A Mom’s Reflection About the Olympic Experience

Photo courtesy of James Logan High School Band & Color Guard

The following are excerpts from an email journal I wrote and sent home to my family and the families of some kids that went on the China trip. I was a chaperone for the group of high school musicians from Fred C. Beyer High School in Modesto, Calif. I am the parent of two students that participated in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Orchestra as part of the Red Hub, with more than 600 performers representing the United States.

July 29 and 30 – We arrived late on the 29th and were fortunate enough to have the 30th free to acclimate and wander around Grand Epoch City, also known as Orchestra Village. This is a very large facility with vast grounds, 5 hotels, built-in waterways and a golf course. It would be similar to what we would consider a resort, yet it is not. It is very much a small replication of China all rolled up into one place. It has a replicated “Great Wall” surrounding the city portion, which seems to go on forever. We spent about three hours exploring it and walking the top of it; we only covered about half of its overall distance. This place is very remote from Beijing City. It took us about 90 minutes to get here by bus. It seems like we are the only people that have been visitors here in awhile.

August 1 – Today was exciting to see and hear. The Red and Green Hubs (Australia, Japan, Guam, and the South Pacific) came together to practice. They sound awesome! It seems as though we are all mostly here now. Australia sent kids from three states – the largest one made up with 200 members. They had a group arrive at 4:00 this morning. That group all made it to breakfast and then rehearsal at 8:45. No real rest for them. Our kids are loving the friendliness and energy of the Australian kids. The girls are especially taken with the Aussie boys – would have thought that would be the other way around. We will see what some sleep does for them. The IOC welcoming performers also met and practiced together today. We think they will perform for him on the 5th.

We have not seen any Chinese musicians yet. They have been practicing on a military base somewhere on their own. They will come tomorrow for the day and then meet us the next day at Tiananmen Square for the big performance. The sound of the Red and Green together was so large, I can’t wait to hear the whole group together tomorrow. The chaperones have been told that we all can enter the square with the kids now. We must, however, all wear the Red Hub Performance polo shirts or we will not be allowed in. This is a tremendous privilege, so we are all happy to comply.

August 2, Day 6 – The Gold Hub joins the Red and Green Hubs today; we are now the Olympic Orchestra! It is very challenging to get pictures of the entire group. They are big across the front to see them all at once. Directions are being given over a PA system in English and then in Chinese. The two-hour practice brought them all a long way.

Today is the day they all experienced REAL HEAT! We have lost our cloud cover, and we did not realize what a difference that was making. The humidity remains, but the temperature joined it. We had several drop, a couple needed IV’s, about six needed a “trolley” ride back to the hotel after practice because they could not make it themselves. There were maybe 20 kids sitting under three trees to get out of the sun. …

This type of heat exposure really drains the body–it is so taxing. They decided to cancel the afternoon practice for the kids to recoup more. World Projects is trying to get Gatorade flown in here for the kids, but they are all starting to really understand the “water” thing we keep telling them. The kids will all meet again at 4:45 and do a full run through of the Tiananmen Square show. The local media and about a dozen dignitaries will be here to take it in. We do not who those dignitaries are going to be, but it seems they are important.

Tomorrow will be their first taste of making history.

August 3 – We did it! We went to the square. It was mostly empty to the public for the performances. We have been dealing with a whole new environment with the heat, and the kids having to stand in it or play in it so long. Today a tuba passed out cold while the Green Hub was performing. Apparently fell face first straight over–tuba and all. None of our kids knew him, but they said it wasn’t good. When the square cleared, we were able to go back in for a few personal pictures. I saw three ambulances full of people to go to the hospital. Could not tell how many though. On the red side we had several that we pulled or walked out of formation to sit, find shade or vomit. It has been a challenge.

Following the square, we were able to drive past the major Olympic venues for pictures. They were all through the bus windows because there is nowhere to stop. None are open to the public yet and will not be until the games begin. They have all the streets immediately around them closed to all.

We had lunch in town today for the first time. They went out on a limb and took us all to Chinese food … go figure. It was actually a nice change to have it made from scratch in a smaller quantity. We figure they fed about 160 to 180 people a full sit-down meal in about an hour. The variety was surprising. They must have brought out at least eight different dishes to each table.

