Get a Taste of Beijing Homes During Olympics

by Hannah Punitha on Jul 29 2008 6:14 PM

During the Olympic Games Gao Benxu hopes to brush up his English by opening up his apartment to a family visiting from abroad as part of an Olympic homestay programme.

Gao, 67, lives with his 29-year-old daugther in an apartment duplex in which he is preparing to receive a foreign family after being selected as one of 598 successful families from 1,000 applications to join the homestay programme.

It makes financial sense for tourists to choose to stay at a Chinese home rather than in hotels with homestay accommodation costing under 80 dollars for a night against more than double that at even modest hotels in town.

Gao, a chatty pensioner, is more interested in meeting English speakers than making money. Thirty years ago, when China launched its reform and opening drive, Gao, a technician, started attending English conversation classes.

His efforts earned him a passport to work in Iraq from 1983-1985 during the Iran-Iraq war when he said he saw "lots of factories but no workers."

Since then the smiling pensioner who punctuates his words with loud laughter complained that he has had "only rare chances to use my English."

For him, the Olympics are a chance to get aquainted with the outside world again after so many years and to show visitors aspects of his own society.

"Beijing has always been a welcoming city," said Gao, who has lived through the transformation of his district from its ancien layout of narrow hutongs, or narrow lanes, and elegant courtyard homes to a jungle of apartments and high rise office blocks.

Gao is offering two bedrooms and is ready to take all comers.

"Europeans, Americans, southeast Asians, anyone is fine for me," he said.

Just in case, he has been reading up on cooking and has a kitchen stacked with books on western cuisine.

"They won't just be coming for the Olympics they will be coming to learn about Chinese society,' he said.

He is more than happy to share with them one of his lifelong passions -- Peking Opera.

"I love Beijing Opera," he said, before launching into a song.

In his district of Dongcheng in the east of the city, 59 families have been selected for the homestay programme.

Among them are households in traditional Beijing homes known as "siheyuan" -- walled compounds surrounding elegant courtyards. One of these belongs to 48-year-old businessman Wang Yi.

"My daughter wanted to be a volunteer but you have to be 18 and she was too young. So we decided to be an Olympic host family," said Wang.

There will be no problems of culture shock, he promised.

"Chinese are hospitable and warm. We will do our best to make the visitors feel at home here," he said.

On its website, the Dongcheng district said that the homestay host families had an important job.

They are "ambassadors for exchanges between the people during the Olympics" whose responsibility is to "leave magnificent memories and profound impressions."