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Reflecting on Beijing 2008

September 1, 2008

I’ve been back in the US for about four days now, and believe it or not — I’m beginning to miss China. The politics, lifestyle, even the food I can live without, but the people — I miss the locals most of all. There have been many questions about my experience — from the immigration officer at the Chicago airport (it went beyond the obligatory business/pleasure question) to my family and friends back home — I’ve answered them several times before, but I will answer them here as well.

Q: Well, how was Beijing? Should I go?

A: After spending two months living in Beijing, I’d hesitate to recommend the city to tourists looking to soak up Chinese history and culture. Sure — there’s plenty of that in Beijing, but there’s so much more to China that you won’t be able to see through Beijing’s environmental and propaganda haze. I came to tolerate life in the city towards the end of my journey, but only because the Olympics were in town, and many familiar Western conveniences became available, such as an Apple Store and Cold Stone. Unless you speak Mandarin, communication with locals is almost always impossible. Some are learning limited English, but are unable to pronounce words correctly due to a lack of native speakers to practice with.

For photographers, Beijing can be a great place to shoot on clear days, but unfortunately, the sun only breaks through the clouds every so often. If you’re only in town for a week, you may not have a single day without a hazy blanket to get in the way of you and that perfect shot. The Chinese make incredible subjects, and are generally more open to photographers than Westerners. Unfortunately, I think much of this comes from a fear of confrontation, especially when they’re unable to communicate with the foreigner behind the camera.

Q: What was it like to work at the Olympics?

A: I can’t even begin to describe the Olympic experience – it was so incredible to be able to work alongside the world’s top photographers, reporters, and athletes. Just being around the athletes was a thrill – there were so many, from almost every country in the world. There were also plenty of opportunities for staff and journalists to mingle with athletes outside of the competition venues, especially towards the end of the Games.

I had a fantastic time working at the Olympics, and would do it again in a heartbeat. I’ve never been around people from so many diverse cultures at one time, and I really enjoyed watching how each responded to life in Beijing differently. The athletes and journalists rarely left the Olympic venues to explore the city, but when they did, I was more than happy to act as their guide.

During the first week of competition, I answered questions for photographers at the road cycling course (and ended up doing quite a bit of computer troubleshooting as well). A few days after road cycling, I transferred to indoor volleyball, where I worked as a flash quotes reporter, interviewing athletes in the mixed zone alongside reporters from around the world. Often, we had to work through translators — it was really an experience unlike any other.

Q: Can I work at Vancouver 2010 or London 2012?

A: Honestly, I’m not quite sure. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) required the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) to hire native English speakers from overseas only because very few were qualified in China. Fortunately for the next Winter and Summer Games, that’s not the case — both will be held in countries where English is the official language. If you’re an expert with relevant experience, feel free to contact VANOC or LOCOG for more information about joining their staffs during the Games. I’d certainly recommend giving it a shot — working at the Olympics is an experience like no other.

I have a few regrets about my experience in China. Some are less significant, and were only realized when I read the United Airlines magazine on the flight back to the States. I can’t believe I spent two months in Beijing and only visited half of the locations they suggested in their cover article. I never made it to the restaurant, Made in China, but I certainly heard great things. My biggest regret, however, is not taking more time to travel around the country. I visited Shanghai and Tianjin, and made a side trip to the suburbs with Vincent Laforet, but I really wish I had taken more time in the beginning of my trip to explore other parts of the country. Some friends flew to see pandas in their native habitat near Chengdu, or visited the Terracotta Army at Xi’an. I’d love to visit China again at some point in the near future — but I don’t think Beijing will make it on my itinerary.

This marks my final post to Behind the Lens at the Beijing Olympics. Thanks for visiting, and feel free to continue sending questions or adding your comments to individual posts.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vince permalink
    September 1, 2008 11:06 pm

    Zach – thanks for all of your help in Beijing – glad you made it home safe. Enjoyed reading your blog daily – cheers – v

  2. July 29, 2009 2:23 pm

    We had some good times over there! At least you and Jason China will be able to hang out more frequently when he moves to Boston in a few years. ;)

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