Monday, September 01, 2008

Olymp[ics column

Just catching up on my last couple of Expat Life columns...

Olympics Arrive in Beijing;
Real, and Surreal, At Last
August 15, 2008

When we agreed to come to Beijing three years ago I was well aware that the Olympic Games would be here in August, 2008. I had an idea that this would present some good opportunities for me, as a sportswriter, and I hoped to find some way to cover them.

Now, after three years of this vague, distant concept called "the Olympics" dominating discussion in Beijing, the countdown clocks are shut off, the event is upon us, and I am a week into covering it. The experience has been exhilarating, but more than a little surreal. For one, after all the anticipation of how the Games would affect Beijing, it seems I am not experiencing them in Beijing at all but in a bubble of Olympics Land, a sometimes-American-tinged place only tangentially related to the city I have come to know and love. For another, I am experiencing them at a distance from my family -- having sent two of my three kids to the U.S. -- while I occasionally collide with my wife in unexpected places. And it's all happening while a new, private countdown clock is ticking away in the background, since we recently decided to head back to the U.S. in December and I know my days here are numbered.

For a week, I have been running around this city like a madman, covering events for that I had never watched before (shooting, women's weightlifting, diving) as well as ones with which I am deeply familiar (basketball). I barely have time to pause and think, but when I do, I miss Beijing. Olympics Land is fenced off from the city, secured by checkpoints and metal detectors, accessible only to those with tickets or passes. With at least 10,000 accredited journalists here, inside Olympics Land, the countless blue-shirted Chinese volunteers are shocked if I speak a little Chinese, and an attempt at real conversation yields wonder and even awe. That's a good confidence boost.

My wife, Rebecca, is also covering the Games, for The Wall Street Journal. We have lived parallel lives in Olympics Land, meeting up a few times in bizarre moments; it's hard to imagine any other circumstance that would have us together at Olympic Women's Weightlifting. We enjoyed the event, watching Chinese ace Chen Yanqing win her second gold and break two Olympics records. Then we each filed a story, the first time anything like that has happened during almost 20 years of similar but distinct career paths.

Luckily for me, I have a golden pass and can go pretty much anywhere in Olympics Land. Many Beijing residents, locals and expats alike, are desperately seeking entry. Beijing Café, the Internet email group that is usually filled with questions and tips about day-to-day life (Where can I get good curry? Car for sale...great driver available Aug. 1) is now filled with messages selling, buying, and swapping Olympics tickets. There doesn't seem to be much regular life going on out there, but the expat hordes are returning earlier than usual from long summer vacations to witness the Games. Rebecca and I, of course, won't be heading to the U.S. this summer, but that doesn't mean no one in our family did.

The fact that both of us would be working days of at least 12 hours prompted us to send our sons, Jacob and Eli, back to America without us for three weeks. They flew back with my sister-in-law and nephew, who visited, and are undertaking our annual American grand tour on their own, passing to friends and family in New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Michigan before my in-laws fly them back just after the Olympics end.

Five-year-old Anna is still here. She is largely in the care of her longtime nanny and our good friends John and Vivian, who have virtually adopted her as their fourth kid in a perfect indication of the great friends we have here. She doesn't seem any worse for the wear and is enjoying her friends.

The boys, too, seem to be thriving without us, trekking around with their aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and grandparents. It feels like a landmark moment for our family to have them so far away and I think it's good for them. We felt badly about them missing out on the Olympics in their own backyard, but it was the right decision. If I had any doubts about that, they were dispelled by an email from my mother, sent just after they arrived for a few days at the Jersey Shore, in the same place we visit every year. They were with my folks and my sister's son Ben, with whom they have nonstop fun and action.

"Hi. We are at the beach and kids are having a blast. As we pulled on to the island they gave us their agenda: Arcade, mini golf, Fantasy Island [amusement park] and water park! They have done the arcade and want to go again! They had so much fun at the beach yesterday that the three of them were in bed by 8:30 at their requests. They were bushed."

Clearly, if anyone's missing out, it's us. And while I miss them, and America, I'm happy for them and proud of them. It's healthy for them to spend time with their grandparents without us around. They are also noticing their changed surroundings, apparently -- Jacob emerged from the restroom at a Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stop and wondered if Americans appreciate how nice their bathrooms are.

Actually, it often feels like I am in America here as well. I am working daily inside the massive, labyrinthine NBC offices inside the even more massive International Broadcast Center. The first thing you notice when you walk in is that it's freezing -- kept that way to protect some of the gear -- and many of those who work all day inside the office are dressed in fleece coats, wrapped in blankets and wearing hats. The second thing that I noticed is the big-screen TV tuned to a live feed of NBC's New York affiliate.

Everyone else seems to walk by, but I am transfixed by that TV. I haven't seen American television in six months and though I don't feel like I miss it, it pulls me in like quicksand. I almost have to avert my eyes to walk past. There is another TV in the cafeteria and I eat every meal in front of it, excited to watch the Olympics going on all around me, as well as things I never view even when I do live in America: Jay Leno, the local New York news -- if I'm lucky I see baseball highlights on the sports broadcast. The broadcasters look strange to me, made up and poofy-haired, and the commercials are so garish that they seem like parodies. Have I really been away from America for that long? I wonder.

It's a strange sensation to be in this Olympics bubble covering the most exciting event in the world, already missing Beijing and at the same time feeling a huge surge of nostalgia for America, attracted to the same type of things that I feel are going to annoy me terribly when we move back.

The height of my confusion occurred last Saturday morning. I dragged myself into NBC around 8:30 a.m., having been up until 2:30 covering Beijing's reaction to the grandiose Opening Ceremony. I had run from one end of the city to another watching the event live on TVs with residents. As I walked into the offices, the delayed broadcast was underway on American TV. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees, so I took a moment to appreciate the scale and scope of this whole thing. Then I hurried on. I had a women's shooting event to get to.