I am in the midst of reading this fantastic new book, Tom Scocca’s “Beijing Welcomes You.” It’s about China’s capital city during the years leading up to and during the 2008 Olympic Games.
I was there myself, covering the Games for the Rocky Mountain News, and reading Scocca’s account, I find myself experiencing some very unusual flashbacks. As I read along, I constantly find myself saying, “Hey, didn’t something like that happen to me?”
And then I start wondering, “Wait, was I there when this happened?”
The parallels between our experiences are eerie. I find myself reading Scocca’s stories and flashing back to events that I did not personally experience but that so closely mirror my personal experience that I can almost predict the upcoming dialogue as I read along.
It’s a “Twlight Zone”-style warp I find myself in, it seems.
Take these two selections. The first is from Scocca, as he attempts to get an official media credential from the Chinese:
I turned around again, to Window 38. To one side was an unattended stack of application forms. I took out a pen and began to fill one out. I was halfway through when the case officer reappeared, now inside Window 38, looking down at me. Did I have a residence registration form? he asked. I did not. Then the local police would have to issue me one, he said, and I would have to come back with it.
Also, he said, you can’t fill out the form with that pen. He pointed to the instructions at the top of the form, which said, in English, to use “blue or black ink pen.” My pen was black, a medium-point Paper-Mate, the pen I always carried. The ink was black; the plastic casing was black. I held it up. See, I said, it’s a black ink pen.
That’s not a black ink pen, the officer said.
I handed it over. He took it and made a few test scribbles, black marks on the paper. He handed the pen back dismissively.
This is not a black ink pen, he said. This is a ballpoint.
I was defeated.
And here’s what I wrote about my own press credential drama in July 2008:
Another American journalist came, too. His name is not important. What is important is that he owns media in several large countries, countries that you’d want to control when playing Risk. His passport was thicker than a Robert Caro LBJ volume. But the Chinese were also giving this CEO a hard time about his visa….
John [the bureaucrat handling the credentials] explained the letters needed for the visa application. He looked at the CEO. “The CEO of your company must sign this letter,” he said.
“I am the CEO,” the CEO responded.
“Well, the letter must be signed by the CEO,” John replied. “But the CEO’s signature cannot be from you.”
The CEO shot me a look. Welcome, I told him, to Dante’s innermost circle of hell: limbo.
So I read on in Scocca’s book, each page sucking me further into this weird state of déjà vu. His stories and my recollections are starting to blend together. Where his words end and my memories begin, I’m not really sure anymore.