BEIJING – With a dog curled at his feet, Ying Zi Ten sits on a tiny stool in his closet-sized convenience store and contemplates a world that seemingly gets bigger by the day.
His place occupies the front of an ancient, one-story building. He lives in it with his wife here in Beijing's humble HouHai District, a tightly packed neighborhood just a few miles but a world away from the modern, steel-and-glass downtown.
If the Beijing Olympics are about casting attention on China's hurtle into the world economy, then this is a glimpse into the old. If the focus is on big industry, then this is the smallest of business. It is subsistence store keeping with Ying the most modest of merchants.
You could buy the entire inventory in his store for maybe 300 American dollars, if that. A pack of Marlboro Reds costs about a buck and a quarter.
Ying Zi Ten and his dog in his humble store in the ancient HouHai district of Beijing.
Ying Zi Ten has every reason to fear the future and cast a disparaging eye on those opulent, government-supported downtown malls, the ones with designer brands, food courts and more workers than shoppers. He could see the bustling, Western-style entertainment district that's developed nearby as an encroachment on tradition.
He could decry the Olympics, which by forcing a cut in car traffic, he says, has hurt his business. For him, the Games will be little more than programming on the beat-up, black-and-white TV he keeps behind the counter.
He could even appear troubled by the government's pre-Olympics relocation efforts, which plowed over neighborhoods such as his simply because the land was needed or the buildings were considered eyesores. If someone had decided a highway should cut through HouHai, then Ying and his little store would have been gone.
He does none of that. At 53, the future is too massive to comprehend, yet he is a realist. The Olympics are good, he says. The cost is worth it.
"Until this, there was nothing exciting that ever happened in Beijing," he said Wednesday through a translator.
Around the world, there are grave concerns about these Summer Games. Awarding them to China despite tragic records on pollution, human rights and worker safety was the ultimate sellout by the International Olympic Committee.
The sinking feeling has only gotten worse with the daily reports of crackdowns against protestors, the denied visa of human rights advocate and Olympic medalist Joey Cheek and the censoring of Internet sites. None of it appears to have dampened the mood of locals.
While the most outspoken critics are potentially jailed and others clearly would fear speaking out, nearly two dozen people all across the city – even in the-nothing-to-lose back alleys of austere neighborhoods – voiced their universal support for the Games.
A street scene in Beijing's Dongcheng District.
In the run-up to Friday's Opening Ceremony, Beijing is a city of hope, of smiling faces, of optimism about the future. The smog may be thick here, but the excitement seems to cut through it.
Ying Zi Ten has no reason to support the Olympics. He could have anonymously complained. He didn't. If nothing else, the government – aided by state-run media – has so sold the people on its mission that they back developments that run against their interests.
"The big malls, I do worry it will affect our business," Ying said of the building spree. "But I believe if you need a smoke, you don't go to a mall. You'll come to the closest place.
"It'll work out."
Around the corner, 26-year-old Lin Yang is in the small corner bar he opened a year ago. It is an eclectic and inviting place, offering everything from Jack Daniels to free wireless Internet, which drew in one young woman using a sparkling new Sony Vaio laptop.
His is the generation embracing these fast-paced times. His father spent a lifetime working blue-collar jobs in the shipping industry. The idea of owning a business – let alone one at such a young age – was impossible.
Entrepreneur Lin Yang, 26, at his new bar in Beijing.
"First generation," Lin smiles.
Perhaps most revealing are Lin's ambitions, which don't end with this little place. This is his first bar, the one he left a job in advertising to build. Eventually he wants to own a large club, with the latest techno music and big crowds. Maybe own a few of them.
He is an entrepreneur who sees the Games as a milestone; a starting point even, not a finish line. The fact that the government has done anything to address smog or traffic is a major step in the right direction.
"China has the potential to be a lot better," he said. "We are heading in that direction."
Outside his big front window, people are slowly pedaling by on bicycles. For all the talk of booming car sales and the increased traffic on the wide streets of Beijing, the majority of people, especially here deep in the neighborhoods, ride their bikes on tiny paths laid out a thousand years ago. Across the way is a little tire repair shop, an old man putting patches on worn rubber and a line of people waiting their turn.
What is striking about the bikes isn't just their quantity as much as their pace. People ride slowly here, and not just to conserve energy. They also walk slowly and drive slowly.
No one in China appears to be in a rush, even during the grandest week in its most modern of ages. Things take time in Beijing, which means life in the countryside must be interminably slow. This country took 1,900 years, after all, to build the Great Wall, a national defense project made obsolete with the almost overnight invention of the military airplane.
The calls from the West, of course, are not simply for change, but rapid change. This is mostly fair. There shouldn't be a timetable for human rights, and the long-term effects of pollution demand immediate action. China's promises to the IOC in exchange for the Games should have been kept, rather than forgotten.
Yet in reality, progress can be slow.
"It's a long-term effort and we're making an effort," a 28-year-old businessman said in English while walking in the Wang Fu Jing downtown shopping district. Wearing a Michael Jordan Team USA shirt, he asked for anonymity for business reasons because speaking about the government can be risky.
"The Games have done much to improve air quality, the traffic status and the overall (way the city) is run," he said. "People's minds have to change to protect the environment, to improve their behavior. You have to change the mind first.
Smog hangs in the noon-time sky at the Wang Fu Jing shopping area in downtown Beijing.
"Let the world know (that) the Chinese have a great determination to do the changes. For us (this) is just a start to show the whole world."
To a person, the Chinese hoped the world would discover there is more to this country than big factories and dense air. This is a place that puts great value in family, has a commitment to kindness and treasures its uniqueness.
"The Chinese culture has so many small customs I hope the world will see," said university student Wang Dai Qiang, who was shopping downtown with friends. "Even as the Western culture is rushing in, the Chinese culture is overwhelming.
"We want to use the good of the West and use it in the way of our life."
The Chinese understand their history, which explains their willingness to accept their present shortcomings. There is an 1800s-in-America feel to the place, the Wild Wild West. Fortunes great and small are to be made as the possibilities open up. They'll worry about the effects of burning coal or worker safety or dissident speech, or what they've heard of it, later.
First, let's build, let's buy.
Perhaps their silence is bribery by Burberry. Perhaps it doesn't matter. They know how nothing happened here for generations. The idea of driving their own car, buying their fancy clothes, owning their own bar is enough to overlook so much.
It isn't so different from America. The rest of the world can look at Guantanamo Bay one way, we another way. For many people in many countries, sometimes the government has to commit some necessary evil we'd prefer not to think about. Everyone is guilty of situational ethics.
Here, the state media is mostly propaganda that brushes aside controversy. The people claim they understand there are problems, but who in the communist government would listen to them anyway, they ask?
Besides, when you've heard the sad tales of total oppression and hopeless rural poverty from your grandparents, jailed activists or limited Internet don't alarm. The fact anyone is mentioning them, acknowledging that it may be an issue at all, is actually something.
"It is (positive) to experience the negative (attention from the rest of the world) because it will improve Beijing and help its citizens," reasoned Wang, the college student.
So Ying Zi Ten sits in his little store, peddling smokes and snacks, not Cartier and Calvin. From a Chinese era slowly slipping away, he watches the world boom about him. He is powerless, but he doesn't care. The future, no matter how uncertain, has to be better than the past.
The Olympics, of all things, are about to begin in Beijing, of all places.
"This is our progress," he says.