The Memory of a Century

By Lee Ann Song

I titled this piece “The Memory of a Century” because of the two events that impacted me the most on this trip. One happy and one sad. But both events that no one has dreamed of happening in a 100 years.

The first is the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Who would have thought that in just seven short years, China could blossom into such a beautiful country, fit to host the Olympic games? I feel the pride, the compassion and the eagerness of the Chinese people. And it makes me feel proud too.

That year I volunteered at Qinhuangdao for the torch relay. Being swept up in the spirit, sweating with the others, preparing the world for the greatest experience it has seen. Why, that was my honor and a memory I will always cherish.


The second event happened in the midst of this happy Olympic preparation— the Szechuan earthquake. Such a horrific and tragic event. Imagine innocent children sitting in classrooms when suddenly the entire building collapses on them and they are buried there, dead, forever. Imagine homes destroyed, lives ruined, people displaced in just one instant. Yet their lives will never be the same.

These are the times when the strength of the Chinese people becomes evident. Together the civilians, military and president worked to fix the damage. They provided quick relief and allowed the Olympic games to continue. And it still amazes me…the power of nature and the power of people.

Upon arriving in Qinhuangdao, my first goal was to hold a charity concert for the earthquake victims in Szechuan. Since the government recently prohibited large gatherings due to Olympic safety concerns, my recital was held in secret. The people managing the music school went out of their way to have me perform. And when I played, I felt all the music rush to me, it felt so good to capture the hearts of all those piano students sitting in the audience. I was happy to share the music with them. Watching the awe and inspiration on their faces was enough.


They had a chance to ask me questions and get my autograph and, honestly, I admired them more than they could ever admire me. I hope that I gave them the courage to pursue their musical dreams too. I ended the recital by donating 1000 yuan to the earthquake victims and dedicating Bach’s somber Suite No. 2 to those who died in the quake.

My first experience with the Olympics began as a volunteer in Qinhuangdao, China. Being under the age of 18, it was hard to find me a suitable position. Though I did not have a pass to the stadiums, I was assigned to the conference room where I watched all the officials meet every day, each one so dedicated to make the Olympics a success.

The biggest concern for the torch relay in Qinhuangdao was the safety and comfort of the torch bearers. I think everywhere I go, the thing that strikes me the most, are the people I meet. The Chinese especially, are the warmest, most hospitable people I have ever met. Their intentions are true and their selflessness is astonishing. Though all the other volunteers were in college, they were all eager to learn more about me and my life in America.

My English gave me at times, opportunities to act as a translator. Almost immediately, I was adopted fondly as their “American little sister”. Working with them gave me more confidence and they made each moment of the experience interesting.

We did whatever work came into the headquarters, sometimes just standing outside in the heat counting up flags and shirts for the spectators or sponsor companies. The work may have been tedious at times but the time flew because I was surrounded by all my new friends. And when I look back, I am so proud to have been a part of an event so great.

I walked away with a twinge of regret, wishing I could have done just a little bit more to help them through this incredible journey. This is something I will remember for the rest of my life—the devoted organizers, the hard-working volunteers, and all of their smiling faces in my memories, for we were all proud to be a part of something so monumental.

Watching the Olympics was a whole other experience. I stared at disbelief at the power unity among the Chinese people. Beginning with the Opening Ceremony, I felt a surge of excitement, awe and wonder of awaited us. The dazzling performance was beyond anything I could imagine. I can’t pinpoint exactly what I was feeling as I watched the performances, but it felt something like pride. I have never felt more connected to my culture, my roots in this way.

China’s four great creations were all displayed cleverly, beautifully and harmoniously through each performance and it brought joy to my heart even as I watched from home. I had seen China just a few years ago. The pollution, the chaos, the utter lack of order and class were a shock to my young eyes. Their customs were so much different than ours. The sanitation and construction then made China seem messy and undeveloped to me.

I have been to the poorest villages of my great grandfather’s hometown, where he lived essentially under a straw roof, with sheets of stone as his floor. There he lived, without air conditioning or a refrigerator until he was 93. That to me, was an astonishing feat! Now my great aunt lives there; the house has been remodeled, cleaned, and you can hardly tell what it once was.

