Friday, August 29, 2008

Have you Googled yourself lately?

I admit that during moments of boredom, I succumb to the occasional urge to search for myself in the vast reaches of cyberspace. I feed my name through Google or Yahoo, and scan through the list of sites where either "Ailee Lim" or the full "Aileesa Lim" pops up. It helps that I have such a unique (read: weird) name, so it's easy to find myself amongst the search results, but I have discovered a handful of Koreans, Malaysians or Singaporeans named Ailee Lim out there. Through this self-indulgent/narcissistic practice, I have also verified that my father did indeed name me after a Korean table tennis player (Lee Aileesa), and that even my Chinese name can be located online, thanks to a donation my parents made to Peking University in my name, for the construction of the gymnasium used as the venue for table tennis in the recently concluded Beijing Olympics.

After a phone conversation I had with Raqs wherein she mentioned Googling someone, it occurred to me that I hadn't looked myself up in a while, so on a whim, I did it last night. As always, the links to my blogs and my BBC Oscars panel pieces appeared first, as well as the PRC website page where they posted the list of people who passed the Licensure Examination for Teachers in 2004. But there was something new, which surprised me, then baffled me. There was a link to a page from my high school's alumni association's website, which was launched just this year (yep, they're that behind). The page contained a roster of the JCAAA's officers, and I saw my name listed as a "Batch Representative". This was a head-scratcher, because I have absolutely no recall of having volunteered for or having been elected to the position. My friend Angie's name was also there, not only credited under "Batch Representative", but also under the members of the alumni newsletter committee. I didn't even know we had a newsletter! I'm pretty sure Anj has no clue about this either. Trust our high school to put inaccurate information on their website (don't even get me started on the lousy grammar).

Aside from the mysterious inclusion of my name in the JCAAA site, Google led me to the Fully Booked website, where I post reviews of books from time to time, and my Shelfari account. I suddenly realized that even the most perfunctory online search for me would reveal an awful lot about who I am: a blogger, a teacher, a film buff, a bookworm. And apparently, a loyal alumna.

There is something strangely reassuring about finding my name floating around cyberspace, as if it somehow validates my existence. I guess our generation has come to depend so much on the Internet as a source of information that it even establishes proof of our identity, and dare I say it, our being. It may seem soulless, even pathetic, but when you think about how millions and millions of individuals comprise and are connected by the World Wide Web, then perhaps it's not all that absurd to say that it actually helps substantiate our humanity.

And as Raqs says, if Google can't find you, then you're nobody. :p

Friday, August 22, 2008

WALL-E: Lonely, he's Mr. Lonely

For the first 20 minutes or so of the movie WALL-E, there is absolutely no dialogue, because the only characters onscreen are a trash compactor robot and his pet cockroach, sole remaining inhabitants on a garbage-smothered, uninhabitable Earth. Those first 20 minutes are in my opinion the best part of the film, showcasing Pixar's wonderful creativity, originality, and ability to transform animation into art. Because WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) doesn't chatter away like a typical cartoon character, communicating only through R2-D2-like sounds and adorably expressive robot eyes, the viewer's attention is riveted to his every motion, and the relative silence emphasizes the absolute desolation and isolation he is in. WALL-E's loneliness is so acute that it's easy to forget he's just a rusted bucket of bolts, so to speak, and easy to empathize with him. As he goes about his daily routine of compacting rubbish into neat cubes, which is what he was programmed to do, the futility of it is achingly melancholic. And when he watches his video tape of Hello, Dolly! and starts longing for companionship, it pretty damn near breaks one's heart.

Then one day, a rocket lands on the planet surface and leaves a probe called
EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and WALL-E falls in love. However, once EVE finds the evidence of vegetation she was programmed to find (her "directive"), she shuts down and is retrieved by the rocket on which she came. Turns out the rocket was sent from the ship Axiom, where what is left of the human race has been living for the past 700 years since their exodus from Earth. WALL-E pursues EVE to the Axiom, and what ensues turns the whole ship topsy-turvy, in more ways than one.

Once the humans are introduced into the movie, I started to lose my enchantment with the movie. Their talking broke the spell cast by the first 20 minutes, and it wasn't just the sound of speaking that distracted me, it was the substandard quality of the script. The writing lacks the humor and vitality which marked previous Pixar efforts. As far as the plot and message of the movie go, they aren't delivered as masterfully as last year's delightful Ratatouille. WALL-E shows
the consequences of abusing the environment, the dangers of human reliance on technology, the importance of relationships over "directives", and the universal concepts of loneliness and love, but somehow it all gets lost in the confusion WALL-E and EVE trigger onboard the Axiom. And the talking humans don't help matters either.

I actally wouldn't have minded if the entire movie had been dialogue-free. I don't know if the beauty of those first 20 minutes would have held up for an entire full-length feature, but I think Pixar could have pulled it off. As the saying goes, talk is cheap, and in WALL-E's case, it cheapened the dramatic value and artistic merit of the film.

