China’s message wasn’t at all the message I was expecting to see broadcast to the estimated 4 billion viewers around the world. I imagined it would be something like: “We are a force to be reckoned with. Be afraid, be very afraid,” or some such display of chest-puffing you might expect from a self-empowered little brother. But instead China snuck in the back door. The stunning display of human discipline and cooperation by China’s thousands of performers during the ceremonies blew me away. I could not believe what I was seeing for so many reasons. Where were the neon lights and rock stars? Where were electric guitars and spotlights to wow me? I was expecting the usually steady stream of superstars displaying their greatness and instead I got a display of the incredible focus and determination of thousands. How did they get so many to work so hard for so long (rehearsing for hours on end for over a year) for so little recognition? Sure, the athletes do that kind of training but they are dreaming of the gold medal podium and subsequent fame. And politicians too, might put in that kind of hard, focused self-discipline, but great power is their aim. As money is the reward for bankers and businessmen, and fame is the payoff for years of practice for musicians or actors. But for these thousands of anonymous performers, whose goal was to be a tiny piece of a magnificent whole, a needle in a haystack, what was the reward? To have been a part of something to magnificent. None had their names plastered on billboards, none came away with a padded wallet or an Olympic medal. None of them were individuals seeking personal glory—they were in it for precisely the opposite end.
Could we ever get so many to work so hard for so little personal gain in the West? That was the message China sent to me. It
wasn’t in-your-face kind of self-important inflation of national pride and patriotic sentiment. It was a display of what a people can do who are willing to give up individual glory for something beyond themselves.
To be willing to be anonymous—and not just willing, but to work so hard at it, to put in so much of yourself, your energy, your time, struck me as awe-inspiring. The ceremonies weren’t at all the display of power or importance I was expecting. They were instead almost a gift to the audience—given generously by the performers—the chance to see such a wonder of human cooperation.
The buzz around here is getting more and more electric: London 2012! London 2012! Living in England we have been happy to be living in the midst of the excitement. Britons looked forward with eagerness to the precious 8 minutes London was allotted in the Closing Ceremonies to give the world a taste of what to look forward to. When the moment arrived all the commentators held their breath with anticipation and what commenced was a standard dance/rock performance centring around a double-decker bus that circled the stadium floor. Then David Beckham kicked a soccer ball into the crowd. Then everyone climbed on the bus and neon lights twirled and swirled as it drove off.
I stared in near disgust at the TV. Here China had just opened the eyes of the world to the magical ability of thousands of people to cooperate in making performance art, and London marched in, was “youthful and loud” as the commentators called it, and, I would add, arrogant. It was the same old thing, and it wasn’t until China showed me how different things could be that I realized we in the West have been making and watching the same old thing over and over. It could have been MTV, it could have been the Superbowl, it could have been any rock concert in the western world. After seeing what I had seen China do, I was yet again amazed—this time at the realization of how selfish London's performance was. It was not about the audience; it was about the performer. These kind of performances say “see how sexy I am, how rich I am, how utterly cool I am”. But China’s performances said, “we’d like to offer you this wonder to
behold”. After the red bus disappeared Marc turned and said, “how long has my culture been lame without me knowing it?”
China offered me a graceful, tactful and generous wakeup call. The divide between east and west, the dominance of my own culture, is not all I have been led to believe. Now I’m not saying China’s got everything right, but, I’m reminded, neither do we.