An unexpected stay in China prompts Deadspin managing editor Tom Scocca to set off on a multi-year odyssey inside the Olympic host-to-be in Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling The Capital City Of The Future, a travelogue whose territory is largely contained within the city’s famous Ring Roads. After his wife was offered a job in Beijing, Scocca (then a reporter in New York) arrived as a casual visitor, but gradually extended his visits while watching China’s preparations for the 2008 Summer Games, during which the city turned itself inside out in a fever of demolition and reconstruction to prepare for its worldwide debut. In the book, Scocca watches as his block is torn apart by backhoes, local grocery stores disappear, and a gargantuan block of luxury apartments cut off the sky view from his apartment. Relying on friends and out-of-context Chinese lessons to penetrate the doubletalk of local officials, Scocca skulks around the construction sites of future venues, stands by the missile line at a countryside weather-control site, and is confronted everywhere with the intrusively cheerful slogan “Beijing Welcomes You”—even as he, his wife and their newborn son endure high-pollution days and visa woes.
Tracking his experience on the dual planes of resident and journalist, Scocca explodes the dichotomous East-vs.-West narrative that’s endemic to reports from China by capturing at close range the ways the Olympic improvements shaped and disrupted the lives of ordinary Beijingese, and how those misdirections affected the face that the government wanted the city to present to the outside. The occasional Kafkaesque eddy of bureaucracy and permissions (and one alarmingly smooth path toward receiving a foreign driver’s license) prevents him from being too comfortable in this role: He alludes to a problem with authorities so toxic, he can only leave a blank space where it might be included in his narrative, but that doesn’t stop him from obsessively seeking the old China dressed in new clothes, reporting with exhaustive sensory detail on subjects as diverse as the taste of starfish at a night market and the sound produced by the columns of the Bird’s Nest stadium.
The seemingly never-ending string of mascots China introduces in the name of the Olympic spirit and as figureheads of public civility become Beijing Welcomes You’s stand-ins for China’s efforts to win the world’s respect for a superlative Olympic Games, while culturally resisting easy characterization — focus-grouped and carefully arranged in theory, adding layers of chaos (and marketing opportunities) in practice. In tracking the last-minute cobbling-together of the Games, Scocca creates suspense around a Summer Olympics that has already been consigned to history, and offers an engrossing picture of a place that resists even his efforts to know it better.