Root, Root, Root for the Away Team

By Francesco Sisci
Sunday, August 17, 2008

BEIJING The Olympic Games aren't just a show for me; they're a family affair, and one that's turning out quite differently from what I'd expected. I'm Italian, but I've lived in China for about 20 years. My wife is Chinese -- and very patriotic -- and my two daughters grew up here. When they were small they knew that they were half-Italian, but when a Beijing taxi driver recently asked Maria, the younger one, "How do you say Italian in Italian?", she whispered to me in Chinese: "Dad, how do I say it in Italian?"

So you can imagine my state of mind before these games. I thought we all had to be very patriotic -- that is, pro-China.

But when my mother announced before the games that she hoped that China would win the most medals, my wife, Luoyan, looked at me as if my mother had said something inappropriate. "Well," she replied, "I hope that China comes in second and America will be first."

She's not alone. There's a sizable undercurrent of hope here that the United States will top the medal rankings.

Yes, I know all about China's great enterprise to win more medals than the United States, how much it has invested in sports such as crew and weightlifting that hardly anyone here does, and its efforts to show the world what a great and responsible power China is becoming. But beneath all this is the fact that of all the countries in the world, it is the United States that China and the Chinese care about most.

Chinese support for America is certainly partly pragmatic; China's athletes are not as strong as the Americans, and in a fair fight, the United States should still win. The subtle reluctance to win may also be related to China's being host of the games; by coming in first, China would look like a showoff. It could also be part of an idea that sport stands for economic and political might, and China knows that it certainly can't challenge American supremacy, at least not yet.

"It's not our moment. It would be too ambitious and too unreal to be the first in the Olympics now," said a friend of mine at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's premier think tank. "Many people, even among the leaders, think like this."

But to me, the Chinese attitude speaks of something deeper and also more difficult to put into words. The Chinese really look up to the United States. It's hard for them to admit, proud as they are of their 5,000 years of continuous culture, but they do.

Take my family again: I may be a Westerner, but my wife, the patriotic Chinese, is the pro-American one. When our older daughter, Ninan, decided that she wanted to study film in college, I said, "Wonderful," and started scheming to find her a place in China's Central Academy of Film or at a school in Italy. The Italian film industry is good. After all, we gave the world Dino De Laurentiis and Sophia Loren.

"No," said my wife, "Ninan should go to the United States, because the best schools are there." I don't know what it's like in America, but here in Beijing, it's impossible for a man to win an argument with his wife, especially over the children. So off Ninan went, to New York University. She graduated this year, but does she want to come home? Does she want to go to Italy? No.

I'm heartbroken, but my wife has no qualms: Ninan is in New York; she's fine.

I sought out a Chinese friend who sports the English name George. He's a successful businessman and also very patriotic, despite his new name. For him, China is the land of opportunity, the place where you can try your luck and succeed on your merits. I was sure that George would support me.

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