Last column

Finishing up tomorrow’s and I realized I never posted this one.

Steve Galpern is horrified I have sold out, first to Disney and now the Olympics. He has a point. Perhaps I am going soft.

An Olympic Skeptic Jumps
On Beijing’s Bandwagon

October 10, 2007

Last summer, I was walking down a narrow, usually quiet downtown street with my Chinese teacher Yechen. The sidewalks were being torn up, walls were being rebricked, you had to cross over two-by-fours to enter stores. We asked a resting worker what was going on. “For the Olympics,” he said after chugging some water.

“What comes after the Olympics?” Yechen wondered aloud. “The end of the world?”

It has seemed that way around Beijing. Countdown clocks marking the days until the opening ceremony sprinkle the city and the entire, sprawling metropolis has been turned upside down, with scaffolding covering most of the historical sites, roads being repaved, new highways being built, and construction under way at the actual Olympics venues. More and more Games decorations are popping up all over town, often bearing the logo “One World, One Dream.”

All of this has made me into something of an Olympics skeptic, not the most intelligent tack for a Beijing expat these days — particularly one who largely makes his living as a sportswriter. It’s my nature to push back when I feel something being shoved down my throat. But I’m not too rigid, and I have recently found myself moving away from Olympic skepticism and toward the sort of excitement shared by so many Chinese and expats alike. This shift began after I entered the “Expats for Olympic Torchbearers” contest, designed to select eight foreigners living in China to participate in the Olympic torch relay. My entry was a lark, but it spurred me to spend a lot of time reading through other postings and contemplating the looming Games.

Last week, I traveled to Shanghai to attend a couple of high profile sporting events held during the Chinese Golden Week holiday. I’ve attended countless professional and college sporting events, but I got my first real taste of flag-waving international competition at the women’s World Cup soccer finals. It was much more fun from the stands than it would have been from the press box, where it is against etiquette to show a rooting preference.

We were seated in the American section, seemingly the only island in the packed stadium not cheering for Norway during the consolation game. The anti-American sentiment disturbed me a bit, but it also made it all the more fun to wave flags, chant “U-S-A,” stomp our feet and scream ourselves hoarse cheering on a crushing 4-1 victory. Even without a clear rooting interest, the final match between Brazil and Germany was also exhilarating. It was easy to imagine a similar event a year from now in Beijing and how exciting it would be to watch two teams battling for gold medals.

Two days later, we took in the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony, an extremely ambitious show whose grandiosity surprised and pleased me. It seemed obvious that China was rehearsing for next year. While the World Cup illustrated the nationalistic fervor of international sports events, the Special Olympics highlighted international brotherhood and what it feels like to be wowed by spectacle in a packed stadium. The entire city of Shanghai seemed to embrace the event, with signs urging citizens to welcome visitors all over town, and every cab driver wearing Special Olympics T shirts.

I returned to Beijing, more excited about the Olympics — and about the torchbearers’ contest, which provides an interesting window into the expat world in China as well as a revealing glimpse into both human nature and the Chinese version of democracy; the mere act of having open elections here should be significant. Except that it’s not really an election at all.

Even most entrants seem to believe that the eight torchbearers will be those who receive the most votes, judging by the emails, Web sites and Facebook groups soliciting votes. But the fine print tells a different story: “A selection committee will pick 100 candidates who will be chosen according to the number of votes they receive, as well as their experiences and qualifications. The selection committee will determine the final eight Olympic torchbearers.” [The italics are mine.]

Perhaps it’s good that the contest is not a straight-forward election since allegations of cheating are widespread. The day after registering, I sent out a mass email scrounging for votes. One Chinese and one expat friend each quickly asked if I wanted them to rig a computer to continuously cast votes for me.

I declined, but others may not have been so honest. One diplomat in Beijing signed up right before me. One day he had about 75 votes and I had about 200. The next day I had about 300 — and he had over 5,000. I wasn’t the only one to notice; this was discussed in at least one of the Facebook groups promoting candidacies.

Some people crafted lengthy, thoughtful essays for their entries, while others went for pure pandering — some version of “I love everything about China and Chinese people.” The single-named Russian beauty Kook merely wrote “Hi. Hello,” apparently counting on her fetching looks to win votes. Thus far she has almost as many comments begging for a personal email as she does votes.

I took something of a middle ground. Unaware of how long the contest runs — until Oct. 14 — and wanting to get my entry up after pondering it for a couple of weeks, I quickly wrote a few paragraphs and threw it up. Friends promptly told me that my entry was lame. “You need to talk more about how much you love China,” one wrote. “Excerpt some columns.”