Overall, WALL-E was ok, but light years away from the Pixar masterpiece Finding Nemo. It's still worth seeing though, if only for those lovely first 20 minutes, and as a bonus, the traditional Pixar short shown before the main feature (this year it's a terrific old-school slapstick comedy called

Sidebar: While I was waiting in line to buy tickets for Wall-E at the Promenade box office, an old man was in front of me, a Chinese newspaper tucked under his arm. My first thought was, who sends their grandfather to stand in line to buy movie tickets?? But when it was his turn at the counter, he signed the log sheet for senior citizens (in San Juan they get free entrance to all movies up to 5:00PM), claimed his ticket, then shuffled into the cinema by himself. I felt a pang of pity, and my second thought was, who lets their grandfather watch a movie alone?? It was a holiday, so his children didn't have work, his grandchildren didn't have classes. I realize some people like watching movies by themselves, but I know most elderly people enjoy the company of their family, so I found it really sad, and I remembered the grandfather as I was watching WALL-E. Solitude and loneliness may not be the same thing, but they're not always mutually exclusive. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic musings

They're calling it "The Great Haul of China". In an amazing display of swimming superiority the past week, American Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in Beijing, sweeping all of his events, shattering world records like cheap porcelain plates, and establishing himself in the annals of sports history as one of the greatest Olympians (some would argue THE greatest Olympian) of all time. My brother was at The Water Cube when Phelps grabbed gold #8 as he and his compatriots placed first in the 4x100 medley relay. I had to content myself with watching on TV, and though I'm not a fan of Team USA in general (isn't it enough that they lord it over the rest of the world in all other aspects?), I couldn't help but get goosebumps when Phelps was awarded his medal, along with a special award from FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation). The kid is truly a phenomenon.

Watch Michael Phelps in a TV commercial for Arrow's Ellis Island campaign here.

* * *

Speaking of Team USA, I'm a little peeved at how some American media (e.g. Yahoo, NBC, Fox News) keep putting the US in the top spot in medal tallies just because their total number of medals is higher than China's, even if the host nation has far more golds than the US (as of this writing, 45 to 26). My parents pointed out that it's just like saying a country with 3 bronzes fared better than a country with 2 golds. I don't know if it's arrogance or denial, or both, but whatever the case, it's clear the US is not coming out on top at the Beijing Olympics, and I don't think they'll be getting much sympathy from other countries. Gee, I wonder why.

* * *
This year's Olympic medals have a distinct Oriental touch, with jade rings of different shades accenting each (dark jade for bronze, pale jade for silver, white jade for gold). They're so pretty. I want one.

* * *

Last week, Roger Federer broke my heart by losing to James Blake of the US in the quarterfinals of men's tennis. It wasn't so much that he lost, it was the way he lost. The Fed seemed a different person, playing almost listlessly, like he didn't really want to be there, much less win. I was so disappointed that when it was painfully obvious he was going to lose, I switched channels. I couldn't stand seeing a player I respect so much not even trying, and it was hard to admit to myself that he didn't deserve to win.

It was a good thing Roge redeemed himself in my eyes by playing like himself again in his doubles finals match with fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka against Sweden. After they won match point, Federer was so jubilant he jumped up and down, then smothered Wawrinka in a bear hug that had them both toppling to the ground, laughing and even engaging in a little silly horseplay. It's the first time I've seen Roge act like a kid and take an almost giddy delight in victory.
After the dismal year he's had, losing to Nadal in Wimbledon and crashing out of a couple of non-Major tournaments, and with critics dismissing him as washed-up, I was relieved and happy that he finally got something to celebrate-- his first taste of Olympic gold.

* * *

When Novak Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal in the tennis semis, I was genuinely moved by the emotion he showed at the end of the match. He lost to Nadal in 3 sets, and it was a pretty close fight. On match point, Djokovic dished out 2 overhead smashes which Nadal, through a combination of skill and luck, managed to chase down and return. Djokovic tried for a 3rd overhead slam, but it went long, and the look of anguish on the Serb's face was heart-rending. Djokovic was in tears as he walked off court, and I really felt bad for him, because it was so apparent how badly he had wanted to win. Thus I was very glad he still managed to claim the bronze by beating Blake. During the medal awarding, although gold medalist Nadal was the center of attention, Djokovic was beaming like a light bulb as he stood on the podium, and as he paraded around center court draped in the flag of Serbia. He was practically bursting with national pride and sincere happiness. It's moments like that that I love so much about the Olympics.

* * *

Much hullabaloo has been made about China's female gymnasts' being younger than the 16-year-old age minimum, and even I myself suspect that at least one of them is 14, tops. However, I read a Sports Illustrated online article where one of their senior writers was quoted as saying:

[The age limit in gymnastics] was instituted primarily for the mental health of the athletes. Being 14 and having those Olympic or world championship expectations put on you is unreasonable and very difficult. There's also the question of the physical health of the athletes because their bones are still growing and they are trying--and often completing--these very difficult and complicated tricks.

Which brings me now to this question: how come there is no such age restriction in diving? Great Britain fielded a 14-year old diver, Tom Daley, and all the buzz about him has been nothing but positive, even if he failed to qualify (apparently people find him adorable). If we were to apply the logic that athletes under 16 can't handle the mental and physical strain of competing in the Olympics, then shouldn't all sports set an age limit as well? Why is gymnastics apparently the only one that does so? And if most insiders acknowledge that almost all countries break the rule anyway (possibly with the exception of the self-righteous Americans), then they might want to review the motives behind the rule, their means of enforcing it, and whether or not they should scrap it all together.

* * *

Last night I watched the US women's volleyball team notch a come-from-behind win over Italy. The Americans are being coached by Lang Ping, a former member of the Chinese national volleyball team, whom my dad describes as the best spiker China ever had. I find it funny that in the Olympics, coaches can hail from a country other than the one the team represents. One could say that while players are doing it for the honor of their country, the coaches are merely doing their job. But how much satisfaction can there be for a coach when his team beats his/her native country? Especially in the case of a former national player like Lang, there must be a certain sense of being torn when her players go up against her former team, and perhaps even a pang of guilt if they beat them, just as the Americans prevailed over the Chinese a few days ago. To think that the hometown crowd greeted Lang with a warm round of applause, welcoming one of their own back home. Anyone who's human would surely feel a bit like a traitor in that situation.

