BEIJING After nearly two weeks in this strange place halfway across the world, I have begun to understand that there is not one China, but two.
There is the China we foreigners constantly see at these Olympics: Helpful. Meticulous. As beautiful as the willow trees that sway in the breeze.
And there is the China we rarely see but the one you often sense just behind the curtain: Secret. Oppressive. Concerned with how things appear rather than how they really are.
I'll provide you an example of the Good China first.
Sunday morning, I located Beijing's fastest and friendliest cabdriver just when I needed him most.
Just as I was about to enter the Water Cube, I realized I had stupidly forgotten my ticket for the swim session in which Michael Phelps was going for his eighth gold medal. There is no chance of ever talking your way past any security guard in China, so there was no recourse. I had to go back to my hotel to get it.
I was late. I was nervous. The cabdriver took note of this. In relatively good English, he engaged me with his opinions about the NBA (“I love Kobe Bryant” and “LeBron James – very strong!”). Then he decided to teach me 10 common Chinese words, encouraging me every time my Southern accent tripped over one.
All the while, he expertly navigated through the traffic at top speed. What was normally a 45-minute round trip took only 25. I made Phelps' final event with time to spare.
At the end of the drive, I paid the cabbie the metered fare – a ridiculously low $4.80. He would not take a tip (they aren't common in the culture). I left my umbrella in the cab, and he ran to me holding it aloft and smiling.
Then there's the Bad China. It is now widely known that a Chinese government official decided that one little Chinese girl should lip-synch the song of another during the opening ceremonies because the girl who was the actual singer wasn't cute enough.
That's ludicrous – and demeaning to both girls.
It was ludicrous, too, for China to revoke the visa of Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek to come here. The speedskater from Greensboro is now an activist who wanted to urge China to help make peace in war-torn Darfur. The revocation undoubtedly gave more publicity to Cheek than he would have been able to generate on his own.
It's just hard to trust a communist society when you come from a democratic one. When I first saw the many rules for spectators posted outside the Bird's Nest Olympic track venue, I had to laugh.
Here's Rule No.8 in full: “The following behaviors and actions are strictly forbidden: assaulting athletes, judges/referees or other staff; gambling of any kind; taking part in or organizing a march, sit-in or demonstration; causing a disturbance after drinking alcohol; streaking; behaving in any other matter that disrupts events or is prohibited under Chinese law.”
Many questions arose after reading this.
Could you cause a disturbance without drinking alcohol?
Was streaking or assaulting referees – or doing both simultaneously – allowed at the other Olympic venues that do not post a similar sign?
But the sign is disquieting, too. After all, how many American stadiums try to outlaw demonstrations?
Then there are the Chinese “volunteers” who sometimes fill in the seats at sparsely attended competitions. At one tennis match I attended, the volunteers had matching hats and T-shirts and were cheering in unison for Russia's Igor Andreev.
“I-gor, I-gor,” they would say. Then they would clap rhythmically.
Listen, no one chants rhythmically for Igor Andreev at a tennis match. Not even his family. It was so contrived it was funny.
But what else do we Americans not notice here that is also contrived? I sometimes get a “Stepford Wives” feel in China, wondering how much else is faked, or smoothed over, or shoved under the rug.
Without a million Totos tugging at a million curtains to expose all the Great and Powerful Wizards of China, it is impossible to know.
But there are signs that all is not what it seems to be. I see them every day.
I also see beauty. And brilliance. And a place with the best infrastructure of the four Olympics I've covered, where everyone smiles and every bus runs on time.
Good China. Bad China.
A riddle of a country, one that no Olympics will ever solve.