Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Report from Xi'an, China

There is an epidemic of national pride for the 2008 Olympic Games everywhere in China.

While the Games in Beijing are less than nine months away, everyone you meet is proud that China will showcase its country, people, culture and history to what will be the largest television audience in Olympics history. Shanghai also is aggressively promoting and preparing for its World Expo in 2010 and along with Beijing, is hosting international sports events. The FIFA world cup in football (soccer) is underway now in Shanghai, which also will be one of the venues for this sport in 2008. Both cities are concerned, however, that the behavior of some Chinese in public may be offensive to many foreign visitors. Spitting, littering, queue jumping, jay walking, smoking in non-smoking areas and talking loudly in crowded public places have been cited as bad habits that need to be corrected. And, the ill-mannered are from all social and economic groups

Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt would be proud of the officials in both cities who have launched massive public education campaigns to teach proper etiquette and manners and avoid for China public indignation from foreign travelers. The women's federation in Shanghai published and distributed booklets about etiquette and discussed this subject at public forums and on television and trained more than 750,000 residents on manners. According to studies, more than 75 percent of the people in major cities consider this etiquette drive very important for the overall success of both the Olympic Games and World Expo.

In the three weeks I have been in China, I have found the Chinese people extremely warm, hospitable, friendly and accommodating and many speak English. However, when it comes to getting a taxicab during a busy time, it helps having had experience in New York City trying to get a taxi during rush hour or when it is raining. The Chinese do not queue nor is it first come, first-serve, but strictly survival of the fittest and who can get in the taxi first. On the positive side, taxicabs are cheaper here than anyplace I have visited and there is no tipping. You pay only the meter and many of my trips have been less than US$2. In Beijing, I was in a taxi for nearly an hour and a distance that would take one in New York from the Bronx to the Battery and the cost was US$7.50.

At markets and other public areas where people would normally stand in line for service, visitors to China should be prepared for people to push in ahead of them as a matter of local custom. While there are pedestrian cross walks and stop lights, there is absolutely no pedestrian right of way. Crossing a street anywhere in China is like running an obstacle course of fast-moving buses, trucks, taxis, autos, bicycles and all types of moving vehicles coming at you at high speed. I found it helpful to look for a woman with a baby or small children and cross the street in a group. No preference is given to women or seniors. All pedestrians are considered fair game once you step off the sidewalk. For the past week I have been in Xian, a city of more than eight million people in the center of the country. It is hard to believe Xian is considered only a mid-sized city in China yet it is larger than Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. Xian was the nation's first capital and home of the first emperor. During his Qin Dynasty the Great Wall of China was built as well as the world famous Terra Cotta Army that was buried with him.

While Beijing is the government center of China and Shanghai the financial center, Xian is the educational and technical center with more than 100 universities and 800,000 students. I am a member of a team of 12 volunteers through Global Volunteers, a non-profit organization headquartered in Minneapolis that is teaching conversational English to students at Eurasia University. Eurasia is a 10-year-old private university with 20,000 students. Every student lives on campus in a dormitory and all freshman are required to take military training. In the foreign language department the students are required to take English and either French or Japanese. Almost every student on campus has some command of English. The students are extremely proud of the Olympic Games and are an excellent example of the pride everyone is taking in China being showcased to the world next year.

In addition to classes, we helped prepare nine students for a national speech contest and several used the Beijing theme, "One World, One Peace," in their essays. Last week, we judged a speech contest at the Fourth Army Military University and Hospital and again, several of the presenters adopted the Olympic slogan in their remarks. National pride is a positive epidemic in this country of 1.3 billion people who are proud of its 5,000-year-old history. Before Xian, I visited Shanghai, Yichang, Chongqing and Beijing and you could not walk a block without seeing the Olympic logo. You don't need to understand Chinese when you see the Olympic promotions on television or billboards, or in newspapers and magazines.

However, as Chen Weihua wrote in a commentary in China Daily, bad manners could jeopardize the success of the Olympics. "While the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo will be a big test and a display of public behavior, cultivating good social manners is not just for these events, it is vital to the country's goal of building a harmonious society, sustaining development and winning respect from people all over the world," Chen wrote. "Cultivating good social manners for our citizens means a lot more than winning 100 Olympic gold medals." Notes: Visitors should be prepared for a surprise in Chinese toilets. There are very few Western toilets except in five-star hotels and I didn¡¯t see any in the new Xian International Airport. Visitors also should always carry toilet paper with them because there is none in most toilet facilities.

Several of us took a break from local Chinese food, unlike anything you can order in the U.S., and decided to have lunch at the Pizza Hut in Xi'an's largest mall. We needed reservations but it was worth the wait. You cannot drink or brush your teeth with any tap water, even in five-star hotels. It is not safe. Always use bottled water and carry it with you wherever you go. Athletes who have sought out hotels in the past may find it in their best interests in Beijing to stay in the Olympic Village. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has not issued a statement regarding the safety of the tap water in the Olympic Village. Years ago the late Col. Red Blaik, coach of the greatest teams in Army history, always had local water trucked from West Point to the site of every away game the team played. National Olympic Committees may want to insure a plentiful supply of their country's bottled water for their athletes.

(Rene A. Henry is an author and writer who lives in Seattle. He spent more than 35 years of his professional career in international and Olympic sports. He also has given of his time to teach in Italy and Mexico for Global Volunteers. )