“You should have posted a picture with your kids,” someone else suggested. They were probably right — it certainly worked for this guy — but even if I had thought of it, it seems like a cheap tactic. “Why don’t you have at least 1,000 votes?” wrote another. “Everyone you know has at least three email addresses and should vote with each of them.”

Actually, you can only vote once per entry per IP address, though some say they have been able to double-back (I’ll admit to trying and failing to do so). The leading vote getter by 50% over anyone else is American Jenny Bowen, who started the Half the Sky Foundation, dedicated to enriching the lives of Chinese orphans, and who has pledged to run with kids from her program. It’s easy to understand her appeal.

Another top vote-getter is my friend and neighbor, Venezualen Deirdre Smyth, a breast cancer survivor with a platform of urging all women to get mammograms at 34 — the age at which she was diagnosed — and showing the “women of the world that the world is a beautiful place to be explored and my conviction that nothing is impossible.” If you can’t beat ’em , join’em; I’m pulling for Deirdre.

As for me, I’m about 12,000 votes behind the leader and over 4,000 behind 8th place, and that’s fine. I don’t really expect them to pick a journalist. I’m just relieved that my vote total isn’t humiliating and happy the process helped bump me firmly onto the Olympics bandwagon. It’s a pretty comfortable place to be in Beijing these days.
* * *

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column, about expats who choose a local education for their kids.

I hope somebody someday would be able to do a study to see if memorization of multiplication tables etc. in Chinese schools has done anything harmful to little kids in their growing up. The assumption by education psychologists is that it hurts. But, you have to have some doubts looking at the grown-ups.

— Jason C

I don’t think anyone really thinks that memorizing multiplication tables hurts anyone. What concerns people is a lack of critical thinking or creativity and an overloaded work schedule. But many people don’t think this is a problem. See below.
* * *

We are an American family living in Suzhou. My 5 year old son attends Chinese school because of poor standards in Western education. Money is not an issue.

This concept of learning rote memorization compared to creative thinking is widely believed by people. I find it just a crutch to explain away the lax standards that now dominate Western education. Fifty years ago the U.S. had much higher standards in education. That was way back when we had a viable space program.

In no way can Western education compare with Chinese education. My son is 5 and does math at a 12 year old level in the U.S. He can do multiplication and division with numbers in the thousands. He will turn 6 next month. I never thought this possible until I came across the Chinese education system.

— Dan Collins

That is fascinating and wonderful about your son’s math skills. After speaking to a lot of people, however, I believe one problem is that many Chinese schools will continue to push a struggling child very hard. I simply don’t believe that all 5 year olds would be ready for that and it’s not because they are dumb.

I also don’t think it’s completely true that American standards are so low. I think kids there now face an awful lot of academic pressure. See Jeff Opdyke’s recent, excellent Love and Money column on this topic.

My own kids go to a pretty demanding British school. They come home exhausted and I’d actually prefer to just let them play more after school, or even participate in sports or other activities. Instead, I often force them to buckle down and do homework, something I don’t always enjoy. From talking to friends and families, that doesn’t seem too much different from the U.S. and I doubt that first graders were doing a lot of homework 50 years ago. I know for sure they weren’t 34 years ago.

This conversation could go on forever, really, and there clearly is no simple answer. It would be nice if all the systems could learn from one another, but I suppose that is too utopian of a concept.
* * *

Fascinating article. Your case study, mainland China, offers a striking example of the choice expat parents can face. But the analysis gets a lot simpler — and parents’ school-choice dichotomy gets much less stark — when American expats move to other Western cultures. We mainstreamed all three of our American kids in a local public school in rural Spain, for one semester each in the Fourth Grade. My kids all brought home perfect report cards that put them ahead of most of the locals, and they made local contacts who remain their friends several years later.

My kids did benefit from a bit of a head-start with the language. They had been familiar with basic Spanish going in. By the end of their semesters, each spoke Spanish that was functionally fluent.

When kids get older, and when they have no background in the language, mainstreaming gets tougher, and the bilingual schools you discussed become a more practical option. I moved to Paris for a semester when my son was in sixth grade, and put him in the Ecole Actif Bilingue. His grades were excellent, but he did not learn nearly as much French as he had picked up Spanish two years before.

Too many expat kids in overseas American schools seem to learn almost none of the local language (or culture). Absent a learning disability or emotional problem, there is no bigger waste of an opportunity than to be able to live abroad with school-age children but to isolate them in a high-priced American bubble.

— Donald C. Dowling, Jr.

In Beijing at least, there is no true American bubble, as all of the international schools are truly international. Otherwise, I largely agree with you.

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