August 4 – We actually made it onto the Great Wall, and they played! The Red Hub and the Green Hub. There was not room enough for both at the same time on the landing pad they were staged on. The simple drive turned out to be an adventure in itself. We were at the Jinshanling location of the wall. Not the closest one to Beijing city but supposedly the most beautiful point of the wall. I will take their word for that, but for what we saw, I am not sure there can be an ugly spot to view from the wall.

The drive to get there was 3 hours and 45 minutes long, with no bathroom breaks. We had to pull over at one point because one of our chaperones decided to practically pass out. Two of us were wetting tissues with water and placing them on the pressure points and watched her quickly go from very green and ashen to pale and pasty – this was a great improvement. This turned out to be a pre-curser to her being ill today. She took a visit to a local hospital for some medication, luckily we have a set of doctors with the Modesto contingent that have been incredibly willing to help over see the little issues that have arisen. We have been very fortunate to have them here. One went with our patient, and after convincing the medical personnel she was a professional, she was able to get the right medication. They of course wanted to use Chinese herbal remedies. Our group saw baskets of barks and leaves and such being carried in as they waited to be seen.

So, 35 buses pull in, and the bathroom lines went on for 45 minutes. Turns out girls will wait indefinitely for a western-style toilet, there were two, even though there were four open squatters available. Go figure. Then we started the walk to get up to the wall. This turned out to be about a 1/2-mile uphill challenge. We were now in a higher elevation, it had gotten hot again, and they were all in thick polo shirts carrying instruments. The bass drums, quads, and snares wore their instruments. Only the sousaphones were driven up to the pad. Then the first set of stairs, maybe 50 or so. Up several, turning, then up some more. At the last step you were on the pad. Carved back into a large rock backdrop. This was the staging and performance area.

The sound was incredible! They played for the parents, family and a few tourists that were lucky enough to be there, but they really played for themselves. Most did not understand that and may not until they have a chance to look back on the moment. But how many people can say they know what it sounds like to hear 76 trombones played live from the top of a rock monument and to be one of the ones performing it? Someday they will understand that and forget the heat and struggles of arriving to that moment. It was such a surreal moment in time for many of us witnessing this. Just puts a lump in your throat and a few tears in your eyes to see your children there in a place where you have only ever heard about but certainly never understood the incredible magnitude of the size and effort put into that wall.

Now we started to climb. The beginning of the climb gave us the opportunity to get above the Green Hub and look down on them playing. Kinda cool. Then we continued. Samantha and I took Ashley and just took it one step at a time. All heights accepted. There are 2-inch high steps and 15-inch steps. Easy to trip and stumble. The height increases rather quickly. Spencer went all the way to the top, which we were told was approximately 1,500 feet. The day was a very smoggy day, so the view was not it’s greatest, but the feeling of the distance of the wall is noticeable. Samantha and I went as high as being maybe a 100 stairs away from the top, but by then it was so crowded, it was hard to get through, so we chose to wait there in a lookout for Spencer to come down. This gave us a chance to hear the one tuba play in the distance–one lone sole was bold enough to carry it all the way up there. Then a trumpet went off over the valley. Very cool to hear.

The trip down the wall then began. Took quite awhile to get back to the parking level but so worth the effort. This was the second hottest and drippiest I had felt yet. The most being the little shop I was led into at the bottom. Who would have expected peddlers to be scattered all along the wall and the path to and from the wall. They were VERY insistent. We bartered a good long time to get what we wanted. Really quite a game with these people. We had “I climbed the wall” T-shirts bought by our kids from 10 yuan to 30–for the same shirt.

August 5 – This is the day we performed at Orchestra Village. The “performances” were really just for each hub to play for the other hubs, so they can take in what the other region does. Typically they are in block side by side, so they can not see what the other group is doing. They all seemed to appreciate it.

After the performances they went into rehearsal for the Tianjin performance. It was so hot again it became unbearable for some. It is harder and harder on your body as you go trough this over and over again. The directors and coordinators are seeing this in the group and decided to cancel the afternoon practice. But, they then made a last-minute decision to have the kids climb into their Tutti uniforms and be back out at the main venue at 2:30 for a group picture–the official one. It became a rapid word-of-mouth thing to inform everyone. They all made it out there though. …

I got to bring two of my children all the way to China to visit with their Uncle. Charlie’s brother Brian lives here, in Hong Kong, but is in Beijing working the Olympics. He made it out to see the kids play a bit and go to lunch with us. It was so nice to let him do all the ordering and choosing a few food items we would not because we did not understand what they were. The translation makes some of the dishes sound very unappealing. It was so funny to watch the restaurant translator try to communicate with me, as she had before, and realize he could really speak full-on Chinese. Once she got that, she just walked away. It was sort of comical.

