BEIJING – The sheer numbers! Human beings suspended by wires and running across a sphere. Hundreds of drummers beating on lights, creating a human countdown. Fireworks going off not only in the stadium but up the streets and around the city, perfectly coordinated. Population is always in the discussion when you discuss China, but Friday’s opening ceremony to the Summer Olympics proved not only that the most populous nation is hosting the biggest Games ever, it looks like it has signed up the entire country to present it.
There were human paintings and human squares and seemingly endless human concentric circles, made up of perfectly positioned performers. When you thought there couldn’t be any more people, more came out.
This is already, in the first days of arriving in China, a theme you cannot shake as you move around: There is always someone else. If you ask a question of a volunteer, before he or she can stumble through some broken English, another volunteer – or some sort of supervisor – is alongside. If the conversation continues, another person will join in, then another.
Earlier Friday, I tried to get to the Main Press Center from a major cross street. I flashed my credential, supposed to be good anywhere.
“OK, no,” the guard said.
I didn’t know whether he was police, army or something else. But when I asked why I couldn’t proceed to my workplace, he raised his hand and repeated himself.
“OK, no.” This time he forced a smile. (Workers have been encouraged to smile.) Then suddenly, a volunteer in a blue-and-white Olympic shirt was next to me. He smiled. He pointed to a sticker on his badge.
“You must have this,” he said.
I didn’t have it. I didn’t need it. It didn’t matter.
“Wait, please,” the volunteer said when I protested, and he performed a common response to problem solving here: He dialed his cell phone. And back at the hotel
Within seconds, there were two more volunteers, and a man with a bullhorn. Then another soldier type. All shrugged at the apparent stalemate. More smiles. Sweat was dripping down our foreheads from the furnace-like heat and humidity. But we weren’t going anywhere. The group was simply getting larger.
“OK, no,” the man repeated.
More workers came. We had a genuine gaggle – before someone finally authorized my release.
Earlier, when I’d gone to the airport to retrieve a bag, there was one worker, then two, then three, then a cell phone call.
Later, in the hotel where I am staying, there was one person greeting me, then another, then a third.
“You have, like, a 3-to-1 ratio of workers to guests?” I joked.
A young man with spiked hair laughed.
“Actually,” he said, “4-to-1.”
He wasn’t lying. There are 99 rooms in the hotel and 435 workers. No matter how many people descend on Beijing, it seems, they can pull out more. Numbers are not an issue in China, unless of course the issue is trying to shrink them. This is a place with an official One Child policy, where you are fined for growing your family, where even when trying to limit the population, they outnumber the United States by the hotel-to-guest ratio, around 4-to-1.
Four Chinese for every one American? And the sight of the city
En route to the Olympic Green, you see flower boxes planted along the highway rails. One after another. Miles of highway. You think about how many people it took just for that one easily overlooked act. You see the seemingly countless “downtown-looking” sections of Beijing, where there are clusters of skyscrapers, and then, a few miles away, another cluster of skyscrapers. You hear that Beijing has twice the population of New York City. Twice?
Then you watch the opening ceremony, 15,000 performers, a spectacular display of high-tech and human tech and you see China’s 639 athletes, more than any other country, and this much is undeniable: China’s Games are under way big-time, the biggest nation, the biggest Olympics, and for those of us in America used to being the top of everything, the sheer numbers are unnerving. We are certainly the land of plenty, but China is the land of plenty people, always another, always another.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).