A student's perspective
Entering my sophomore year at The University of Iowa, Chinese culture and language were entirely off my radar. I lived in the residence halls, followed Hawkeye sports religiously, and was oblivious to the fervor of change gripping the world’s most populous country.
All of that changed when I heard about a freshly conceived plan to gather a group of UI students, train them to work for the Olympic News Service, and send them to Beijing in 2008 to cover the Olympic Games. As a journalism and political science major, I was thirsty for adventure and eager to seize the opportunity.
The program, dubbed the “Iowa Olympic Ambassadors Project” and spearheaded by Judy Polumbaum, a professor in the University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, started as a rudimentary agreement between Polumbaum and Chinese officials at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The Olympic News Service acts as a conduit for media agencies all over the world, feeding scores, quotes, and the most recent reports from Olympic events. With English serving as the official language of the ’08 Olympics, the committee in charge of orchestrating the games started churning out requests for native-English speaking volunteers. Through a little bureaucratic deal-making and creative networking, Polumbaum convinced her Chinese connections to reserve around 30 volunteer spots for University of Iowa students.
Early in the game
After signing on in the fall of 2006, in a burst of excitement, I bought books on China, devoured Chinese movies, and, intent on gaining a deeper knowledge of the people and culture, I began a headfirst pursuit of the Chinese language. As an undergrad, I was required to take four years of a foreign language anyway, and Mandarin Chinese, with its strangely alluring air of impenetrability and surging worldwide popularity, fascinated me.
Still, learning to speak and write in Chinese is a slow, rigorous process. Although over one billion people have mastered the subtle dips, surges, and seesawing tones that define the language, to a lead-tongued Iowan accustomed to plain, steady English, Chinese can sound like an indecipherable opera.
Nonetheless, determined to enter the Olympics well-prepared, I stuck with it, and after two full semesters of frustration and confusion, the drill instructors’ tenacity paid off. I could say hello, talk about my hobbies, and order a dish of steamed rice. To put my newly earned skills to the test, I would need to experience complete immersion. That opportunity came last summer, when, along with 12 other Iowa students, I traveled to Tianjin, China, to take part in intensive language study at Tianjin University of Technology.
Sizing up China
Tianjin is a sprawling, industrial hub tucked 90 miles south of Beijing on China’s eastern coast. Although the past 20 years have seen the city sprinting towards change, it remains very traditional. Pagodas, ox carts, and wide-brimmed straw hats still define daily life for many of its seven million inhabitants.
Every minute of the two months I spent in Tianjin felt like life on a different planet. Trips to supermarkets swelling with strangely packaged products and quickly moving shoppers proved as mind-boggling as shopping for shoes on the moon. I was inundated by sights I’d never dreamed of, smells I didn’t know existed, and the incessant drone of millions of people working, sleeping, and living in close proximity. I gorged on traditional food, talked deep into the night with fascinating Chinese students, and absorbed as much of the culture and language as I could. Through it all, I learned that my clean, down-home corner of Iowa is but a small slice of the bigger picture. The world is huge, and when I return to Beijing this summer, I’ll be prepared to absorb and analyze an almost infinite pool of diverse cultures and worldviews from around the globe.
Returning to Iowa City for my junior year, I enrolled in accelerated Chinese language courses with my study-abroad classmates. As my skills continue to evolve—I can now pinpoint distinct tones and hold a basic conversation with native speakers—Iowa’s Olympic program thunders ahead. Last August, three program participants spent 10 days at the Junior World Wrestling Championships in Beijing, where they tested the facilities at our host university, learned to operate the Olympic News Services’ equipment, and got firsthand schooling in rigid Chinese schedules and expectations. In October, two other students gave the venues and operation a dry run, when they covered an international tennis competition in Beijing.
Entering the home stretch
Due to the vagueness of the vast Chinese bureaucracy, the exact details of the Olympic Ambassadors Project are as cloudy as the thick smog that envelopes the bustle and commotion of Beijing. Currently, the University’s volunteers are pegged to help cover wrestling and tennis, two immensely popular Olympic competitions. In June, I and two dozen other University students—mostly journalism and sport studies majors—will depart for Beijing, giving us plenty of time to learn the ropes and acclimate to life outside the United States. Some in the group plan to stay for the Paralympics, which won’t finish until mid-September, but most expect to leave Beijing soon after the Olympics conclude Aug. 24.
We have an amazing opportunity at our fingertips. China is emerging as an economic and political giant, and will spare no expense to make the 2008 Olympics a spectacle for the ages. On Aug. 8, when the symbolic torch in the heart of Beijing is lit and the world focuses its gaze on China, a once mystifying and enigmatic country will take center stage. If all goes as planned, a handful of black-and-gold-clad Hawkeyes will be among the throngs of attendees. My long journey, from a clumsy-tongued Iowan with no foreign travel experience to a nimbly spoken, world-savvy reporter, will be complete.
by Nick Compton