After lunch we saw Samantha off to the IOC performance. She was disappointed with some of the disorganization of details. They never really got to eat their dinner. The process was not planed out thoroughly. They got back at almost 10 pm. She was not sure what they missed here was really worth what they got there. They could not se the stage at all. They did not even see the president of the IOC or of France – he was there too. They were staged behind the crowd on the side of the stage. She came back hungry but with a few souvenirs that they got in an Olympic store. She knows it was still an honor to be chosen to do that performance.

Everyone else was here at the cultural exchange party. They could exchange pins or small gift items with people/friends from other countries. Then there was a show done all about Chinese cultural demonstrations. Then the dance started. A lot of kids left at that point. They are all getting so tired now.

August 6 – Today was a very long day! We had breakfast, then rehearsal, then dress and bus loading. We caravanned to Tianjin. All of us. It took 50 buses to transport the entire Olympic Orchestra to Tianjin. The kids had a firsthand view of the value the country and the government put on their involvement here. It was a 3 hour drive to Tianjin. This is the home of the Olympic sports center and area. This is also the home of the soccer venue.

The amazing thing that happened was the process of getting there. The trip cover 70 to 80 miles, yet it took 3 hours … that is due to the fact the entire route was blocked off to all non police and military vehicles. We suddenly found ourselves being protected, escorted and cleared–by the police and military all the way there. Try to picture one complete line of 50 buses traveling in a straight line for such a long distance. Many people where out of their cars waiting to see who or what was about to come past them.

As we came into the city limits, the same scenario was taking place. We can’t imagine how long they were blocking off that route. Police or military vehicles would stream past us and watch everything that was around us. We were blown away! As we approached the performance venue, an entire street had been closed off, so they could have us all park down both sides of a street that was close to our staging position. In the city streets, we were very close to the people waiting, riding bikes or walking by us. We were all waving at them, and many of them were waving back. It really felt like we were all celebrities.

Guess what? It was really really hot again!! We lined up and walked in line to our position, all of us converging into one group. The white silk outfits shown were the Chinese percussionists. The Red Hub took center stage this time. The Green Hub off to the left, and the Gold Hub on the right. This gave them more space. The Chinese did a form of a mini march-on and field show to start things off. An area had been roped off for all of our adults to sit, so we could see and hear the performance. Everyone could tell we were all important. This is where the biggest array of media assembled. It was a very impressive display all the way around.

August 7 – Today we became tourists. We went back to Tiananmen Square. We walk in to a group of people from all over who are there to see it. We get a group picture. My brother–in–law Brian meets up with us again here. We crossed over from the square to the Forbidden City, then through the Imperial Palace. It was still very hot. Brian said it was hot even for him. I think we are all rather taxed from all the heat at this point, so we are getting more irritated by the discomfort. The walking tour seemed to go on forever. It was all great stuff to see, but, man, did we want someone to open the door and let in some fresh air. It is like a sauna all the time.

We went to our first real shopping center – more along the line of a mall. This was on Wang Fujing Street. We all broke out into groups, mine has now grown to be a group of 13 kids in tow. We hit the mall, the kids stampeded the McDonald’s, a few went to Pizza Hut, and Brian and I went to a dumpling shop and one of he students joined us. Brian did the ordering. It is amazing how refreshing it can be to not have to fight the language barrier just to eat. He ordered us 2 types of fried pot stickers and 1 type of steamed pot stickers. The three of us enjoyed lunch very much.

The kids then got to cruise the six stories of this mall. They would have to check in with Brian and me a couple of times but were free to roam. They all came back asking to go back out to the street because full retail prices were a real turn off. So, in the 45 minutes, we had to get back 4 blocks we had kids making a killing in about 6 different stores. It was all very thrilling for them.

