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Saturday, 05 July 2008

Chinese Culture Seen Through Olympic Rings

Written by Jessica Borges
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The traveler that journeys with an open mind and an eagerness to learn wherever he or she goes comes home with more than souvenirs and memory cards full of pictures; they come home with unparalleled experience. Despite cultural differences, language barriers and behavioral disparities, those that can find the beauty in these obstacles can appreciate the non-traditional splendor of travel.


Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese cultureFor Jenna Lebel, it is just this that made her experience in Beijing, China at the 2008 Summer Olympics a gratifying memory. An Integrated Marketing Communication graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, MA, Jenna applied for one of the 33 available spots at Emerson to work at the Olympics for two months as a volunteer. Her school was selected as one of five in the US to attend the Olympics, along with roughly 300 other international students and 100,000 volunteers in total.

Through July and August 2008, Jenna had a front row seat in classes such as Chinese edict, language, culture, business, and social behaviors. She quickly found that her preconceived notions of the country prior to her arrival in China left her pleasantly surprised, and she was fortunate to witness many amiable aspects of the country. Her willingness to embrace everything China had to offer in its glory of hosting the Olympics, made it easy to enjoy her time there. The experience had such a great impact on Jenna that she is not only looking to return, but she is also considering employment in China once she graduates in December 2008.

Shortly after her return to the states at the end of August, I spoke with Jenna about her experience at the Olympics and how it has since affected her.

inTravel: What was the purpose of your trip?

JL: Emerson, where I go to grad school, was chosen as one of five US colleges and universities to send students to the 2008 Summer Olympics (August 6th – 24th) in Beijing to volunteer for the Olympic news service. I just applied on a whim. I was actually more interested in the China-aspect of it rather than the Olympics. I thought of it as giving me a reason to go to China and I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise gone on my own. I knew it would be an amazing experience but it gave me a reason to go. Originally, I didn’t think I’d make it because I’m a marketing major and this position was more journalism-focused. There were three schools from England and two from Australia that also went.

The application process involved an essay at first, then mine got selected and I had a round of interviews with the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the Dean of the School of Communications, and the Dean of the School of Arts. They picked 33 students from Emerson and there were 300 total international students between all of the schools.

Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese cultureWe then got divided into different roles and locations at the games: 20 of us Emerson students worked at the national stadium (“Birds Nest”) and did flash quote reporting, which is basically getting sound bytes from athletes after they compete. Three other people and I worked at the main press center (MPC) - home to international and national photographers and journalists – and I worked as a media assistant. Other students were dispersed as “Media Operations” among different venues like where volleyball and boxing were held. We were there for two months total, including one month before the Olympics started. We stayed at the Communication University of China dorms (CUC).

inTravel: Describe your duties as an Olympic committee member.

Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese cultureJL: I was an Olympic volunteer – one of 100,000 altogether. There were only 300 international people and all the rest were Chinese. My responsibilities were to provide assistance to photographers and journalists throughout the Olympics. We gave them directions to venues organized press conferences, shuttle busses, and had all that information in the event that they would need access to it.

inTravel: What was one of your most memorable experiences?

JL: It’s difficult to pick just one. But I think the most memorable experience I had was on the night of the opening ceremonies. I watched from the Main Press Center’s (MPC) hotel lobby along with one of my Emerson friends. We watched on a big-screen TV accompanied by about 10 Chinese workers and 6 other foreigners. Our location was just minutes from where the action was taking place, so whenever the fireworks were set off, we ran out and watched them light up the sky above us.

The best part was seeing the expressions on the faces of the Chinese as they watched China’s seven years of planning truly pay off. I’ve never seen so much pride in a group of people in my life. As the U.S. athletes marched on the track, our new Chinese friends stared at my friend and me as they clapped and cheered for the American athletes. They were so happy, it was as if seeing the red, white and blue flag circle the track was as exciting as seeing Yao Ming being escorted by the earthquake survivor.

Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese cultureTowards the end of the opening ceremonies, my friend and I set off to the National Stadium (Bird’s Nest), where the spectacle was taking place. As we walked towards the stadium, we ran into all of the athletes from around the world as they were leaving the venue after their parade around the track. Through high-fives and ‘good lucks,’ we managed to see high-profile athletes like Kobe Bryant, Yao Ming and Lebron James. It was truly an unforgettable experience—one of the most memorable ones in China.

inTravel: What was most challenging?

JL: The language barrier was a huge challenge to overcome at first just because we were so used to speaking English freely. We didn’t encounter too may people who spoke English, which made getting in a taxi and ordering in a restaurant difficult. I also think it was challenging just being the minority and noticeably so. You can go to Europe and blend in somewhat; I’ve never been somewhere where it’s so obvious that I don’t fit in. Even in the first few days we were there everyone would stare at us and take pictures with us. It was like we were this obscure species.

inTravel: How did your expectations meet the reality of living in Beijing?

JL: Actually I had really low expectations. I guess I had the same perceptions a lot of people have of China: I was very much scared and concerned with theft and poverty and I wasn’t prepared for the actually beauty of China. Once I realized how beautiful the country actually was, it was really easy to surpass those original perceptions. I felt completely opposite of how I felt going into it. The pollution wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and I felt extremely safe.

inTravel: What did you do to learn the language and how comfortable were you using it?

JL: Once the 33 students from Emerson were chosen, we were required to take a class the semester beforehand that covered Chinese culture and Mandarin and then another half of it was journalism-related. Learning the language beforehand was actually very helpful. We learned basic greetings, directions, things to say at a restaurant like how to order, get a check - very practical everyday things you would need to know. I definitely learned a lot more Mandarin when I was actually in China. I was very fortunate where I worked at the MPC since most of the volunteers were Chinese (only the 3 Emerson kids were Western). During our shifts they would take time to teach me Mandarin an hour or two a day and I’d teach them some English.

inTravel: Describe your interaction with the native Chinese people.

JL: We had a lot of interaction with Chinese volunteers because there were so many of them and so few of us Americans at the venue. There were 12 in our group, and we worked so closely together and became so close. They were extremely kind and generous. I think they were really happy to have Americans working for the Olympics; they take a lot of pride in their country and were happy to see I was excited to be there. They were really interested in learning about our culture and I was interested in theirs.

Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese cultureIn terms of interactions with the Chinese in general, I was very surprised at how welcoming they were as a whole - even in everyday interactions with them. Whenever people in the street would see us they always assumed we were American so they wanted to take pictures with us and talk to us. They were also very willing to help us if we were lost or needed anything. I never really had a bad experience with the Chinese in everyday experience – even with taxi drivers. I think they were more accepting of us Emerson students, because we were embracing their culture and language. We accepted how things were and we attempted to speak Mandarin to them and I think they responded well to that.

inTravel: What struck you about the culture that was vastly different from that of the US?

JL: I was very surprised by how much national pride they had in China. It seemed like no matter where we went in Beijing or outside the city, everything was about the Olympics and they were so excited about everything and were anxious to hear what we (Americans and everyone around the world) thought about it. They really wanted to show China in a positive light.

Another thing that struck me was something I knew going into my trip, but was surprised to see first hand. There was such a lack of constitutional freedom, whether it be press, speech, or religion. For example, at the end of our time working there, we were required to fill out this evaluation of our experience there, and cite what was good, bad, and needed improvement. Being an American and having the right to criticize essentially anything, I evaluated critically and voiced my honest opinions. When I was done, I compared mine to my Chinese co-workers, who in the past had voiced discontent with some things; however their evaluations showed that they were completely happy with everything. When they realized what I wrote, they commented on how brave I was and how they could never do that. I assumed that it was looked down upon for the Chinese to speak poorly of something, whether it was provoked or not.

inTravel: Did you find that you had more Chinese or American friends?

JL: I found I had a pretty even mix. I became very close with Emerson students because I was living in the dorms with them (it was international dorm). Some of the other colleges that sent students were Mizzou, Iowa State, Perdue, Emerson, UNC, and in my dorm we were with Perdue and an Australian school. The fact that I was living in a dorm with them made us grow close. We were all experiencing the same thing: culture shock and we felt like the minority. So we all stuck together through that. The Chinese friends I made were co-workers and because I spent all day everyday with them, I was able to get to know each of them on personal level and form relationships with them.

inTravel: What were some of the things you did in your spare time when you weren’t working?

