First, you must smile. Always smile. A smile is the image of Beijing. A smile is the most important thing,” says Sheng Jingjing, 21, during a break at the Beijing Union University college.
Olympics volunteer Sheng — who believes that the most famous thing about India are its Miss Worlds — has spent her free time studying smiling (literally) and hospitality ever since she was selected as a volunteer last year. “When Beijing won the Olympics host bid in July 2001, I was in junior school. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a volunteer,” she says. Sheng cleared examinations on sports, Olympics knowledge, English and psychological tests to prove that she had the aptitude for three or more shifts a day.
Poised: (from left) Volunteers Sheng Jingjing, Ou Jian and Sun Wen Hui will get ‘encouraging food’ for smiling through long hours on duty.
Half a million volunteers, chosen from more than a million applicants, will serve in the Beijing Olympics in August, and the Paralympics in September. Four hundred thousand volunteers will man 500 information desks.
Volunteer Sun Wen Hui looks forward to a government job with a “stable salary” that tops the wish list of most Chinese students. But Sheng, who visited the US last year, and downloads episodes of the American sitcom Friends, wants to study abroad. Her week-long volunteer training camp for the Olympics last winter was a test of endurance. “The teachers gave us lots of hot water to drink because it was so cold while we practised in the open air,” she said.
During the mass training, an exercise on a scale unprecedented in Olympics history, Sheng learnt that if foreigners asked her a question, she should smile, bow a little with hands folded in front, and answer. At airports and hotels, she must say, “Welcome to Beijing, how was your trip?” and “Have a nice day.” In training sessions for medal carriers and flower bearers (our request to meet medal presenters and attend a training session was turned down), girls have clocked in hours practising the perfect six-teeth smile.
The training division is led by Professor Sun Baoli, who teaches the Olympic movement at the Beijing Sports University. Sun declined this writer’s requests to visit her office. We sat on metal chairs in the spartan lobby below her office as she listed volunteer qualities: “Training in Chinese culture, cross-culture, etiquette, English and a few sentences each of 10 foreign languages.”
Sheng, whose world view has been shaped by movies such as Oliver Twist and Little Women, learnt fast. She thinks Olympics duty is a source of “spiritual benefit”. She will get three blue T-shirts, a pair of shoes and a hat. The leaders have also promised rewards of “encouraging food”. A promise that makes Sheng smile at the thought of Snicker bars.