The things you hear about the Asian people being intrigued by Americans, especially with blond or red hair is true. As you look around you, can see locals taking pictures of some of the kids. Some of them trying to be discreet like it is top secret. Some of them stopping our kids and jumping right in. We have to especially keep an eye on our girls. It is possible for one of the locals to stop one of the girls and not really let them go until everyone around sees them with the American or gets to take a picture too. One of our boys took the opportunity to be a frozen statue for a group of men that thought he was interesting and entertaining. It became a “do it again” type of thing and so much fun to witness.

August 8 – We started today by heading out to the Summer Palace. This was only about 45 minutes away from the hotel. This is a beautiful place. The garden has many elements of Feng Shui in place. You would never know from the outside that there is a river behind the gates and running along the garden. After we strolled around the main walk of the garden I took several girls to find the bathroom and we found a solid marble boat along the way. It was amazing to see.

We got aboard what we would consider a ferry to take us across to the other side to meet back up with our bus. This was a very enjoyable and rather relaxing stop on our tour. Once we were all in our bus we were taken to the Pearl Factory. This is also where we had lunch – upstairs from the shop. The pearl shop was impressive. We would have never guessed how many colors and shades of pearls are naturally occurring. The temperature of the water they are cultivated in determines their color. Fresh or saltwater – they had both. This became a shopping frenzy, especially for the girls and the boys that thought of their moms…. and still had money. This is the second opportunity our group has had to purchase at a discount – 50% here, as a thank you, encouraged by the government, for our efforts to enhance the Olympic atmosphere. Who is going to pass up an opportunity like this?

Then we were off to the hotel – at a reasonable time. This is because it is Friday and the opening ceremony of the Olympics is tonight, along with our Peking Duck Dinner. Most everyone got dressed up tonight. This is our final night here at Orchestra Village. It is also the last night the kids will all get to be with their newfound Australian friends and some of our kids are saddened by this.

The challenge of tonight’s celebration is the fact that the Olympic ceremonies are going to be televised until midnight. Killer news for the chaperones, especially since the day starts with breakfast from 7 – 8:30, then check out and on your bus at 9:15. Get the feeling we must all be getting very tired by now? The other chaperones wrapped up ahead of me tonight. I know my two kids are never the first to be in their rooms. I did the last walk of the halls at 12:30 – ouch. Then I finally made contact with home for the first time in 2 days. We are heading off to a whole new adventure in the morning.

August 9 – We were fed, checked out, and loaded onto the bus by 9:15. We made it into Beijing at 10:30. Lunch would not be ready for all of us until 11:30. The company made a last minute call and all of a sudden we were all heading to a teahouse to take part in a tea ceremony.

They managed to rotate the entire Modesto region’s group in and out of there in about an hour. We all enjoyed this unexpected shopping experience very much. After seeing magic tea cups change color with the heat, magic flowers blooming in a glass pot of tea, and truly enjoying the taste of the tea that had rose buds dropped into it, many of us just had to capture the memory in a large shopping bag. Mine was not the smallest bag out of there.

We loaded up and headed to lunch. We were surprised to find this one of our best meals so far. After lunch we were taken to the train station. Yes…. we are gong to spend 12 hours on a train, sleeping and all. The nature of the train station was not like at the airport. There is not drive in drop off zone and no parking right out front. The walk of a good five minutes, in the heat, lugging all our luggage on and off the curb – this was a lot of work.

The process of filing almost 200 musicians into a train and down a long hall about 2 1/2 feet wide was slow. The process of getting the traveling items and all the luggage of 4 people into one compartment with 4 berths and a walk way only 2 feet wide was a joke. We all took to climbing to get to our beds. It proved to be enough to finally break one chaperone whom took a moment to melt. I think there was point in that evening that we each of us could have done that and all benefited. The exhaustion has settled in.

Once fed and having taken a trip to the dining car for tea or soda we all managed to get onto a bed and get some sleep. Not 8 hours mind you, but sleep none-the-less. The kids found great joy in the freedom of having 15 train cars to walk up and down “to find people”, so it was after 11:00 when they were all finally in place.

