January 19, 2010

CHINA: Into the twilight years without a backward glance

. BEIJING, China / China Daily / Entertainment / Hot Pot Column / January 19, 2010 Sweating and out of breath, my brother returned to our small hotel room in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Before he even took a sip of water, he submitted a report on his run in a nearby park: "There were more people jogging than walking backwards!" He added after a brief pause: "That's only if you count the women cadets that were doing drills." He held his hand as a maitre d' would hold a serving platter, but with the palm facing down, to emphasize the need for accuracy. Jogging may be slowly spreading in the Middle Kingdom, but the phenomenon of walking backwards is already firmly established. It's so popular I've seen it across China, from Hohhot to Beijing to Guangzhou, thousands of kilometers south. Where I'm from, we walk with our eyes and nose to the front and that's that. But here in China, I sometimes mistake Chinese parks for Michael Jackson music videos when I notice everyone around me leading with their rear ends. China's daily senior citizen Thriller re-enactments are part of the mystery of living in China. The first time I witnessed this reverse walking, I had the fortune to be sitting next to my friend and Chinese guide who I've nicknamed "Confucius" for his love of the Chinese sage. "Why's that guy walking backwards?" I asked, pointing to the old man in white undershirt and slippers shuffling around the pond decorating South China Normal University. I could tell by the look on Confucius's face that he didn't buy my tribute-to-Michael Jackson theory. Michael may be more popular in China than in America, but there was a problem: Why was it that only the elderly loved Michael enough to be moonwalking in his honor? What about the youngsters? "They think it can cure chronic diseases - a traditional belief," Confucius informed me. Over time I've come to learn that Chinese medicine often asks you to work backwards like this. It's when we're dying for escape from the heat of Beijing's infernal summers that we need to drink warm water, one traditional Chinese doctor told me for an article I was researching. It's when we're sick and our bodies are craving comfort that we should inflict more pain through acupuncture's needle pricks or cupping's flaming bruises. Walking backwards may not make sense. But compared to flaming cups and dry-heave-inducing herbal potions, it really is just a walk in the park. China's population is aging fast, and seniors' love of traditional exercise may be one of the few encouraging signs that China will age gracefully and without a crippling medical crisis. Regardless of whether walking backwards cures chronic illness, the more that China's elderly can hang on to these habits of walking backwards, morning tai chi, and ballroom dancing in the park, the easier China's aging will be. China's true test may come not from China's aging, but from China's newest generation. The commitment to moonwalking and morning tai chi depends on when you were born. Not a single one of my high school students or young Chinese friends joins in any of these activities now. So the balance is tipped against the future of the moonwalk in China. One traditional Chinese medicine professor I interviewed argued that folk medicine is becoming less popular in China because people are thinking more and more in a linear, Western way. If he's right, perhaps it's because walking backwards is counter-intuitive and moonwalking is now only as popular as jogging in this small park in Hohhot - but only if you count the female cadets running drills. [rc] Copyright 1995 - 2010 China Daily Information Co (CDIC).