* * *

What's in a name? In Usain Bolt's case, everything. Dubbed "Lightning Bolt", the Jamaican sprinter is simply incredible. I saw him win the 100-meter dash, breaking his own record time, and it didn't even appear as if he was exerting much effort. He loped past his competitors in an almost lazy manner, celebrating 20 meters before he crossed the finish line. Some have criticized him (American media, surprise, surprise!) for such "disrespectful" behavior, and while I concede the guy is indeed a cocky showboat, I don't think he meant any disrespect with his actions. That's tantamount to saying the US basketball team disses their opponents every time they do a chest bump after making an awesome dunk, or American football players are being disrespectful when they dance and strut after scoring a touchdown. Bolt may be overconfident, but hey, with his tremendous talent, and after winning the 200 meters today in record time again (and becoming the first to break both the 100-meter and 200-meter records in one Olympics), I think he's earned the right to pound his chest and dance to some reggae, don't you?

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Olympic odyssey, part 2

August 10: the day things didn't go according to plan

We had 2 tickets for the morning's qualifying round of women's gymnastics, and our parents let me and Bens use them since they've already watched gymnastics before, at the Sydney Olympics. Bens would be coming from his dorm, so we agreed to just meet at the National Indoor Stadium. It was raining that morning so I took a cab from our hotel to the nearest subway station and made my way to the same security checkpoint before they let you board the train to the Olympic Green. After my bag came out from the x-ray machine, one of the security personnel stopped me and asked if I had any makeup inside. Puzzled, because 'cosmetics' wasn't on the list of contraband items, I answered in the affirmative, and he told me to bring it out. When I produced an eyeshadow palette, he asked me to open it, then said, "Try it."

I stared at him uncomprehendingly. "What?"

"Try it," he repeated, miming applying the makeup.

"There are 8 colors in here!" I protested.

"On your hand," he relented.

So I brushed all 8 colors on the back of my hand, and I thought that was the end of it, but then the guy asked if I had any liquids in my bag, and I took out my body spray, which he also asked me "try".

"You know, you weren't this thorough the day of the opening ceremony," I pointed out testily as I spritzed myself.

I got nothing but a sheepish look in response.

Then he spotted my hand sanitizer, which I also had to "try", and lastly, my lip gloss. When the security guy saw that I didn't drop dead on the spot from all the products I had tried on, I was finally released, and I bolted for the subway.

The ups and downs of gymnastics

Due to the hold-up, I was late getting to the National Indoor Stadium, and I seriously had to pee, so by the time I got to my seat (Bens had gotten there ahead of me) I had missed one rotation. China had already finished the balance beam and was proceeding to floor exercises. Also competing in the qualifying round that morning were Romania and 2 mixed groups (Venezuela, Spain, Canada, etc.). Because so many things were going on at the same time, my peripheral vision was exercised quite a bit, but for the most part I chose to concentrate on the Chinese gymnasts, who clearly outshone the rest. With the home crowd egging them on with chants of "jiayou!" ("go!"), the girls gave solid performances on the floor, did magnificently on the vault, and would have been flawless on the uneven bars if one of them hadn't slipped and lost her grip. Regardless of the error, the Chinese team finished with the highest score, and the appreciative audience rewarded them with a thunderous round of applause.

There has been talk that some of the members of the Chinese gymnastics team are younger than the 16-year-old minimum age set by the International Gymnastics Federation, and looking at their petite frames and guileless faces, I had my own doubts about their eligibility. But more than that, I felt sorry for them, for all the gymnasts, because they've lost the better part of their childhood training doggedly, and the pressure on them to win is tremendous-- even an adult would buckle under the strain, let alone a teenager. Whenever they fell from the balance beam, or landed awkwardly off the vault, I winced in sympathy. It's fun watching when they do well, but heart-breaking when they falter.

Gymnastics has always been one of my favorite Olympic events, so I was glad we managed to snag tix, and seeing China in action was a neat bonus. They would later go on to win the team gold over the US and Romania, and I'm glad their efforts paid off as they were recognized for being the world-class gymnasts they are, underaged or not.

Digicam distress

To my horror, my digicam chose that day to malfunction. All the shots I took would come out as a bright flash, except when I zoomed in twice. So for the remainder of our trip, I was forced to take photos using that setting. It was frustrating, especially when I wanted to zoom in closer on something far away, or take a wider shot of something close. My only consolation was that my camera didn't act up before the opening ceremony, because if I hadn't had the use of my zoom then, I would have totally wigged out.

QT with shoti

Our tickets for tennis weren't until 5:00PM, so after watching gymnastics, we had some time to kill. Bens took me to a mall in Wudaokou, the student-populated district near his university. He decided to get a haircut at his usual salon, a huuuge fancy Korean place that offers free drinks and Internet to its clientele. I took advantage of the free Internet, and checked my email and even got to chat with Hanks over YM for a short while.

My newly shorn brother and I had a very satisfying, leisurely lunch at Grandma's Kitchen inside the same mall. We shared fried mushrooms, a breakfast skillet and a Philly cheese-steak sandwich, washed down with thick yummy milkshakes. Then we got a call from the parental units, saying they were on their way to the Olympic Green. They were extremely early, but since none of us knew for sure where the Tennis Center was, they thought they'd go ahead and scout out the place. A second phone call informed us that we had to take a bus to the Tennis Center, since the Olympic subway line doesn't go all the way there. Pa also wasted a few call minutes bitching about how none of the BOCOG
(Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad)
volunteers around the Olympic Green seemed to know exactly where the Tennis Center was. I could tell he was on the brink of losing his temper, and I hoped for the volunteers' sake that they could be more helpful towards my irate father.

