen the opening ceremony live.

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  • k2incensesmoke February 22, 2011, 10:50 am

    Very good article. I enjoyed reading. Everyone knows bad news sells more, its a shame, it really is!

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