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In the years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the city was in frantic disarray, preparing to present an idealized version of home - as any host might before a grand celebration.
But the tension between what was intended as performance for a global audience and the reality of what it meant to be a resident of Beijing at the time could be particularly revealing, says Tom Scocca, author of Beijing Welcomes You.
"Part of what defined this period in China's existence was that there was this process of intentional engagement with the rest of the world," Scocca says. "What was so noteworthy about that period ... was this attempt to create a fully contained narrative preview of what China wanted the 21st century to look like."
Scocca, managing editor of the sports website Deadspin, moved to Beijing with his Chinese-native wife in 2004. Before the end of their sojourn, they had welcomed a son and seen the successful completion of one of the country's most triumphant public spectacles.
"Being a foreign observer of a spectacle that was to a great extent specifically designed to be observed by foreigners made it impossible to be objective," he says from his current home in New York. "But I tried to give an honest account of what I was seeing and experiencing, and all that was happening around me."
Indeed, Scocca faithfully recounts an impressive array of details from a wholly American perspective, capturing a period defined by a nation focused on the future.
"When the work was done - if the work got done - a once backward and closed-off capital would open up into a national and international showpiece, a city of ample green space and avant-garde architecture, with smooth-flowing transit and traffic, a place that would be civilized and tidy and multilingual," he writes.
So what's his impression of London four years later?
"Britain seemed to deal with its anxieties by being self-deprecating, while China is still far away from being ready to laugh at itself on the international stage. Certainly you didn't see any Chinese officials clowning around like Boris Johnson. Overall, the London Olympics seems to have been less of an all-consuming experience for the city."
He describes exploring of Beijing's hutong and brand-new construction sites, watches as familiar landmarks are rapidly replaced. He also attempted to understand the country's weather control systems, and recalls the often maddening hilarity of expat life in an unfamiliar culture.
"The three Beijings - the moneyed artificial one, the wretched and broken one, the live and bustling one - stretched on in parallel, just out of sight of one another. You could stand in each one, any one, and believe you were seeing the true thing."
The title of the book, Beijing Welcomes You, is also the name of a song that weaves its way through Scocca's account of his stay, an uplifting anthem that was everywhere in the build-up to the Games. Ultimately he came to view the song as ironic, as he found the city both welcoming and suspicious of foreign influences.
He is eager to return to China, but also wary of the pollution that exacerbated his son's asthma and has had what he believes to be long-term effects on his own lung capacity, he says.
Above all, he saw evidence of an enormous optimism during his stay, he says.
"There is a sincere effort to engage with the rest of the world, and an atmosphere of possibility that allows for a genuine belief that it's possible for life to get better."