The train attendants knock on your door and open it at 6:00 am, we wanted 6:30. Turns out they lock the water closets (toilets) at 6:30. Many kids missed the opportunity to use that lovely little bathroom that morning. The rumbling and vibrating of the train seems to cause lots of unpleasant fluid to ooze back out the drain onto the floor in the western style toilets – ours – but the squatters stayed pretty clean. Never thought a squatter would be the preferred choice, right? No one ever changed clothes so they just needed to get on their feet and drag their stuff back off of the train at 7:00 am sharp. Then was another long hall to meet our new tour guide and find our new bus – here in Shanghai! We made it.

They instantly took us to breakfast. We had rice – of course, and a new type of “pancake” – that was a hit. There was the usual greens, some cole slaw, and FRIED EGGS – one a piece. We have not seen a fried egg since California! They served it with the usual 7-up or tea but also had brewed coffee. We have not seen that either. They put it into a glass pitcher with milk and sugar already added. That was irritating for the morning coffee drinkers but they were so glad to see a real cup of coffee…. they all drank it.

We were then taken to our hotel to be checked in. We now had 2 and a half hours to freshen up – I showered….. was feeling gross. We met in the lobby at 1:45 to get on the bus and go to walk along the Bund River. Can you believe we are on the same day still? We were taking pictures of the incredible buildings they have there when a tremendous rainstorm hit. We ran into a teahouse…. all 180 of us. It just poured with thunder and lightening right overhead. We waited at least 45 minutes when the announcement came that we had to go. It got a little lighter out as we maneuvered our way to the bus but we were still damp.

We were rained out of the Yu Gardens, which is supposed to be a must see, but still went to the Old City for dinner and shopping in a market, rain and all. It was so crazy with people and crowds and trying to keep up with the guide that kept changing directions that a student and I got separated from the group for a bit. It all worked out eventually and concluded with a great Chinese dinner. We wrapped up with another 45 minutes of shopping and then back to the Bund for the Illumination Cruise. 30 minutes of beautiful city lights. Then finally back to the hotel – it is now 10 pm. What a day!

August 11 – Today is our last tour day of this trip. We started at the Silk factory. This included a fashion show to model off clothes and pajamas made at the factory. We were then lead into the greeting room where they have displays of cocoons preserved, of dried out cocoons, and of some of the cocoons hatching and moths coming out. Next – the room where workers were dropping cocoons into boiling water, using chop sticks to swirl them so they can twist the threads onto the stick. They grab a hold of the silk threads and pull and stretch until they had enough in their hands to string it onto automated spools – fascinating. Finally – the showrooms, there was lots of great stuff in there.

We left the factory and headed to Nanjing Street to do some real shopping. That is what the tour plans anyway. The problem was that our group is mostly kids that were quickly running out of money. They all wanted to go back to a market place. This street was very cool though. Packed with people and departments stores with a common open road running down the center. We found our first Starbucks – we did. It is weird how much going into a familiar place like that is relaxing to people. Each one of our group that went in there came out with a smile on their face.

We boarded our bus to Pudong Street. This is basically a high-end mall. The kids asked us to get the guide to take us to a market instead but the managers would not deviate from the plan, so we wandered around in this mall. It was an incredible place. I believe there were 10 stories inside. Very beautiful structurally. A few people bought things.

We returned to the hotel to freshen up, start to organize some packing, and get dressed for dinner and a show. Our farewell dinner was very good. We found that overall we had better food in Shanghai. We all enjoyed this, our last meal as a group. Lots of pictures were taken.

We boarded the bus for a 20 minute trip through a dreary area in town. We arrived and got into line for the Acrobats of Shanghai show. This was incredible! It went for over an hour. Did you know that you can get 6 motor cycles inside one metal ball driving rapidly around each other without crashing? We just could not believe this act. We also learned that with some practice and skill, 12 girls can ride one bicycle with only one of them pedaling.

When the show was over we left for the hotel for the last time. We got there about 10 pm. The Beyer group met on the 2nd floor for a brief send off from Mr. Price. He had purchased a couple of keepsakes for the kids from a portion of the funds left over from the fundraising. There each were given an Olympic collectors pin and their choice of a travel bag. They were all really happy to receive these. We all headed off to our rooms to get packed up. The end is upon us at last. Everyone is ready to head home.

August 12 – We leave the hotel for the airport. We have plenty of time there to wander and shop – duty free. We were in an Olympic store and ran into Scott Hamilton, the Olympic Gold medal ice skater. He was very cordial to the kids and took a picture with a few of them. We flew to Beijing and home to the US.

