By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
Ask any Olympic athlete, and you will find that the road to Beijing this summer was an intense and difficult journey. The language barrier and international skepticism only added to the stress during the actual events.
Charlotte Wang of Olympia, Wash., experienced this intensity firsthand, but not as an athlete.
Nearly 10 years after arriving in the United States, Wang returned to her native China as a translator with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
Beginning just after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, remembering when China lost the bid for the 2000 games, Wang was certain that she would return to China as part of the next Olympics, as a way to serve her adopted country.
She contacted athletes and marketed herself as a translator in Beijing.
Initially, swimmer Michael Phelps brought her on board, offering to pay. However, when the USOC contacted her to join 34 other volunteers, she immediately jumped at the opportunity.
“I got zero dollars, but some things you just cannot measure by money,” she said. “I felt it was a way to pay back Americans and serve the U.S. in my native country.”
She remembers the kindness, tolerance and open-mindedness she observed in Americans from the very beginning.
“It was a perfect way to commemorate my 10 years in America,” she said.
Wang’s history of volunteerism runs deep. In 2005, she was chosen as The Olympian’s Volunteer of the Year for her involvement with the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs. She was initially introduced to the program while at college in Iowa.
Her commitment paid off when she was the only USOC translator to be invited to the White House in October to meet with President Bush and other athletes at an Olympian recognition event.
“For a new immigrant, it was a real honor,” she said.
Although she had visited China once, between leaving in August 1998 and arriving at the 2008 Summer Olympics, she noticed significant changes.
“The country really sped up in the last 10 to 15 years,” she said. “The individual changes just can’t be pinpointed.”
Growing up in Dalian, China, she noticed buildings that she would call “matchbox” because of their lack of creativity. Now, however, buildings are being developed using very creative ideas, for instance the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest.”
“China is a great place to be right now, because the government is sponsoring creative ideas,” she said. “You see construction everywhere.”
While China initially didn’t talk about the profits from the Olympics, she believes the Olympics will have a long-lasting effect on the Chinese economy.
“The heat of economic development will continue through the post-Olympic period,” she said. “Even in small towns, people now have the drive to earn money.”
As a first-generation immigrant, Wang believes it’s always hard.
“You have to leave where you have roots, and you experience culture shock,” she said.
When she returned to China, she experienced another “culture shock” because of the changes in such things like vocabulary to describe new technologies.
“There are more things that are challenging traditional Chinese values now,” she said of the changes. “More people are driving and moving around. The one-child policy is also becoming a big social issue for employment reasons.”
But in general, she feels the change in China is for the better because people are seeking education.
She remembers seeing “tons of people in bookstores,” something that reminded her of how “Americans take a lot of things [like education] for granted.”
“The whole atmosphere changed for Beijing,” she said. “The city was really committed to the Olympics. It’s just like San Francisco or New York, but cleaner.” ♦
Irfan Shariff can be reached at email@example.com.