A Chinese volunteer told me that the Chinese wanted the Olympics to be "shi quan shi mei" (10 complete and 10 beautiful). He likened this to raising a small child whom you want to be perfect. But how do you feel when that child has grown up and left the house?
The day after the closing ceremony, the quiet melancholy building inside me breaks as I realize that many athletes, spectators and Olympic personnel are already gone. Last night, people celebrated in the streets; lines waiting to enter nightclubs on Sanlitun spilled onto the sidewalk. Just a day later, the entertainment districts are quiet. Seven long years of preparation are over in two short weeks.
I worry about losing that Game-time high: the tense build-up to the Opening Ceremony; athletes breaking world records; the raw pride of Chinese volunteers; the diligence of every Chinese person involved in the Games; rooting for the underdog; running into athletes around town; enjoying blue sky days; working daily with people from countries I'd only heard of; being part of history; and showing off a city that I love, too. I ask some Chinese if they feel the same sense of loss. What I hear most of is talk of happiness, success, pride, confidence, relief and even indifference.
Happiness and Success:
"Of course I'm thrilled that the Games were successful. And I'm happy about what this means for future generations: more affluence and more funding for sports and sports research." -- a BOCOG official.
"I feel joyful! Not sad. The successful Olympic Games proves that China is more open. At the same time, I think we must continue to develop the countryside. The common people need to stand up. I hope you foreigners will come back to help us do that." -- an elderly man who I meet in a hutong.
"I'll still be happy when the Games are over. This is a one-in-a-hundred-years chance." -- a security guard at Tsinghua University.
"This was close to perfect. The people who put so much hard work and devotion into it should feel proud. China won lots of medals, and the organization was good." -- a male IBC volunteer.
"I feel more confident now, both in myself and in my studies. As a volunteer I've been able to touch society. Plus China broke so many records. I don't feel sad. I feel fulfilled." -- a female volunteer who I meet in Chaoyang District.
"The Olympics has helped China to feel confident about its status in the world. We have achieved so much." -- a man from Henan who I met on the subway. (Note: it's not often that Chinese people start conversations with me on the subway. This man eagerly approached me. I wonder if his reference to "China's confidence" is actually a reflection of his own, too.)
"I'm glad the Olympics are almost over so that I can get back to my own life and do my own things." -- a volunteer at Tsinghua University's basketball practice venue.
"I'm so relieved it ran smoothly." -- a Chinese university student.
"Whether it's over or not is all the same to me. But there will probably be more traffic on the streets again." -- a Beijing taxi driver.
Perhaps it's too early to feel melancholy; instead, China is enjoying the afterglow. And although empty nest sometimes hits later when least expected, China, propelled forward by economic growth and broadened international interest, has already moved on with more experience and confidence than ever before. Up next in September are the Paralymics in Beijing and the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin. In 2010, Shanghai will host the World Expo. With more guests to invite and more parties to plan, there's likely no need for China to mourn.