Mother Nature has her way

Bens and I managed to get on the right bus to the Tennis Center, but as soon as we stepped off, rain started to fall. Within seconds, it was a torrential downpour, and our umbrellas and hooded jackets couldn't do much to keep us dry. Our sneakers and socks were soaked, and by the time we reached the security checkpoint tents, we looked like a couple of basang sisiw. A call to our parents confirmed that they had also been caught in the rain, and were even more drenched than us. Since they were still in the vicinity of the National Indoor Stadium and they had gymnastics tickets on hand anyway, I urged them to just go watch gymnastics while we tried to see if there was even going to be any tennis played in such nasty weather.

After a few minutes of waiting inside the security tent, huddled with a jampacked throng of fellow wet spectators, a volunteer announced that the afternoon's tennis matches were canceled. A collective groan of disappointment rose from the disheveled, disgruntled mob. I was crestfallen, but I couldn't blame the weather on anyone. Plastic ponchos were distributed, and I put mine on over my bag, which was already very damp (including the contents!). When the rain eased up a bit, Bens and I made our way back to the bus depot, and we separated at the subway station, him to head back to his dorm, me to meet up with the 'rents for dinner.

The most watched game in the history of basketball

We returned to our hotel before 10:00PM to catch the much anticipated China-US basketball match on TV. We laid our wet clothes and shoes and umbrellas out to dry, then sat back and watched the "Redeem Team" demolish Yao Ming and crew. I had bet my mom RMB500 the US would win by at least 20 points, and I easily won that bet, as the final damage was a 31-point spread. China actually put up a decent fight in the first half, but the Americans were too tough for them and totally dominated the second half. It actually got a bit boring towards the end, and it made me feel better about not having gotten tickets to the game. I didn't want to pay an arm and a leg just to see the US take apart a hapless Chinese squad (and LeBron and company would have been tiny specks from the seats we might have gotten anyway).

But I still felt bummed that I had missed my opportunity to see some tennis stars in person.

August 11: the day things didn't go according to plan... in a good way

The morning of our 5th and final full day in Beijing brought with it a wonderful windfall. One of my dad's connections in the sports world, the president of China's Table Tennis Association, dropped by our hotel to say hello to Pa, and he gave us a bunch of tickets to several events... including 2 for tennis scheduled for 5:00PM that day! The rest were for days after our departure from Beijing, so Bens would be the sole lucky beneficiary. Since he would get to watch volleyball, fencing, table tennis, athletics AND swimming, and since Pa has watched more live Olympic events than any of us (he saw the original Dream Team play in Barcelona!), Ma and I happily took the tennis tickets.

Courtesy call to the Rey-na

Before we made our way to the Tennis Center, we went to visit a friend at his restaurant, the posh Courtyard, located outside the east gate of the Forbidden City. Rey Lim, one of my favorite people in the world, is the executive chef and part-owner of this fabulous fusion restaurant, frequented by celebrities and politicians from all over the globe. He told us that just the previous night, Princess Anne had dined there, as well as the Prince of Denmark. He also told us that he'll be featured on the Today Show on August 19 (his second time!), so he'd have to bring his kitchen equipment and staff all the way to the NBC studio at the Olympic Green. Rey's originally from Manila, but he's been based in Beijing for 13 years now. I first met him when I was studying in Beijing 6 years ago; a high school classmate of one of Ma's friends, Rey has a larger-than-life personality (think Will & Grace's Jack meets Mario Batalli), a wicked sense of humor (think Carson Kressley meets Gordon Ramsay), and an unabashed love for Beijing. He's been convincing me to move to Beijing ever since we met; for some reason he is particularly fond of me and keeps saying he sees "potential" in me. As much as I adore him though, I don't think I could ever call any place but Manila home.

We and Rey compared notes on the opening ceremony, and he told us how gratified he felt watching on TV. In the months leading to the Olympics, the residents of Beijing suffered many inconveniences and made many sacrifices because of the city's wide-scale preparations for the big event. Rey hated it as much as anyone, but after seeing the opening, he said it was worth all the aggravation. There was no mistaking the evident pride in his voice, a pride no doubt shared by billions of native and ethnic Chinese the world over. Beijing definitely made a strong statement with the opening ceremony, a declaration of its extraordinary might and prowess, in spite of some perceived shortcomings (CGI fireworks, lipsynched performances, and other flaws pinpointed by nitpickers and naysayers).


From the Courtyard, Ma and I took a cab to the Tennis Center, but the driver was forced to drop us off many blocks away because all the roads leading to the Center were blocked off to traffic. Peeved by the inconvenience, we walked a good distance to take a shuttle bus... only to have the bus driver deposit us at a point still pretty far away from the Tennis Center. It was almost 5:00PM, so we hurriedly made our way on foot to the security checkpoint tents, where a sizable crowd had amassed outside the gates. We squeezed into the sea of people
and waited for a few minutes in line, and even though everyone around me had tennis tickets in hand, I had a nagging feeling we were in the wrong line because it wasn't budging. I wormed my way out and asked a nearby volunteer where the line for tennis was, and confirming my hunch, he pointed me towards another line, which was already starting to move forward in an unruly manner. I sorely wanted to berate the volunteer for standing idly by without informing people where the correct line was, but time was a-wasting, and I shouted for my mom instead.

We elbowed our way into the surging tide of spectators, pushing past a big thorny bush (and because I was wearing a polo dress I sustained some scratches on my knee) and stepping across a muddy embankment (and because I was wearing open-toed shoes I got mud on my toes). When we got to the security checkpoint, I was afraid they'd make me "try" all my makeup products again, but instead the security guy who opened my bag trained his attention on the asado bun that was a takeout leftover from lunch. "No food allowed," he admonished, so I shoved the plastic container at him, snapping, "Take it then!" I think I scared him, because he let me go immediately.

