I've been to China on two separate occasions in my life. The most recent time was about a year and a half ago.
After checking in and getting something to eat, my first goal was to see Tiananmen Square.
There, nearly 20 years ago, on June 4 -- the same day as my birthday -- China's ruling Communist Party brutally repressed a political revolt by pro-democratic activists.
Burned into my memory was the famous "Unknown Rebel" photograph by Jeff Widener, of a lonely protester standing before a row of tanks. I felt like it was a place that I needed to go.
As I traveled the People's Square, I noticed that Beijing was full of tall, gray, foreboding buildings. "Gray" seemed to be the theme that tied everything together.
When I finally got to the square, I saw a large obelisk dedicated to the heroes of China. Behind the intimidating 10-story tower, was a stone mausoleum dedicated to Mao Zedong, whose face was plastered all over the place.
In my dreams, I always imagined Tiananmen Square to be a less static place, but altogether it was pretty dull. I was disappointed until my eyes caught sight of a huge, shiny red clock counting down the days, minutes, and seconds until the 2008 Olympic Games.
As I approached the clock, a woman standing on the corner opened a colorful case of dolls. Five in all, the dolls looked like ultra-cute pandas imbued with elemental-based superpowers.
I soon became acquainted with the "Five Friendlies," the official mascots of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, whose sole purpose is to spread "traditional Chinese good wishes wherever they go."
As I ventured deeper into the city, I started seeing the "Five Friendlies" more often and even noticed that the people were being a lot friendlier than the first time I had visited China a year earlier.
A year before, visiting my college roommate who was teaching English in Guangzhou, I saw many things that I didn't see this time.
Walking around Guangzhou -- a very modern, industrialized city -- I observed people spiting freely on the sidewalk, men rolling up their shirts halfway like tank tops to protect themselves from the heat, and children running around in "kaidangku," an open-crotch form of baby pants exposing a toddler's rear end and privates.
Advocates of kaidangku say the pants promote potty training, because a gapping hole allows children to squat and relieve themselves wherever they please. This was a privilege many children took advantage of in Guangzhou.
In Beijing, however, I saw none of this. Many people were actually going out of their way to be helpful to me.
When I was lost, tired, and in desperate need of a taxi, a random Chinese man who spoke very little English walked with me for 30 minutes in the opposite direction of his home to convince an off-duty taxi driver to take me back to my hostel. When he sent me on my way, he said "Welcome to China."
Throughout my week in Beijing, as I visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. I noticed artists painstakingly restoring the paint on century-old cultural assets. Old temples were being restored and new stadiums to accommodate the Olympics were being constructed all over the city.
While some of these actions may have been for show, it was apparent that the Chinese were making a real effort to be more welcoming in anticipation of the Olympic Games.
Many people have discussed boycotting the 2008 Olympic Games because of China's don't-ask-don't-tell foreign policy, pollution problems, weapon sales to Africa, and its tense relationship with Tibet. These problems, however, have existed for a long time, and boycotting the Olympic Games will not make them disappear.
Boycotting the games would, however, seriously hurt the Chinese economy and possibly plant bitter seeds of resentment amongst China's people. The world should support the games now, and work to solve China's other problems when the time is right.
Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.