China is a mystery to many Americans.
The Communist stronghold in the Far East was closed off for years, but over the last few decades has become more accessible to tourism and trade. For the first time, China is host of the Olympic Games and exposing its capital city, Beijing, to athletes, visitors and TV viewers from all over the world.
Here in Northeast Georgia, there is a growing interest in China. Local Chinese are excited their home country has the opportunity to show off characteristic Chinese hospitality by holding the Olympics.
"Chinese love to be the host," said Mei Shan Spradlin, who teaches Mandarin Chinese at the World Language Academy in Flowery Branch.
Even the mascots of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics convey the message that China is happy to welcome so many visitors, Spradlin said. The five figures, named Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini, represent the five Olympic rings and the beloved animals of China.
"We call them the fortunate dolls," Spradlin said. "The whole name for those five dolls means Beijing welcomes you, ‘Beijing Huan Ying Ni.'"
Chi-Hsuan Catterson, lead instructor for the North Georgia College & State University Chinese Language Institute, said she thinks the Olympics are a positive step for China.
"I think that is wonderful," Catterson said. "This is a good opportunity for people to actually understand that culture and the people over there. For me as a language teacher this is wonderful because that will make a lot of people interested in Chinese language. That only will be good for mutual understanding between American people and Chinese people."
North Georgia College & State University student Justin Chambers got to know Chinese culture and language well after studying in Beijing for five months.
Chambers, an international affairs major, said his interest in China began in college.
"I really started getting interested after the (Chinese) program came about at North Georgia," Chambers said.
Chambers said he thought media coverage of China has been fair in some regards and biased in others, but thinks China has made progress.
"They haven't been known for their human rights or working standards ... they're really trying to show that they've changed with the Olympics," Chambers said. "They're attempting to open themselves back up to trade, to everything else, so it's their attempt at giving themselves a new face, I guess."
The Beijing games started on a lucky day, according to Chinese superstition. Catterson said the number eight is significant in Chinese culture, and that the 8 a.m. start time on Aug. 8, 2008, was no accident.
"(Eight) sounds like prosperity in Chinese language," Catterson said.
Spradlin said she feels connected to her Chinese heritage right now. "I'm really proud to be part of it. Even though I'm here I still feel like I'm part of it," Spradlin said. "All the Chinese in the whole world are excited."