Maja Tvrdy knew her Olympic journey wouldn't end up with a medal, but she looked forward to bringing home something really unique.
The 24-year-old Slovenian badminton player, after crashing out of the second-round singles of a sport with overwhelming Asian dominance on Aug. 10, found what she was looking for in a corner of the Athletes' Village, named the "Chinese Learning Area."
The Chinese tutors in the area helped Tvrdy find the Chinese equivalents to the Slovenian names of a dozen friends of hers back at home, before she wrote them down on paper of different colors with a brush pen -- by copying every movement of a tutor and struggling with the details of every stroke.
"I think my friend will like these small presents, which are from a different culture," said the blonde, who spent nearly two hours making them.
Since its opening on July 27, the "Chinese Learning Area" has received more than 1,000 visitors from 60 to 70 countries and regions, said Yao Yuan, deputy chief of the area.
The visitors are most interested in three things: to learn some basic Chinese such as "Ni Hao (hello)" "Xie Xie (thanks)" and "Zai Jian (goodbye)," get a Chinese name for themselves or their families and friends, and try some traditional Chinese calligraphy.
Twenty-six members in Yao's team work on shifts from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, but the number of visitors is growing as many competitions at the Games have concluded or entered the finals, giving the athletes more leisure time.
"We are always busy, and now we have to open at least half an hour earlier," said Yao. "But everyone is happy for that, because we also hope to see Chinese become a popular language internationally."
With a floor space of about 30 square meters, the "Chinese Learning Area" is brightly decorated with Chinese painting scrolls, Peking Opera facial masks and China knots, a traditional handicraft symbolizing good fortune. But most conspicuous is a large bookshelf loaded with Chinese-learning materials, and a wall to which more than a dozen brush-pen writings by the foreign learners, carrying either their Chinese names or their blessings to the host city and nation, are glued.
"Really not bad, right? Just think this was the first try for most of them," said Yao, who worked for the Great Wall Chinese Center under the Office of Chinese Language Council International before joining the Olympic service.
"The Beijing Olympics are an opportunity for the Chinese language to gain more popularity and for China to be better understood by foreigners," she said. "And we have a win-win situation here: you know, our service is completely free, while learning Chinese outside China could be quite difficult and costly."
In another example of such free service, the Office of Chinese Language Council International paid China Mobile to send a text short message to all mobile phone users in the Olympic Green, the central area of the Games, two days after the Games' opening.
"Learning Chinese, Enjoy Olympics," read the message, which taught the recipients four short phrases in Chinese, English and the Chinese pronunciation system of Pinyin.
A non-governmental body affiliated to China's Ministry of Education, the Office of Chinese Language Council International has been kept busy in recent years, as China's fast-growing economy and huge market potentials have lured foreign capital and created business opportunities, prompting more and more foreigners to learn the country's language.
Statistics showed that there were nearly 40 million non-Chinese learning the Chinese language in 2005, and the figure was growing by at least 10 million a year and expected to reach 100 million by 2010.
To help ease a severe shortage of Chinese language teachers out of China, the Office of Chinese Language Council International has cooperated with colleges worldwide to set up the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture teaching body named after the great ancient philosopher and educator who traveled across separated Chinese kingdoms 2,500 years ago to spread knowledge and peace.
By March 2008, 238 Confucius Institutes, mostly a combination of local teaching facilities and teachers sent from China, had been established in 69 countries and regions, according to the Office's website at hanban.edu.cn.
"While teaching Chinese overseas, we are also spreading the Chinese culture and demonstrating to the world that China is a country adoring peace and harmony and pursuing a peaceful development," said Xu Lin, the office director.
This might have been something too big for those foreign tourists and reporters, who have flooded into the Chinese capital in tens of thousands just to enjoy the Games. Nevertheless, knowing nothing about the host nation's language could be a thorn in their full enjoyment or even comfortable stay.
Some foreign spectators that witnessed the Games' opening ceremony in the National Stadium in north Beijing were completely puzzled when artistic director Zhang Yimou presented a performance showcasing China's ancient invention of movable-type printing, with a formation of some 900 men imitating the operation of a printer and creating the image of the Chinese character "He," which means "harmony," in different calligraphic styles.
An Italian reporter hurried to learn the secrets of the strokes that form a Chinese character, as the order of entry at the athletes' march-in was decided by the number of strokes of the first character of a delegation's Chinese name. "I have to explain to readers at home why Italy, usually entering in the middle of the parade, now walks near the end."
In a country where several hundred million people learn English but not many can listen or speak very well, the chance of "lost in translation" is still quite big.
The official website of Beijing traffic administration at bjjtgl.gov.cn has reported at least five cases in which the local traffic police helped foreigners getting lost on the city's bustling streets, including both tourists and journalists, to find their way back to the hotels. But none of the reports mentioned the foreigners' names, sometimes not even their nationalities, which indicated a lack of communication between the helpers and the helped.
Nichal Drwiega, doctor of the Polish swimming team, said that the Polish delegation had issued to every member a "small book" with some "survival Chinese" in it.
For Marko Nikolovski, a reporter of the Serbian newspaper Vesti, the "survival Chinese" is just in a reporter's notebook from the Games' official sponsor McDonald's, which has a page featuring "Practical Phrases for Visiting China."
But both said that so far they had only learned how to say "hello" in Chinese, having no time to learn other expressions.
In contrast, the Slovenian shuttler Tvrdy has expanded her Chinese vocabulary far beyond the need for survival, inducting phrases like "Wo Ai Ni (I love you)" and "Ni Shuai (You are handsome)," through her week-long interaction with her Chinese counterparts and newly-made Chinese friends in the Athletes' Village.
"I want to get everything I can," said Tvrdy. "It (the Chinese language) may be useful in the future, but most of all, it's a good memory."
(Xinhua News Agency August 18, 2008)