BEIJING — The boy sprinted down the broken concrete of the narrow alley, and to all the world, his was the face of China itself.
Joy was fixed upon the young boy's features. Excitement, perhaps. Certainly there was hope.
Deep inside the Dashizuo Hutong, the boy chased after the rickshaw ahead of him, the way his country once chased after these Olympic Games, the way much of China seems to be chasing after Western recognition. Finally, the boy caught up to the bicycle taxi, and in a bold leap, he jumped onto the back of it.
"Hello," he said, leaning over the seat. "What is your name?"
You tell him, and he drops off his perch, seeming happy that he has been recognized, yet offering no information of his own. This, too, seems to be part of China, a nation that is finally willing to open its doors, yet once you are inside, it refuses to turn on more lights than absolutely necessary.
It is such a mystery, this nation. Because of a lifetime of cultural references, you can imagine what it must be like to be in London if you have never been anywhere near the place. It is not a stretch to picture life in Paris or Rome or even Moscow.
But China? Who knows anything about China? For all its history, all its population, can you name a dozen people from China?
Over the next 17 days that may change. Because of the Olympics, the rest of the planet is about to be deluged with images from a country that has spent most of its history in the shadows.
A flash of guilt
What does China look like?
In a way, it looks like the bald street vendor a hundred yards from Tiananmen Square, whose eyes flash with economic opportunity as he sees you exit your taxi. Other street vendors are there, selling guide books and souvenirs to other visitors, but for some reason, he latches onto you.
"Chairman Mao watch?" he asks. "Ten dollars, U.S."
No, you tell him, and you begin to walk away. He follows, showing the face of the watch. It is colorful, with Mao in his green shirt on a red background. His arm serves as the second hand.
"See," the vendor says. "He is saying 'hello … hello … hello.' "
You shake your head and continue to walk toward the square. "Eight dollars," he says. "Seven? Six? Five?"
Finally, he gives up. And the strangest thing happens. A hundred yards away, you begin to wish you had bought the darned watch.
What does China look like? It is a huge, modern city beneath a gray sheet of smog that, despite the country's best efforts, will not go away. It is as much of a contradiction as the basketball court in front of the Forbidden City. It is cramped stores with Chinese lettering, but every so often, one will also have its name in English. It is an ancient temple a few hundred yards from a KFC restaurant.
Every now and then, you can see its foot in the door of capitalism. McDonald's are scattered around. A few Starbucks and a Pizza Hut and a T.G.I. Friday's. Yes, there is even a Hooters.
Then there is the local fare, most often with rice or noodles and a piece of fish. The braised squid isn't bad. The Singapore rice — a spicy fried rice concoction — is terrific.
And if you are wondering, no, there have not been any scorpion tastings on the Times' expense report. Not yet.
Perhaps you have heard of it by now. There is a critter cart listed as fast food around here, where a tourist can dine on cicadas or silkworms or sea horses, on goat's lung soup or dog's brains or starfish. But it doesn't seem that the locals eat such food very often, either.
Spirit and pride
What does China look like? Perhaps it looks like a little girl in the Forbidden City.
She stood on the steps of the emperor's palace, wearing a traditional headdress. Suddenly, she flashed the peace sign with her right hand and a No. 1 sign with her left.
Yeah, that's China. Caught up with the Olympic spirit on one hand, filled with national pride on the other.
It seems ready for visitors. Walking near the Gate of Heavenly Purity, a man taps you on the shoulder. He points to his daughter and asks if you can take a picture.
Certainly, you say, and reach for his camera. And he shakes his head. He wants a picture of his daughter with you. A half-dozen photos later, he shakes your hand.
Near the elegance of the Forbidden City are ancient streets called hutongs. You sit in the back as the man on the bike pedals, and you feel as if you are a thousand miles, and a thousand years, from the Olympics.
The neighborhood is 700 years old, says Gao Zeng, the driver. He shows you the poor homes, where 20 families live in a complex, and the rich ones, where one family lives.
"The poor families have 5 square meters," he says. "The rich ones have 500."
Everyone seems to be outdoors. An old woman fans herself. A young one washes laundry in a plastic bowl. Two children sit with a woman and eat rice from a bowl. A man sleeps on a piece of cardboard. Two shirtless men sit at a table and play mah-jongg. Chinese flags hang from above.
What does China look like? It looks like three dozen soldiers marching down a sidewalk in formation. It looks like a cabdriver looking at the Chinese address as if he doesn't speak the language, either. It looks like a teenage boy wearing a Kevin Garnett T-shirt as he enters the Jun Wang Fu Sports Center.
Most of all, China looks like the proud, satisfied face of Wu Kun as he stands in Tiananmen Square.
"This country is not the sick man of Asia anymore," he said. "We don't think all foreigners have horns and tails. We all are human. And we are saying, 'Welcome to Beijing, welcome to China, welcome to our home.' "