Tennis buffet

Ma and I ran to Center Court, and in the nick of time, arrived to find that the scheduled match was Venus Williams going up against an unknown Swiss. As I snapped some photos of Venus warming up, Ma talked to an usher and learned that we could actually go court-hopping (the Tennis Center has a total of 10 courts) and watch any match we wanted. So we transferred to Court 1 to watch Great Britain's Andy Murray get upset by Taiwan's Lu Yen-Hsun. It was an unexpectedly thrilling match, with the predominantly Chinese spectators rallying behind Lu. When a man in the crowd yelled in Mandarin, "Go, Lu! This is our home court!", it elicited cheers from everyone who understood, and I was moved by the support shown to a player from a country that's long been at odds with mainland China.

Sometime during the Murray-Lu match, I snuck out to return to Center Court to snap some shots of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, then scurried back to Court 1. I didn't want to lose our vantage seats, because after Lu's stirring victory over Murray came a doubles match between Italy and Switzerland, and of course who
else comprised half of the Swiss team but Roger Federer. When he walked out onto the court, the audience went wild, and I had to restrain myself from jumping off the railing-- he was close enough for me to spit on him! Unfortunately, my uncooperative , defective digicam was already flashing the red "low battery" sign, so I had to budget the number of shots I could take of Roge, because we still had to go check out the doubles match between Sweden and Spain, where Rafael Nadal would be. In any case, we couldn't stay for either match, because we had a dinner appointment to make, and we were running late as it was. I had to be content with just a few minutes of warm-ups, and all throughout I couldn't tear my eyes away from Roge, he was so incredibly gorgeous. Even my mom couldn't help commenting that he looked much more handsome in person. She had to almost physically drag me away, and I reluctantly left Court 1 to head over to Court 2 to scope out Rafa.

However, when we got to Court 2, a women's singles match was still underway. We waited while China's Li Na defeated her Hungarian opponent, then muscled our way to the front of the spectators' area, jockeying for position to take photos of the new Wimbledon champ and impending World No. 1. When Nadal emerged, he got the same kind of rousing reception as Federer, and as I got a good look at him, I got confirmation that he is indeed muy caliente. Miraculously, my digicam hadn't died on me yet, and I managed to take a few photos of the sexy Spanish hunk before Ma and I had to dash.

Hard to leave (in more ways than one)

It was another monster headache trying to find transportation from the Tennis Center, and I couldn't blame my mom for continuously cursing the ineptitude of the Beijing Organizing Committee. They really didn't make it easy for spectators to get to and from and move within the Olympic Green. There was no way to hail a cab, the bus stops were not accessible, and there was only one subway station that wasn't even centrally located. If I weren't riding on a high from having just seen Federer and Nadal in person, I would have been in a far more foul mood as we gave up looking for a taxi and hauled our weary butts onto a jampacked bus. I suggested to Ma that we just get off at the first stop where there were unoccupied taxis in sight, and that plan worked. We were meeting some family friends from Manila for dinner, and we were very, very late, and it didn't help that our cab driver had a bit of trouble finding our destination.

When we got to the restaurant (Da Dong Peking Duck again!), everyone was already there, and they had started the first course without us. As I settled into my seat beside Bens, I realized that despite the long afternoon we'd had, I wasn't very hungry. I joked that "busog na ako" from Federer and Nadal. I didn't even feel any envy as I handed over the
volleyball, fencing, table tennis, athletics, and swimming tickets to Bens. I don't care how many gold medals he has, no way is Michael Phelps hotter than either Roge or Rafa.

Zaijian, Beijing, and xiexie

The next day, before we got on our 1:00PM flight back to Manila, we had enough time to shop for more Olympics souvenirs at the airport. It was both amusing and gratifying to see how the t-shirts, keychains and other memorabilia were selling like hotcakes, especially among foreigners. For all of the BOCOG's lapses in logistics, I had to hand it to them for putting together an undeniably successful opening ceremony, as well as getting the Games off to a good start. Never mind the surprising number of empty seats at some supposedly sold-out events-- the people who did show up all looked genuinely happy, including the foreigners who didn't seem to mind the sweltering conditions. Never mind the exaggeratedly strict security measures-- the overall atmosphere was peaceful and friendly. Never mind the sore lack of dining options around the Olympic Green-- man can live on McDonald's alone (for a few days). Never mind that volunteers couldn't give precise directions to venues-- getting lost was part of the adventure. Ok, maybe I can't forgive replacing the little girl
who sang "Ode to the Motherland" during the opening ceremony with a cuter kid who did a Milli Vanilli, but as even Rey would concede, Beijing is by no means perfect. However, with all that it's accomplished so far hosting the Olympics, give it a few more years, and it will surely find a way to impress the world all over again. Beijing, jiayou!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Olympic odyssey, part 1

Where oh where do I begin recounting my Olympic experience? Our 5 days in Beijing went by in a blur, and I'm not just talking about the infamous smog that hangs over the Chinese capital. I returned to Manila with aching arm and leg muscles, scratches on my knee, the beginnings of a bad cold, and a clogged ear... but I'm not complaining. This was one of the most memorable trips of my life, and it was worth all the aggravation we suffered beforehand, during and afterwards. Beijing definitely gave us our money's worth, and then some.

August 7: Star-studded flight

We shared our flight to Beijing with none other than PAL head honcho Lucio "Kapitan" Tan himself, who was bringing an entourage of 90+ with him to Beijing (free airfare, free hotel accommodations, but no Olympic tickets). My parents knew so many people on the plane that the exchange of greetings and small talk practically didn't stop throughout the 5-hour flight. I found myself seated beside Orly Mercado, future ambassador to China, who was very pleasant and made my day by assuming I was still a student. =D Other famous names on the passenger manifest: Lucio Co, Gregorio Honasan, Kim Atienza, Anthony Suntay, and even Ruffa Gutierrez.