August 14 – So we are home. It is Thursday morning now. We arrived in SFO almost 48 hours ago. It is hard to describe where we are with the whole trip.

I never really understood that jet lag is more than your body just seeming confused about what time of day it is. It is knowing your thoughts are not totally clear. I can tell I am not really all here yet.

China, in a strange way, seems so far and long ago already. Yet, when I talk to people about the experiences of being there more and more details come out in the descriptions of our days. It is then that we all start realizing the impact on ourselves and on those we touched while in China. There are so many things we as Americans really do take for granted. Many seem so insignificant in our day to day activities. For instance – toilet paper, it is always readily available here – in public or private. There, even in our hotel rooms – where it is provided, it is only half the quantity of a roll here. Water here is always safe to drink from a tap. In China it is not and you know it just by using it. When you were washing your hands in Orchestra Village you could smell the water, it smelled kinda muddy. In Shanghai it smelled moldy. The bathroom filled with that smell when you were in the shower.

We Americans really do have the ability to waste food. Granted, we were all trying new things, and I give the kids credit for trying most things offered. But we are so use to food being readily available to us that we are not taught to take a sample size to see if we like it. We take serving sizes of everything, and leave so much from what we do not like. I found myself feeling embarrassed when the staff would come to clear plates. Kids would take things like bread – regular or otherwise, and leave it all because it felt soggy or dry, or tasted funny. It was obvious that many of the staff people would have appreciated taking our leftovers, even if we already tasted them.

The landscape was beautiful in China, very green and lush. The inner cities were better than I had expected from the things I heard ahead of time. There was a real effort by the people to clean things up for all the people they were opening their country up to. They were proud and courteous if they were confident enough to challenge the language barrier. The older generations would look and turn away, or watch you smile at them without much reaction. The middle-aged people were more friendly and polite. They would at least smile back. The youth were very sweet. Many times I would smile at a young child, maybe say “hello” and if they were very responsive I would then wave and say “Ni hao”. Some of them got so excited about that that they would wave back and giggle. It was so cute and rewarding.

I realized how much freedom we have in our own country to say and think what we want. It was so evident in China, much of what was told to us had been scripted by their government. All the banks are government controlled. All the big businesses are government controlled. Everywhere we went there were police and military on guard and at attention. We had to pass through several security checkpoints every time we came and went from our hotel in Beijing. We were told very clearly not to take pictures of any of the police or military at the check points because while they are on duty, if you photograph them, they can stop the bus and delete or erase all photo memory cards or video. We had the feeling we were always being watched and knew our email and computer use was probably being screened. The people now have internet and email there, but the government controls what is available to search. They cannot search for information on Tian An Men Square’s protests but the government told them exactly what they were supposed to know about it.

The fact that they invited the world into their country says a lot about the direction the country will follow. The younger generations are anxious and eager to measure up to what is happening in the US and other countries. But the Americans seemed to be one of their greatest measuring sticks. China invited the world in to see what they have and have accomplished. They are very proud and want to be respected for their culture and progress. I think the government must feel the swing in the tide. The new energy to progress and think more freely, seemed to me, to be building it’s own energy a little at a time. How can it not when you have musicians from around the world, the youth specifically, come together to form one unified orchestra? By your own design, you are making the choice to be one with the world and create a launching pad for that type of growth to continue in the future. It is a great thing for the people there.

China is a place I will be curious about in the future. I find myself wondering what it will be like in 10 and 20 years. I would not mind seeing it again someday and experience the energy it will likely have by then. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to travel to China but especially to be apart of the effort to unify the youth of the world so they can build a bridge of sharing, learning, and growing towards the future of all our countries. This is what the Olympics are supposed to be about, right? Unifying the world through friendly competition, the sharing and learning of common skills, and the camaraderie of Nations – our children leading the way.

I hope all the students that made this trip come to realize, whether now or in the future, that they played a part in history – for their country – and for China. It was an amazing trip, and incredible experience, and a fantastic opportunity. I believe all the American students will have a newfound appreciation of the gifts their country has to offer. When we went through customs at SFO, the lady behind the counter finished with us by saying, “Welcome back.” I got a lump in my throat instantly. It is such a relief to be home.

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