April 25, 2011

CHINA: Park eccentrics are breath of fresh air

BEIJING / The China Daily / Life / April 25, 2011

By Earle Gale, China Daily

It's never a dull moment when the dancers and fitness fanatics come outside to play

I've been in Beijing for more than two years now but, due to an unfortunate combination of aged relatives and impoverished ones, coupled with a lack of jet-setting friends, so far I've had few precious visitors. It's a shame because there's a lot in this great city I want to show off. In my mind, I've pulled on my tour guide's colorful hat and grabbed an imaginary long-stemmed triangular flag many times as I have plotted the places of interest.

It's no secret that this city's cup is running over when it comes to exciting tourist traps, but in recent weeks I've realized the places I most want to take visitors is not the Forbidden City, Wangfujing or the Great Wall, but my local park.

Parks in the capital are like no others in the world. They are where Beijingers really come to life and where a foreigner can see the very best aspects of Chinese people - along with their greatest eccentricities. Users are uninhibited and joyful, and it's hard sometimes to believe the people one encounters there are the same Beijingers who brush past you in the street with fixed, surly faces and gritted teeth as they hurry to an appointment.

The other day, as I sat in the sunshine reading my book, I was distracted by an elderly man sitting on a nearby bench who suddenly stood up, turned on a tape cassette player and began slowly running up and down with tiny little steps as he held his arms out like the wings on an airplane. A friend told me the music he was playing was a traditional song often played in primary schools during physical education classes and that he was exercising.

"Exercising? Someone would exercise their right to have him committed to a loony bin back home," I said with a smile.

I didn't have to sit there for long before a man and woman came walking past me backwards; another time-honored form of exercise I'm told is good for the lower back. Then a lady sauntered along clapping her hands loudly, a type of exercise that is common over here but would turn heads back in my native England. Apparently, it promotes blood flow.

When I heard a scream from the other side of the park, I smiled to myself as I thought of how many people back home would dial the police upon hearing such a blood-curdling cry. Again, of course, it was more to do with self expression and letting out the stresses of a busy day than muggers or something sinister.

Yes, the parks really are a world unto their own. A simple walk in mine is incomplete without passing massive groups of card-playing senior citizens, people hanging from trees to stretch their backs, groups of saxophone players, huge crowds of singing ladies, tai chi exponents balancing on rocks, accordion-squeezing men playing sorrowful Russian ballads and old women mincing along next to miniature dogs in cute little coats. No bush is without its giggling girl posing amid the blossoms as the lens of her adoring boyfriend drinks in her beauty. No patch of grass is without diabolo-spinning men and feather ball-kicking seniors.

There's life everywhere you look. I even stumbled upon a group of hand-clapping guitar-strumming Hare Krishnas the other day and stood there singing along for a while.

There are plenty of theories as to why Beijing's parks are so lively and free-spirited. It probably has a lot to do with people needing to let off steam and rebalance themselves in their free time because the stresses of competition in this teeming city are so great. Regardless of what causes Beijing's parks to be so eclectic and interesting, they really are a breath of fresh air in comparison to most parks in the West, which tend to be places for sedate strolls, quiet picnics and duck-feeding expeditions during the day and locations to avoid at night for fear of being robbed.

The capital's neighborhood parks may not be at the top of every tourist's to-do list, but if I had a friend coming to visit next week I'd start by taking him to the nearest one, get the culture shock over with, and move on.

Earle Gale, author, is a copy editor for China Daily.

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