Touristy afternoon

After checking into the Wangfujing Grand Hotel, we had a late lunch, then headed to the National Grand Theater, more popularly known as "The Egg", for some photo ops. After that we proceeded to my favorite mall in Beijing, the Orient Plaza, for some shopping and coffee. We ran into some more acquaintances from Manila, including my mom's old ob-gyn, the woman who delivered me and my sibs (I always regard her with a certain sense of indebtedness for that, haha). For dinner we met up with Bens and his friends from Beida (short for Beijing Da Xue, or Peking University), and it was reassuring to see how well my baby brother has adjusted to life in China, scruffy hair and all. He gave us a big heavy bag of stuff to bring home to Manila, and we made plans for him to stay at our hotel the following night after the opening ceremony.

Day 2: 08-08-08

We spent the morning shopping for Olympics souvenirs, then grabbed a quick lunch before making our way to the Olympic Green. We took the subway from the station nearest our hotel, and after 2 transfers, arrived at the station for the Olympic line only to find that we had to wait for almost 2 hours before they'd open the security checkpoints and let anyone on the train. There we stood sweating it out in the summer humidity, huddled under tents and umbrellas, drinking up the bottled water we wouldn't be able to bring past security anyway. Finally, the gates opened, and we had our tickets scanned, our faces photographed, our bags x-rayed, and our bodies patted down before we were allowed to board the subway to the Olympic Green. On the train there was already an air of giddy anticipation among our fellow passengers, and it was nice being part of that collective excitement.

The first sight to greet us upon emerging from the subway was the row of elaborate showrooms constructed by all the Olympics sponsors: Kodak, Coke, Samsung, Lenovo, Omega, etc. Behind them stood the Fencing Hall of the National Convention Center and the National Indoor Stadium. Farther down the street was the National Aquatics Center, dubbed "The Water Cube", and across it was "The Bird's Nest", the National Stadium. Walking towards the Nest, we passed the NBC studio at the foot of the Ling Long Pagoda, a triangular tower sporting the Olympic rings and which I'd later learn houses the International Broadcast Center.

The Bird's Nest

When we got to the Nest, we had to split up because our parents' seats were in the second tier while ours were in the nosebleed section up on third.
Bens and I made the high ascent to our seats, already depleted and dehydrated from the heat. Our section was almost directly across the VIP box where the princes, presidents, and prime ministers would later be seated, which meant we'd be looking at the backs of the performers later, but at least we had an excellent central aerial view. Each seat had a goodie bag placed on it, and we eagerly opened ours to root through the loot. Mercifully, there was a bottle of water in there, along with a disposable plastic poncho in case of rain. There was also a small flag of China, a scarf printed with the red cloud design used on this year's Olympic torch, a blue flashlight, a replica of the Olympic torch with blinking lights that flash different Olympic images, a traditional Chinese toy drum with one of the Olympic mascots printed on it, and a set of 5 rubber baller IDs/wristbands in the Olympic colors.

The pre-show entertainment commenced around 6:00PM, featuring dance troupes from the different provinces of China, including Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet. Bens and I snacked on popcorn and ice cream (he also had a hot dog roll and a tub of yogurt) while watching, and took turns using the glittery ninang pamaypay I had brought along. Hanks had also lent me a small battery-operated fan in the shape of a fat penguin, but it couldn't do much against the horrific humidity. Bens popped out for a few minutes to meet Ma, who had run to the McDonald's near the subway station to buy burgers that would serve as our dinner for the night. She'd later complain that she had a hard time getting to McDo because security had unnecessarily cordoned off a lot of the walkways. More on exasperating Chinese rigidity by and by.

The seats around us filled up, mostly with foreigners wearing their country's colors: a row of Dutch in orange, 2 families of Britons bedecked with the Union Jack, a couple of formally attired Irish, a bunch of outlandish Germans in Chinese costumes, a crowd of Brazilians in yellow, a group of rowdy Russians in red and white, and a father and son duo from Jamaica in yellow and green. Seated in front of us was a married Filipino couple from the US, and beside us, another father and son pair, from Manila. The son was a Xavier boy based in Singapore, and he chatted with fellow Xavierian Bens during lulls. As more people packed the stadium, the warmer it got, and the Bird's Nest was transformed into a veritable sauna.
By the end of the evening I would feel like I had sweated away at least 3 pounds.

Jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, spellbinding

At exactly 8:00PM, the opening ceremony kicked off with a literal bang, and for the next hour or so, my jaw hung open in amazement as
I witnessed firsthand what was arguably the most spectacular opening in Olympic history. My brother, who is not one to be easily impressed, kept exclaiming, "What! That's ridiculous!" as each segment of the program rolled out, showcasing the beauty and grandeur of China's rich history and culture, as well as demonstrating the discipline, dedication and artistry of the 100,000-strong Chinese performers. I've admired and respected director Zhang Yimou since seeing his marvelous movie Hero, but that night at the Nest his genius was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. From start to finish, the opening ceremony was simply stunning: the 2008 LED-lit Fou drums that led the countdown to 8:00PM, the raising of the illuminated Olympic rings, the gorgeous giant calligraphy scroll, the perfectly synchronized "movable type" printing blocks manually operated by 800+ people, the 800+ performers reciting from Confucius' Analects, the rising dragon pillars, the Chinese opera portion, the human-formed Bird's Nest and Dove of Peace, the 2008 taiqi masters and their awesome routine, the acrobats walking around a huge globe which turned into a red lantern on top of which Chinese singer Liu Huan and Broadway superstar Sarah Brightman sang a duet, the 2008 umbrellas opening to reveal 2008 smiling faces, and the climactic lighting of the Olympic flame by Chinese gymnastics legend Li Ning, who was hoisted on cables above the Bird's Nest and "ran" around the rim against a video montage backdrop of other people who had participated in the torch relay.

