Thursday, August 14, 2008

Love the Big Family

Bring on the dancing pandas
From the lobby of the Kathmandu Guest House

Friday night, there was nothing for it but to break out the newly-discovered microwave popcorn and plop down to watch the opening ceremony of the "Friendship Olympics."

We expected that the Pompous Event, like so many Chinese cultural presentations, would be cheesy and kitschy, so were surprised at its sophistication.

All in all, I have to admit that China did a great job of representing all the ancient civilizational achievements and various traditions they did their best to destroy during the Cultural Revolution.

The small, cozy lobby with its big-screen TV and armchairs was filled with all nationalities. I appeared to be the only American, but there were folks from China, Chile, Norway, UK and New Zealand and of course Nepal, to name a few.

The following are text messages sent between my friend A. and I during Friday's Olympics opening ceremonies. I predict this TM-copying will set a new standard for innovative laziness in blogging.

Siren: Now watching opening of the FRIENDSHIP Polemics, I mean, Olympics

A: Bet it has scary looking pandas and will be cheesy like all things Chinese. What are you doing later?

Siren: Later, dunno yet.... 'Tis a mega spectacle....

The first bits I saw featured what appeared to be hundreds of humans covered in full-sized boxes, each the size of refrigerators, alternately squatting and standing to form various Chinese language characters. (I would have said "alphabet," but I know they don't actually have an alphabet as such and then some know-it-all would write in to harangue me about that. )

The resultant designs resembled nothing so much as the blocky icons of a 1980s video game, say, PONG, Tetris or Space Invaders. I could almost hear the blippy Tetris music in my head.

(three minutes later) --

TV Narrator: "A dove, the symbol of peace...."

Siren: Making the shape of a dove, of all the nerve!!

After the blocky fridge-boxes did their aerobics there was a very willowy, lyrical tribute to the Silk Road.

My favourite sequence opened with a solo female martial artist. After all the Big Formation Large-Scale spectacle it was nice to concentrate on the grace of a lone human form, carving out shapes in space. Later she was joined by a Tai Chi school. You can read the back story here (after their open criticism, we may not be hearing from these young men again soon).

I also remember a young classical pianist with a moussed-up pompadour 'do, playing a white grand piano. Seated next to him was a five-year-old girl prodigy who didn't play, she was just there for cute-sies.

Another sequence featured dancers atop platforms, which looked like carved capitals of columns. The platforms then began to rise, ascending literally about 100 feet into the sky with the performers still perched on top, so that the whole stadium floor looked like the corridor of a mammoth temple. I figured this was some kind of tribute to Chinese religion and philosophy, including Taoism and Confucianism.

Right then would have been a perfect time for the whole thing to explode into flames, representing the destruction of at least 6,000 monasteries in Tibet since 1959.

Later, designated reps of various "officially recognized" ethnic groups danced in their colourful costumes, suitably placed toward the end of the programme, although we are constantly assured by the Chinese government that they are fully integrated into the Harmonious Nation. I thought it was appropriate...they come in at the END. Not like they were there as part of "China" from the BEGINNING.

I looked hard for representative of Tibet and of the rebellious Uighur minority, but couldn't identify them.

Siren: We are happy and prosperous minorities within the big harmonious family!!! --and nobody told me to say that. ;-)

Then it was time for the Parade of Nations. Though we had switched to CCTV with its Chinese narration, they popped up the nation's name and flag on screen as soon as they appeared, so we couldn't play the ever-popular Name That Flag Game.

(this photo is courtesy of the CNN-IBN website.)
As they were marching by the order they appear in the Chinese Non-Alphabet, not in the Roman one, they were to western eyes all "out of order." So, we couldn't just wait till between Nauru and Netherlands to look for Nepal. And United States came close to the beginning.

Everyone in the Guest House lobby had been cheering for their own nation, or even for neighboring nations. "Are you from Argentina?" I asked someone. "No, but they are our neighbors!" I noticed that although nobody either cheered nor booed for United States, they roundly booed when George and Laura Bush appeared onscreen.

Hey, I thought, at least MY PRESIDENT meets openly with the Dalai Lama, gave him the highest civilian honour possible and delivered a speech encouraging the Chinese to "tolerate dissent."

By contrast, nobody booed the backtracker French PM Nicolas Sarkozy, who had issued a list of conditions, none of which were met by China.

It was fun to see which nations chose to appear in their "national dress" (-I always wondered what that would really be for America; Native American buckskins, Little House on the Prairie puff-sleeved dresses, Elvis jumpsuits, or low-rider jeans?) --and which chose to represent themselves as "modern" in western dress, as if to say, "What, you think we are some quaint ethnic stereotype? We are a MODERN nation, damnit, MODERN. And we are doing our part in contributing to the increasing homogeneity of the MODERN world by wearing off-the-rack western duds that look just like everyone else."

India chose to wear sherwani and at least one saree. The Pakistani team, however, appeared in boring blazers and slacks. So did Nepal, though one guy at least sported a topi.

Russia opted for hideous, fire engine red-real estate salesman blazers and cheap white fedoras that looked like New Year's party favours.

Siren: So far Russia gets the prize for ugliest costume.

A.: Didn't see them. Liked Slovakia's outfits, Portugal's hats and Samoa and Fiji getups.

As the Fiji contingent appeared onscreen, my Chilean neighbors were puzzled. An Afro-haired Fijian woman in the traditional palm-frond mantle and skirt carried the flag.

Chileans: Is that a HE or a SHE??

Siren: That is a female.

Chileans: (nod with amazement.)

Siren: FIJI was cool....

It seems to be okay these days for participants in such a ceremony to carry their own, very intrusive, cameras the whole time - ensuring that the photographers trying to get the athlete's photos get mostly photos of the athletes' cameras.

The marchers also talked constantly on their cell phones. What are they, saying to the people at home "See me now? yeah, there I am! We're walking in! Like you couldn't see that without me telling you live!"

My neighbors had another question about Naurau.

Chileans: Naurau?! Where is that!

Siren: It's a tiny island nation in the South Pacific.

Then followed an overlong sequence of Olympic flag-worshipping.

Siren: OK, I'm bored now....oh no!

(a colour guard, in solid black uniforms, began a funereal goose-step carrying Olympic flag)

Nazi Youth Alert! Heil to the Fatherland!

A.: Chinese cheerleaders are annoying. Why are all those people talking on their cells?

I thought the same, who cld they be talking to? And dig those crazy white lace-up gogo boots on the cheerldrs.
A.: Yeah, those are some crazy boots. I predict Li Ning lights the torch and then crazy pandas will dance.

Then Li Ning "flew" like Peter Pan up to the perimeter of the stadium roof. I had to admit the moment he "took off" was pretty cool. Silhouetted in a full moon spotlight, he brought to mind either
the FTD messenger or the famous bicycle still from ET.

A.: Yeah it was Li Ning who lit the torch. Any minute, dancing pandas!

Well, we were a bit disappointed about the dancing pandas. We decided they must be saving that for the closing ceremony.

According to the LA Times:
There was also online grousing this week about the opening ceremony's aesthetics.
"It was nationalist clothing over authoritarian underwear," said Sichuan province-based writer and blogger Ran Yunfei.

But no worries, the authorities have stepped in and put a stop to all that free speech:

China's propaganda ministry moved in Tuesday, deleting many online discussion entries and blocking access to video links showing Miaoke's lip-syncing.

More fun and Games include the Scary Security guards (Chinese Checkers??).
"They look like they have faces of stone. They’re scaring the visitors. Something needs to done," says Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee, Gerhard Heiberg.

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