Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cracking a Smile, China Style

Did you see the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games? Admittedly, they were spectacular to watch, but did anyone else sense a “cult-like” feel to the presentation? The commentators on television mentioned that the synchronous performance of the 2,008 drummers was a bit intimidating during rehearsals, so the producers encouraged the drummers to smile more. This reminded me of my trip to Beijing back in 1986.

My travel companions and I found ourselves at the Beijing Hotel seeking an English-speaking guide. After having endured a 36-hour ride in a rather dirty train from Guangzhou to Beijing, we were hungry and thirsty. All we had consumed on the ride was warm beer and M&M’s. If you had seen the dining car, you would have understood why. The Beijing Hotel offered an oasis…a sundries shop with recognizable food and drink.

I can’t recall what we ordered, but as each of us placed an order at the counter, the clerk would stare coldly, then crack a smile, which looked more like a grimace, and then turn to fetch our order. Once he returned with the natural cold stare, he’d hand us a drink or food item, crack that same forced smile, and return to his work. I swear I could hear his skin crackle from the nature of his strained expression. We asked the guide what was going on and she explained that the Beijing “authorities” were encouraging all service workers to smile more so as to appear more warmly towards Western tourists.

During the next few days, we encountered a few “real” smiles from passers-by, but not once did I encounter a worker in a restaurant or shop that seemed genuinely happy. Of course, such folks have bad days here in the US, but it was obvious to me that many people in China simply did not have happy lives.

Simply speaking, freedom contributes to happiness. We were in a communist country in which the same freedoms didn’t exist as they did in the US. And they apparently still don’t.

I read in the paper this morning that the young girl who sang so beautifully in the same opening ceremony didn’t sing at all. Another girl actually sang the words, but she was deemed as being not cute enough to represent China to the world. A government official selected a more visually pleasing child (in his opinion) to sing the music. Unbeknownst to this pretty young performer, her microphone was shut off and the words of the "ugly girl" were heard by the world. It was stated that this was done in “the nation’s best interest.”

Calling any child “ugly” is just wrong, especially when the singing child in fact was as cute as any other child. Doing so in the nation’s best interest is simply imposing the government’s will on the people. This is not freedom. This is not happiness.

Twenty-two years ago, a clerk smiled at me in the most painful way. Drummers smiled for billions of people on television the other night so as not to be intimidating. I’ve met real people in China and they are beautiful people indeed. But until the government let’s go of their hold and allows true freedom, the people will never be truly happy.

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