We arrived in Beijing on the second day of mourning for the Sichuan earthquake victims. All live entertainment and the cable shows were cancelled in hotels. Nine Chinese channels broadcast earthquake scenes of rescue, destruction and bravery around the clock. It was very, very moving.
Premier Wen Jiabao was shown frequently comforting families at the quake's ground zero. He had flown there within hours of the event. Wearing a simple white button-down shirt, he shook hands and patted men and women on the shoulder. He visited a tent factory and spoke with urgency about the need for many tents of high-quality construction. The nation saw a compassionate side of their leader and took notice.
For a country so crowded and firmly believing in the "one child" policy, the loss of their youth in the crushed schools was a recurring nightmare. Everywhere we went, the children were doted on and honored. There were frequent references to the orphaned children and concern over who would care for them.
Citizens so proud to be hosting the Olympics were wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Within the first 24 hours, three different people broke into our conversation to comment quietly, "I feel so sad." Larger than usual crowds gathered in Tiananmen Square to observe their flag fluttering at half-mast for only the second time in 30 years.
Eighty percent of all the tall building cranes in the world are in China. Everything stopped for the three minutes of national silence, but then with renewed vigor, and "Go China! Go!" spirit, all the demolition, construction, and change, change, change started up again. On a taxi ride from the airport, a man on his hands and knees with a pallet of concrete was building the road we were riding on.
We stayed in one hotel with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on one wall and Richard Nixon across the lobby. We ate every part of a duck in a huge restaurant surrounded by celebrating families. We rode the same cable car as Bill Clinton to the top of the Great Wall. We saw pandas. We were evacuated from a three-story government museum during a 6.4 aftershock. We met the farmer who discovered the Terracotta Warriors. We ate real Chinese food. And Thai, and Indian and Mongolian. One evening, we walked along Hello Street, where everything was a knock-off, after spending the afternoon watching water buffalos plow rice paddies.
But my favorite moment came when we were trapped in the worst traffic jam in history (it happens every day in Beijing). With the earthquake not far from everyone's mind, in true fashion irony, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were at the nearby Ritz Carlton, in town to promote their new clothing line. Cars had finally started moving when the driver said something funny to our translator and both burst out laughing. I asked what he had said. The driver had whispered, "God bless us all." A student of all things Western, the driver was mimicking George Bush closing his speeches.
We are just passengers. Go China, go!