I spent this morning (Tuesday Beijing time) at Beijing Normal University ("Normal" in this case being an old English usage of the word to denote a university dedicated to training teachers). My assignment was to visit USA Judo's open practice; but I couldn't help but to walk around the campus a bit afterwards, because my first experience on this campus was eight years ago this summer, when I first came to Beijing to study Mandarin in an immersion program sponsored by Princeton University.
All of Beijing can tell this story - the story of new buildings being raised (and old ones torn down, sometimes to the chagrin of historians and sometimes displacing residents in the process). But at BNU, I had to squint to look for the buildings I recognized. There was the experts' building and the adjacent Friendship Restaurant, where the USOC has placed a press office to accredit visiting media (there are 22 U.S. Olympic teams using BNU as their training base this summer), both of which were there when I was a student. There was the old auditorium with the steps leading up to it where we stood for our group photo, all 180 students or so, eight years ago. There were the two tracks - dirt tracks back then, now both state-of-the-art training facilities - where I ran laps to prepare for a fall marathon in 2000.
And then there was all the new. The brand-new gymnasium where USA Judo's team members were working out. The buildings going up left and right (like so much of Beijing, there are definitely "works in progress" on this campus, in various states of completion). The apartment blocks near the fancy new sports facilities. I walked around campus for as long as I could in the stifling heat, remembering how I used to run around campus when circling the track for long runs made me feel like a hamster on a wheel. The old apartment blocks housing faculty members and university workers hadn't changed; nor had the fact that you could find vegetable stands and cheap drinks (20 cents for a bottle of water) at kiosks on campus. I stopped for lunch right outside the university at a place that's been there ever since I was a student; a plate of pork and scallion dumplings and garlic cucumbers set me back 14 renminbi, just over two dollars. Student life all over again.
The Chinese-language motto of these Olympics is "New Beijing, New Olympics." In English they morph it to "New Beijing, Great Olympics" but it's the "New Beijing" I saw today, mixing with the old. I stopped in at my old dorm looking for the program director to say hello. He wasn't in, but I looked around and felt all the old feelings of what it was like to be here in Beijing eight years ago, when the front gate consisted of one lone security guard and there was no such thing as the "Beijing Normal University Gymnasium" with completely modern facilities for national teams and the 2008 Olympics were just a dream of the bid committee. Whatever else these Olympics have done for China, they've brought all kinds of modernization to their universities, and that is a good thing.