And of course there was no shortage of fireworks (this was China, after all). Those of us inside the Nest couldn't really see the fireworks display overhead, but they flashed video footage on the big screens. By now I know that the firework "footprints" leading from Tiananmen Square all the way to the Bird's Nest were actually computer-generated, but at the time, seeing it play out on the big screens, it floored me. It's a shame it wasn't real, but in my opinion it doesn't take away from the glorious success of the opening ceremonies as a whole. As the media would herald it the morning after, it was a truly sensational coming-out party for China, and I'm glad I was there taking part in the celebration.

The festive mood was sustained even during the time-consuming and usually tedious parade of athletes. If I had been watching on TV at home, that would be the point where I'd go to the bathroom or raid the fridge. But being there live, and because we were seated among many different nationalities, I wasn't bored at all. Every time a country was announced, there would be applause, and the toy drums from our goodie bags would be used to salute the entrance of the contingent. When the time came for the Philippine delegation to enter the stadium, our small group of 6 Filipinos (Bens and I, the 2 Fil-Ams and the father and son tandem) rose and cheered. Elsewhere in the Nest, other Filipinos were cheering as well, but we were no match for the roars that greeted big countries like the US, Russia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and host nation China. International sports stars like Switzerland's flag-bearer Roger Federer, his rival Rafael Nadal, and NBA players Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki also received ovations when they were captured on camera, their close-ups flashed on the jumbotrons.

Beginning's end

The egress from the Bird's Nest was doomed to be a logistical nightmare, but the organizers attempted to regulate the flow of foot traffic by having Jackie Chan, Karen Mok and other Hong Kong singers perform 3 song numbers after the ceremony proper, in an effort to discourage people from leaving the stadium all at once. Bens and I stayed to the very end, and it was quick enough exiting the Nest, but after we had rejoined the parental units, we found that there was still a massive mob headed for the subway station. It took us a good half hour before we finally boarded a train to take us back to the city center. Our folks, who had attended the 2000 Olympics, contrasted Beijing's ill-coordinated system with Sydney's uber-efficient one, and their final verdict was that although they enjoyed and appreciated Beijing's opening ceremonies more, they had an easier and more comfortable time in Sydney. Overly paranoid and strict security measures of the Beijing organizers were
implemented at the expense of the convenience of spectators, and while I understood their concern for safety, it was still a buzzkill.

By the time we reached our hotel (stopping by another McDonald's along the way to grab another batch of takeout burgers), it was already past 3:00AM, and we were all famished and exhausted. With 4 of us sharing one bathroom, it was 5:00AM before any of us got some sleep. But I was on a high anyway, because I had just seen the greatest show on Earth.
I remember turning to Bens at one point during the opening ceremony and saying, "London must be shitting in their pants right now!" The organizers of the 2012 Olympics now face the Herculean task of reaching the bar set astronomically high by Beijing. Good luck, chaps.

August 9: a break on day 3

We woke up in time for lunch at the nearby Crowne Plaza, then did some more shopping in the Wangfujing area. Bens bought a cool Nike wushu (that's kungfu to the uninitiated) shirt made of Drifit material, adding to his previous purchase of a Team USA Kobe Bryant basketball jersey (his idea of investment dressing). I focused on buying souvenirs for family friends who had made bilin, and friends of mine like John, who's the biggest Olympics nut I know.

We met a family friend for coffee at the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, then it was off to dinner at the best Peking duck place in Beijing, Da Dong Kao Ya Dian (Da Dong Peking Duck Restaurant). We dined with Pa's former coach from his years with the Philippine national table tennis team, a very typical blustery and borderline bastos China man named Wang, plus a friend of Pa's from the Philippine Olympic Committee who had helped us get tickets to the opening ceremony and book a hotel room. Coach Wang gave us 4 tickets for the next day's tennis events, and I was totally psyched because next to seeing the US basketball team in action, watching either Federer or Nadal play was what I wanted most. And since tickets for the US-China basketball match on August 10 were impossible to get (and criminally priced), I settled for the chance to see Roge or Rafa in person.

*to be continued in a separate post*

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Beijing or bust

Unless PAL bumps us off the flight to Beijing this Thursday (in which case we'll seriously sue their asses), and barring any other untoward incidents, by this time next week, I can officially put a check mark beside item #5 on my bucket list: watch an Olympics opening ceremony and at least one event live. My only regret is that my sister won't be there to share in the experience, as she can't file for what would be her 3rd vacation leave in barely a year at her job. Bens is conveniently already in Beijing, so at least I'll have one sibling with me there, but it sucks that Hanks won't be around. In spite of that, I'm really excited, not only for the Olympics, but also to see Bens again, and to revisit the only other city I've ever lived in. I just hope the weather cooperates and it doesn't rain, nor be too oppressively hot. Either way I'm going to try to get as much as I can out of this possibly once-in-my-lifetime event.

Zaijian, bloghounds. I'm off to fulfill my Olympic dream.

Monday, August 04, 2008

UAAP diary: Ateneo vs UST, round 1

There's no experience in the world like watching an Ateneo-La Salle game live, but since I missed the first ADMU-DLSU face-off this season (which we won, woot!), I decided to catch the next best thing: Ateneo versus UST. Thanks to Fara (and her super-maids who lined up at the Araneta Coliseum box office), I managed to secure 4 Upper B tickets for myself, my friends Yang and Angelo, and my sister, who's a UST alumna. However, Hanks backed out at the last minute because she's been having ear problems, and she was afraid she couldn't take the noise level of a UAAP basketball game.

