Friday, March 16, 2007

A day in Beijing

In all of my recent trips to China, I've gone someplace I've never been - or at least haven't seen in 25 odd years. Except this last trip. I had some vague ambitions - visit Kaifang, maybe, or Putuoshan - but I justed ended up going to Beijing and Shanghai. I hung out with friends, explored random neighborhoods, read a few books. I mean, it's not as though I haven't seen plenty of temples and historic sites, and I find that I just as much enjoy slowing down, wandering around, looking at "ordinary" things - trying to take the measure of what the rhythms of life are like in this place, imagining my own life, in a way, if I'd ended up here instead of there.

My last two days in Beijing, I'd thought maybe I'd go visit a mountain village I'd read good things about - you know, a scenic, quaint sort of place, the China of one's imagination rather than the urban realities that I'd been experiencing. But I didn't get around to it. Instead, one day while looking for a restaurant, I went the wrong way and came upon Tuanjiehu Park - and the "hu" in "Tuanjiehu."

Tuanjiehu means "Unite Lake." Though Tuanjiehu is a pretty cute little neighborhood, I figured the lake part was one of those left-over place names, a palimpsest from the Ming Dynasty or some time when there was a lake, back when this part of Beijing just inside of the 3rd Ring Road was countryside instead of city. But the lake is a more recent artifact, from China's Maoist past, though at times that era seems as impossibly remote as any other dead emperor's. Tuanjiehu Park was founded by workers, who were exhorted to create a peoples' park on the site of an old cement works. Or papermill. Unfortunately I didn't take notes. Along with the lake, it features a "southern style garden layout," pavillions, a roller rink, a "children's carnie" and a massive artificial beach and pool with wave machine. The beach was closed, unfortunately, drained and faded in the last days of winter, its blues and yellows bleached and peeling. But it's a nice park. Fat goldfish swim in the murky lake. At the entrance, an older man wrote lines of calligraphy with a giant brush on the pavement, using water for ink. The characters were beautiful, it seemed to me, and watching him write them was poetry itself, the way he handled the massive brush with such a light touch and precision; then watching the characters shrivel and fade into blotches on the cement.

I strolled through the park. In one area, a group of middle-aged ladies practiced a drum and cymbal dance routine, marching in circles, led by the cymbal player. Further along, a man wearing hipster black sunglasses played a traditional Chinese tune on a saxophone. I loved that, thinking, it was so nice for once to hear someone making live music, not to hear some cheesy, distorted recording blaring in a public place. I got that around the next bend, at the roller rink.

Back at the entrance, some elderly men and women had begun a tai chi session, and a few high school students had gathered to watch a younger man attempt the water calligraphy.

"Hello!" one of them called out to me. "Hello!" And then: "Welcome to China!"

"Xie xie nimen," I called back.

They giggled, said, "oh, she speaks Chinese," and in a way it surprises me that people in a city like Beijing, where there are so many foreigners who speak Chinese would still be surprised by a foreigner who does (and mine is not great). Regardless, I walked away with a big smile on my face, because how many times does someone out of the blue welcome you to their country?

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