JL: I worked from 8am - 8pm every other day. We also trained during the first week we were there before the Olympics began. On the third day we were there, the Beijing Olympic Committee took all 300 international volunteers on a 3-day tour of Beijing and some of the surrounding areas. We got escorted around and basically had VIP treatment: having police escorts, we got to cut lines, and went to exclusive sites. We saw the Great Wall, Summer Palace, the Ming tombs, and the Beijing opera. Jenna Lebel, Beijing, China, 2008 Summer Olympics, living in china, olympics volunteer, china exchange program, Chinese culture I also had Peking duck, which was really good. The waiter cuts up the duck in front of you and puts it in something comparable to a spring roll.

After our three-day tour, any exploring I wanted to do, I had to do on my own or with groups. I spent time sight seeing, went to Tiananmen Square (the largest public square in world, home to the 1989 massacre) and Mao’s memorial/tomb was there. I also went to the Forbidden City, and went bungee jumping in Longqing Gorge (we were strapped in with Velcro straps!).The city is so big it seemed like everyday we stumbled upon new parts of it. There were a lot of cultural sites, museums, and shops. There wasn’t a day where we did nothing; we were always out seeing something. We took recommendations whenever we could get them and heavily relied on the guidebooks we brought.

inTravel: If you’ve done any traveling in the past, how was this trip different?

JL: The first time I went out of the country was for a two-week trip to Europe when I was a sophomore in high school. The trip was jam-packed with sight seeing excursions as we tried to fit London, Paris, Rome and Florence into fourteen days. As a junior in college, I spent 5 months studying on Australia’s Gold Coast. There, I explored several areas: Melbourne, Sydney, Byron Bay, the Outback, Great Barrier Reef, Brisbane and I even made it over to New Zealand and Fiji. My trip to China was different for several reasons. It was the first time I’ve visited a communist country, so I was given a glimpse of a society that operates completely different than the one I know.

Secondly, the language barrier was difficult to deal with at first. In Europe, I had no trouble getting by without speaking the language, but in China I had several frustrating experiences trying to communicate. It was also different because it was the first time I’ve ever been in a country and noticeably been a minority. In Europe and Australia, until I started speaking, I was assumed to be one of them. In China, my appearance clearly identified me as a Westerner.

inTravel: What did you miss most about the US while you were there?

JL: Aside from my family, I think I missed the little things that as Americans we often take for granted…like clean and drinkable tap water, being able to eat fruit and salad without hesitation, and western toilets and plumbing. Beyond that, I missed individual freedoms that as Americans we are guaranteed—freedom of press, speech and religion and access to information.

inTravel: Do you plan to go back, and if so, how?

JL: Very much so; I will definitely go back someday. I graduate from Emerson in December and am looking to get a job in a company that has an international presence, possibly in China, or even a company in China. The economy is booming in China and there’s a lot of potential there. I would definitely like to go back.

inTravel: How has the trip affected your life and you as a person?

JL: I think I brought back a lot. The trip definitely gave me an appreciation for a lot of different things, especially our [American] culture; I appreciate being an American in sense that I have all these rights and freedoms. It also made me appreciate the Chinese culture a lot. All we ever know and hear about China is always negative and I think having experienced living there first hand, I can now see that’s not always the case. There are a lot of good things there; I had a good experience and I know a lot more about their culture now. I gained independence and built character. You have to adapt and accept the way things are done there, whether you like it or not. Even interacting with the Chinese in my job improved my team building skills in a way. I also quickly noticed that the Chinese are a collectivist society: everything is done as a group and for the good of the group. It kind of gives you a bit of balance because as Americans, we’re so extremely individualist and they’re so collectivist. This kind of puts you in the middle group which is a good place to be.

Jenna Lebel is a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, majoring in Integrated Marketing Communication. She is expected to graduate in December 2008.

© Jessica Borges

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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