It was a good thing she didn't join us because we wound up getting seats right below the Blue Babble Band, and for some reason their drums were extra L-O-U-D yesterday. Each time the band struck up their drums to start a cheer, we would jump in surprise. Clutching my chest, I told my friends ruefully, "I think we're getting too old for this!", to which old man Angelo retorted, "Uy, kayo lang a!" Indeed, we cheered more loudly than the kids sitting in front of us, who would sometimes turn around to glance bemusedly at the shrieking banshees in blue behind them. The Ateneo school spirit gets stronger with age, even if our hearts can't handle the pounding of the Babble drums.

Angge had taken Hanks' ticket (because Mike passed on it, tsk tsk), and I think she's lucky for Ateneo because the one time she watched a game with us last season, we had won as well. This time our boys didn't do it in as dramatic a fashion, but it was still a close fight, and at one point in the 3rd quarter, UST clawed back from a 10-point deficit to snatch the lead from us. Ateneo took it back, but the Tigers kept nipping at our heels all the way to the 4th, until the Eagles soared high in the end-game, holding them to a single measly field goal during the last 5 minutes of play. Jai Reyes' 3-pointer, which came with less than 30 seconds left on the game clock, was the cherry on top of our sweet Sunday (pun intended), and sealed the victory for the White and Blue.

Yesterday's game had almost as much excitement as an Ateneo-La Salle game, but with less of the animosity. Though the Coliseum was not jam-packed, both sides' supporters turned up by the thousands, the sea of blue facing the wash of yellow. I always feel a bit torn whenever we go up against UST, and yesterday was no different, as I occasionally found my foot tapping to the beat of their drums. But when all is said and done, I bleed blue, and I was exultant Ateneo finished their first round of the season at the top of the rankings. Props to Nonoy Baclao for his solid defense, Rabeh Al-Husseini for his consistency and reliability (he has my vote for most improved player!), Jai Reyes for his revived shooting and speed, Eric Salamat for his wily steals (and for playing with a broken jaw), Ryan Buenafe for his aggressive attacks, and Chris Tiu for... well, being Chris Tiu. Never mind how we're all stymied as to what kind of debt of gratitude Norman Black owes Leo Austria which might explain his persisting in fielding Bacon Austria, who is quickly becoming this batch's Badjie del Rosario (heck, same jersey number!).

Don't look for any philosophical musings on winning or losing, sentimental gushings on how much I love Ateneo, or political views on how the UAAP has been (mis)handling this simmering sinister stew of game-fixing, referee suspensions and FEU player Mac Baracael's shooting, which is just about to reach boiling point and spill over in a big gloopy mess. I'll reserve all that for a future blog entry. I just wanted to recap what was a great game, AND have a convenient excuse to post some pix here (because if I wait until I finish uploading my Europe vacation photos on Multiply, the UAAP season will be over). We're only halfway through the season, and there's still a long road ahead for the Blue Eagles. But we'll be there cheering them on every step of the way. ONE BIG FIGHT!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Solo flight

I started composing this blog post using a PC in one of the business class lounges in Hong Kong International Airport while waiting for my 9:40PM flight back to Manila. I was in HK for 2 days to take part in a seminar conducted by Arrow's US principal. I spent the first day, carry-on trolley bag in tow, roaming Harbour City and Ocean Terminal, window-shopping, buying bilin stuff (Yang and Ria's Pilot Frixion pens, among others), and eating a basket of xiaolongbao by myself. I was killing time until my cousin Kevin arrived on his flight from Manila; he's been working in HK for almost 2 years now, and I crashed at his flat for the one night I was in town. The following day I attended the seminar that lasted until 4PM, shared a cab to the Airport Express station with the licensee from Arrow Thailand, and because it was still early, whiled away 2 hours shopping in Elements and buying edible pasalubong for my family before catching the train to the airport.

Traveling alone is one of my rarest luxuries and greatest thrills. It's incredibly liberating not being accountable to or for anyone while exploring a foreign city. Granted, this trip I didn't exactly do any "exploring" in the strictest sense of the word, but even making my way from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central by myself to meet up with Kev for dinner had a sense of adventure about it (and trust me, with my horrible sense of direction, it was more adventurous than it sounds). Shopping is also an activity I sometimes prefer doing by my lonesome, especially when I'm fitting clothes, so I can take my sweet time deciding (no, I don't always appreciate having a second opinion available). I also love being in an airport alone (although I've been known to attract unwanted attention from, um, overly friendly men). Walking through a busy terminal makes me feel like an independent woman of the world. As a bonus, in the waiting lounge and in the plane I get to catch up on my reading (Love in the Time of Cholera, done at last!). Moreover, traveling solo allows me a lot of time for reflection, and after the month I've had, this "me" time was just what I needed to get the clutter in my head straightened out a bit. That I was in my favorite city on the planet also helped tremendously-- just being in HK gives me a natural high.

My plane back to Manila touched down around 11:30PM. In the car on the way home from the airport, it dawned on me that I had just said goodbye to July, and August was upon me. As tiring as my short trip to HK was, I felt it did me a lot of good because I managed to get rid of some baggage (the figurative kind), as well as recharge my batteries (maybe not physically, but at least emotionally). Now I'm finally starting to find the strength to get excited about everything that lies ahead this month, and the possibilities that lie therein and beyond. Ultimately, I think that's the underlying, enervating essence of traveling alone: feeling like I can take on the world.