by Pearl Chen
Opening yourself to your homeland.
“Do you speak English?” the blonde woman asked casually as she plopped right down next to me on a block of concrete outside the bubbly Water Cube on Beijing’s Olympic Green. For such a sprawling, futuristic, Disneyland-esque plaza, it wasn’t exactly overflowing with places to sit, and we were both relieved to take a break on this random little rock.
As a Chinese-American, I looked like about 95% of the fans there, who came out in groves waving red flags, sporting crimson tattoos on their faces, and chanting with ear-splitting enthusiasm anytime a Chinese athlete took the stage.
So I surprised the woman a little when I replied that I grew up in Cupertino, California.
Her eyes lit up like she had found a kindred spirit, and she started telling me about how she and her husband had arrived at the Olympics two days ago with a group from Texas.
“It’s my first day. I’m still pinching myself that I’m here,” I responded. A month ago, an aunt in Beijing (whom I’d met just once at age twelve) had agreed to host me, setting off a mad dash to string together the Olympics adventure I had always dreamed about but didn’t think was possible until now. My search for elusive sports tickets had ended only a week earlier, when a travel agency mailed me passes to swimming, gymnastics, and track – a lifesaver, since many of the Olympic ticketing sites online had turned out to be massive scams.
This wasn’t the first time I had gone to China, but having been raised in America where media depictions of an intimidating, red country were often too longstanding to ignore, this was the first time that I felt I could truly be proud of my roots. Speaking Mandarin at home ensured I wouldn’t be a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), but growing up, it was just much easier to take for granted that the United States was the superior country. Now through the Olympics at Beijing, I was eager to witness how much China would “prove” itself to the world – and help me come to terms with what it means to be bicultural.
Back on the Green, the woman suddenly veered away from our small talk and said, “You don’t have a pin to trade,” pointing to the many sports pins decorating the lanyard around her neck.
“Here, you can have the best one,” she offered, removing a large pin with Olympic colors from her collection and shoving it over to me.
Before I could politely refuse her unexpected generosity, she continued, “This pin represents Jesus. All the Olympic colors here symbolize his life, our sin, and our salvation through God.”
Apparently, the “group” she was part of was actually a missionary that went to the Olympic Games. As she explained the pin’s symbolism in depth, a crowd of Chinese gathered to witness our conversation, something not uncommon in China whenever there was English spoken in public for a prolonged time.
By the end of it all, a Chinese woman pulled me aside and asked in Mandarin, “You can understand her? How much was the pin?”
Regardless of how well she was understood, the missionary continued to have an interested audience after I went on my way. I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it okay for her to preach Christianity at these heavily monitored Games in China, a country the West often portrays as devoid of religious freedom?
So the next morning, during a (shockingly uncrowded) early-morning bus ride to Tiananmen Square, I asked my Beijing aunt point-blank, “How much is Christianity allowed in this country?”
“China’s increasingly open to it now,” she replied, pointing to various Catholic churches en route to the square, though they were, of course, controlled by the state and not by Rome.
“The new Catholic bishop of Beijing [Joseph Li Shan] was appointed by the official [communist-approved] Chinese Church but was also supported by the Vatican,” she added. So it was possible to have the support of both the Pope and the Party after all.
I supposed if there was one thing Christianity and Chinese communism had in common, it was that both involved god-worshipping, a thought I couldn’t shake as we arrived in Tiananmen Square and I made my way into Mao’s Mausoleum. Staring wide-eyed at his perfectly preserved body, his jet black hair, his surprisingly “healthy” skin tones, I left my jaw hanging with morbid fascination. For so long, he was the god of the Chinese, and officially, lying under that crystal box, he still was; but the 65 million Chinese Christians in the country would tell a different story.
This duality – of Chinese people being increasingly open to religion while still officially upholding its communist doctrine – was only one example of the dichotomies I saw in Beijing.
It wasn’t just that religion mixed with communism. Ancient palaces, segments of old city walls, and gorgeous traditional Chinese parks stood side by side with pieces of the cosmopolitan city – spaceship-like skyscrapers, neon-studded shopping districts, and ever expansive subway lines.
I had brought two identities to Beijing – Chinese and American – hoping to reconcile them at the Olympic Games, but in the process, I found that the city had two identities of its own too: Its past constantly mingled with its present.
A day after marveling at the intricate concrete silver “lattice” work covering the phenomenal Bird’s Nest – a venue so huge it took me ten minutes just to get to my seat – I found myself staring at the dusty but likewise intricate latticework under the roofs of imperial palaces in the newly renovated Forbidden City, thinking about the different yet also oddly similar architecture China has adopted to symbolize its might.
The country may have spent part of its $40 billion Olympic budget on the dozens of sparkling water fountains that danced to blaring music between the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest, but a bus ride away, you could take in an equally stunning water scene at the traditional Beihai Park, where water lily pads the size of yoga mats clustered peacefully above a lake under weeping willows.
You could also catch traditional narrow-alley housing, the “hutongs” of Old Beijing, peeking out through certain preserved neighborhoods. Here were people living as they had for generations, in housing that often included shared bathrooms with neighbors, not too far from where you could have a McDonald’s meal for 24 yuan. (Can you imagine shelling out $24 for a big mac, fries, and coke? And yet business was booming.)
Beijing was a city holding onto its history while simultaneously charging ahead to the future, and it helped me see my own dual identity as a Chinese-American more clearly. Much like Beijing, I was learning to simultaneously embrace two ways of life, with all of their contradictions. On my last day, as I stood in the Bird’s Nest cheering for both Chinese and U.S. teams during the men’s 100m, I never felt more strongly that I had found another home and struck a new balance – to give China, the place of my birth, a bigger chance in my heart.
Pearl Chen was born in China and raised in the U.S. from age three. A resident of New York City, she has written for People.com, the Barnes and Noble Review, and “City Scoops” magazine, among others. Visit her website: http://pearlc.wordpress.com. Chen won the Young Traveler Silver for “Identity Games” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.