I went to Shanghai this year to visit my cousins, and there, the buildings grow like grass. Skyscrapers taller than those in New York tower over the city. Cars crowd the streets and people swarm the streets. Even Shanghai had changed so much from the way I used to remember it. In both these places and places all over China, I see this rapid development unfold before my eyes.

The people have a new story to tell now. A brighter one. They are living in better conditions, they are adopting more Western customs, and I think that on the day of the Olympics, China spread its wings and soared high in the sky, for the world to admire.

Watching the women’s soccer quarterfinals in Qinhuangdao was my first time inside the mysterious soccer stadium. At first I was blinded by the bright lights and as my eyes adjusted, I looked around, hardly able to believe that so many people could crowd the stands to watch. The roar of the crowd was deafening. The game was between China and Argentina, both teams playing their very hardest. Watching the game live brought a whole different atmosphere. The atmosphere was tense, but in the end, China prevailed winning with a 2-0 lead.

Bird’s Nest Stadium

I felt a surge of joy as I heard the Chinese national anthem and watched thousands of Chinese people sing with undeniable pride. In the next two days, I got a call from a friend in Beijing who offered me tickets to the experience of a lifetime. I got the opportunity to go inside the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest!

The Olympic park was beautiful and filled with museums to visit and sites to see. Of course, the Water Cube’s bubbly exterior made it irresistibly tempting to touch. It was indeed a soft, squishy texture, like there was air between the two walls. Inside, the large lap pool and tall diving towers were the first to capture my attention. I watched the women’s diving preliminaries in awe as each diver cut through the water with such clean precision.

It was touching to watch the Chinese people cheer wholeheartedly for each diver, regardless of their country or race. For me, it didn’t matter, I cheered when China did well and I cheered when the USA did well. It just wasn’t that important anymore. Watching each person do a dive they practiced for years, all for this moment, I wished they could all win.

That’s when it really occurred to me, how much the Olympic Games do indeed bring people all over the world together. For once, we’re not arguing or fighting for a place in this world, we’re simply watching some sports games and it doesn’t matter where we are from anymore.

I’m not sure what I expected the inside of the Bird’s Nest to look like. Judging from its outer appearance, with stray metal rods jutting out at odd angles, I suppose I expected the inside to be just as disorganized. But inside, the ceiling panels were smooth, the circle of spectators was gigantic, and the atmosphere was once again filled with excitement.

Track and field was held in the Bird’s Nest and so after climbing up five flights of stairs, I was finally seated inside that breath-taking structure, ready to watch the magnificent games unravel before my eyes. Men’s hammer throw, men’s high jump, women’s triple jump, women’s 100m and 4x400m, 400m with hurdles, and men’s 1000m races were all held in the Bird’s Nest, sometimes two events were held simultaneously. Every moment was exciting and I could hardly stand to blink, for one could miss a lot in the blink of an eye.

Once again, I saw people from all over the world, together, in the same nest, the same home, cheering for the same thing. There was peace above the din. I watched those men and women run the fastest they’ve ever run, breaking records along the way, jump as high and as far as they could to reach the stars and their dreams.

The determination and desire are evident in their expressions and the smiles of The Memory of a Century victories are so heart wrenchingly beautiful. The Olympics is the greatest thing that has happened in China for a long time and such a successful one too! From here, China, the world, and everyone in it can only move forward with these memories always close to their hearts.

The athletes, spectators, and friends are the greatest part of the Olympics. The camaraderie between people of all nations, regardless of race, religion, or governmental systems, makes the world feel just a little smaller. They’ve inspired me to run faster toward my goals, to take those great leaps of faith, and to jump as high as them, so that I too can reach those stars, so that I too, can live my dreams.

Lee Ann Song (The Truth June 8, 2011), cellist with the Toledo Youth Orchestra, has traveled around the world with that group. She recently graduated from Southview High School and will be attending Harvard College in the fall.