With the closing ceremonies this weekend, I find myself reflecting on my time in China. The main thing I was nervous about before arriving two weeks ago was the police. And surely, if security were an Olympic sport, China would definitely medal. They have an interesting strategy, however. While the American idea of security involves technology, and you do see a fair number of cameras in China, what I really saw in Beijing was security manpower. Thousands and thousands of unarmed security personnel everywhere. Even on little back alley streets there were Olympic volunteers and regiments of unarmed solders marching around constantly.
But, despite this ubiquitous presence, and the fact that your bags are x-rayed at any landmark and lots of landmarks were closed at various times for security reasons, Beijing, at least during the Olympics, was really, really relaxed. I mean, we got away with so much. While shooting video English lessons for English, baby! we were constantly marching or biking around in bizarre outfits and thrusting microphones in people's faces, and we were rarely asked to stop filming and never hassled by the police.
Some of the crazy stuff we got away with...
Silk Market Challenge (featuring Jared Leto!):
Street arm wrestling:
I mean, I felt much more comfortable filming impromptu sports and interviews in Beijing than I do in Portland. Many people in the US seem to have a strange bias against cameras. They see a video camera and assume you're doing something sinister. In Beijing, people pretty much always had a positive reaction to seeing a camera in a restaurant or on the street or in a market. Maybe it's a stretch, but it seemed to me like an extension of the overall mood in the country. Chinese people are really exited about ?the present moment, both because of the Olympics and the economic growth of the country, so the pervading attitude seems to be, "Sure, why wouldn't you make videos of this moment? Now is a good time and a good time to catch on tape."
Another unexpected upshot of being in a police state was how safe everyone feels. I never felt like we were in a "bad" part of town, even though we visited several very poor areas. Women we met weren't scared to walk around at night, even alone. We only got ripped off for being foreigners once, when a pair of pedicab drivers tried to grossly overcharge us. That was on our second to last day, and it hit us then that we'd been treated fairly by everyone up to that point, while most visits abroad, even to places in Europe, are a constant struggle against becoming a mark for some kind of scam (see my run in with the Turkish mafia on my last English, baby! trip).
All in all, everything I had heard about China before the Olympics—censorship, human rights abuses, pollution—made me uneasy about it, but everything that happened while I was there made me love it (though certainly didn't change my mind about many of the state's policies). Security in China, while often ridiculous (I laughed out loud the fourth time they searched my bag at the airport on the way out), does have its advantages. In addition to seeing some great games and making funny English lesson videos, I learned a little about day-to-day life a country that there is a lot to learn about, but that is often stereotyped and glossed over.