I am walking through my neighborhood park, which is outside my block of flats and across the street, but near enough to enjoy immediately. The sun set about an hour ago, providing some relief for this hot summer day, but I’m longing for the dryness of winter because I’m still in my dress clothes from work and stylish they may be they feel like a blanket around an already muggy night, but as I walk east from the subway station my attention fires somewhere to the bangs and clangs of traditional street musicians. They’re playing something called 秧歌 yang1ge1 in an area next to a construction site and in front of a restaurant called “the best place under heaven.” 6 older men clap a variety of cymbals to the insistent and persistent rhythms of a lone drummer.
It’s gorgeous, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. A crowd of about 2 dozen people–young and old–are standing around and watching the free show, which includes a collective of middle-aged people shuffling slowly around in a circle while waving weakly-synchronized large cloth fans this way and that. I catch the eye of one of the men with a larger cymbal, and coincidentally his playing becomes louder and faster, as my grin widens. A young child, hip-tall, bumps into me before at least two other men do but that means nothing in a city of more than 10 million people. Everyone here reeks of cigarette smoke and what is likely today’s labor, and for some reason one or two very young-looking men dressed in some kind of uniform approach and stand next to me–pausing a second or two to catch a glimpse of the foreigner whose as tall as a few of the locals now and whose blue eyes cannot be seen in the dim light. Maybe it’s my “long nose” that catches their attention or curiosity; I don’t know, but they disappear as soon and as quickly as they had arrived and just as I begin to wonder if I’ve done something wrong by being there.
It’s crowded and loud and hot and the instruments are the only things permeating and traversing the quicksand air, and I should feel anything but what I’m feeling now: exhilarated and fascinated and entertained and completely relaxed, and in that way that street performances often elicit: belonging. I feel like a part of the show, expressed by my tapping fingers and dancing eyes. I might be the last person that could relate to these musicians and their instruments and music, but this international language is as accommodating as it is demanding and I’m feelin’ it with the profound emotional connection that music creates. All five of my senses have something remarkable going on, and yet in the midst of this potential overload, like the combined sound of the different instruments, I begin to see relations between the random connections here. People have a place here. People belong here, and I feel–welcome.
Enough time passes for me to move on and I walk along the side of the concrete park where there are silhouettes of teenage boys making an impressive attempt at a modern urban dance that even I recognize. I walk up the quiet incline and tip toe past a very short man snoozing on the ground and turn right at the top to enter the main park courtyard, and what is normally a frying pan of sunlight during the day is now a swaying, shaking sea of human movement. I walk cautiously yet deliberately through the teams of dancers and wallflowers. There is literally someone in motion in every direction I look, and I feel a mild sense of accomplishment as I finish maneuvering around this obstacle course of people.
I am now standing roadside, just down the street from where I left the subway station, and I turn around to take a panoramic of the park. From left to right there are teachers and leaders and followers and everyone else. Classmates, gal pals, eligible bachelors, young lovers, old lovers, and grandparents with grand-babies–if they live in the neighborhood, they’re represented here. I am here too, and to my left and just in front of me is the group of ballroom dancers who claim this same corner every time I’ve been here. The teacher is a stately woman, and her students are a mixed collection of tall and short, male and female and young and mostly older. The music blares from a speaker just well enough to be useful, as the dancing couples move in time and under the watchful eye of their responsive teacher.
One couple is noticeably different to me because the man is much taller than the woman and just about everyone else, and he’s wearing a clean white shirt with belted khakis instead of the uniform-standard black trousers and dark short sleeve polo. He is obviously not afraid of dramatic flair and he stresses each and every movement with unconcealed joie de vivre. His partner is smaller of course and at first seems tolerant of her lead’s performance, but as she steps and spins in her dark brown sparkly dress, I notice the face beneath the shiny lipstick and twinkling hairpiece. It’s radiant. After one especially thorough spin, she faces her partner and instead of looking annoyed by such pretentious overkill (as I would expect), she looks at him and smiles at him with a smile that wells up from some wonderfully infinite place like the spring water of Scotland I remember seeing from the train on the way to Inverness. This woman is in love; her smile says, “soul-mate,” and I think she’s beautiful now, here, with her awkwardly tall partner and his unconventional clothing and exhausting spins and brow-raising enthusiasm. In this moment the woman sees a universal truth and I am witness. This woman is sparkling in her dark dress at night time, and her face says that all of her dreams are realized with her perfectly interesting dance partner and his 2 beautifully perfect left feet. The look on her face says so, and I feel as if my life is somehow better because of it.
I drift from this couple to others as I think about how to write what I’m hearing and seeing, and I walk slowly over to the next group of dancers. There are about 6 or 7 groups in all, ranging from the traditional European waltz to the very Asian-styled techno-robics. Radios are whining and thumping and competing for the flailing arms, soft kicks and pronounced steps of the confident regulars and those first-timers who exploit the cover of darkness. At the center of the courtyard is a towering stone monument I’ve never bothered to read but that seems to have attracted the largest gathering of people. A closer look reveals a very young population of very cool modern-day roller-bladers. Some are sitting together and possibly flirting at the foot of the monument, a few are probably trouble-making students avoiding homework, and those who are roller-blading are trying their best to avoid running into any one or more of the myriad of dancers–each rotation is a new course! It’s possible to rent roller blades here, where there’s a small designated area hawked over by a shirtless young man with a flashlight that he shines at whomever he decides to and for reasons beyond my best deductive reasoning.
In its entirety the scene is one that has to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. Where I come from, this night-time center of social activity and physical exercise doesn’t exist as it does here in China, and where the social centers and exercise facilities of my homeland answer the particular needs of that culture, so too do these Chinese versions. And that’s what I walk away with: an improved sense of understanding, because it’s not entirely from a news report or TV show that one learns China. As at least an essential part, I learn a lesson from this neighborhood park and its nightly inhabitants because this is an accurate and authentic display of cultural values and characteristics–free to whomever chooses to sit the lesson.
And that’s what I see tonight. Here is an ancient people paying respect to their time-honored musical heritage, gathering to reinforce the value of the group–the collective good stemming from the source of all joy and purpose: the primary social group and its insistence for inclusion. The tactile nature of large populations replaces personal space with personal awareness. From the duality of Taoist nature comes the pairing of 2 people for a dance, or vice versa. Disciplined study and the value of education are clear from the variety of age groups dedicating time to learn something new. Additionally, an open-mindedness to appreciate the quality and/or relevance of both domestic and foreign art is obvious, and possibly to a more rare extent this is the normally workaholic, duty-bound Chinese stopping for just a minute to enjoy the hard-earned but well-deserved middle class lives of a China that is returning to world super-power status. Finally, the ever-circling roller bladers dodging, weaving and avoiding conflict at all costs; rotating around the monument as they do to avoid direct and confrontational interactions with others; comfortable with the uniformity of the predictable and familiar circular movement, reassured by the fact that they will return to the place where they began–as they do their hometowns.
From the endlessly circling roller-bladers and the eternal exuberance of youth, to the slow but sure-footed steps of the wise old line-dancers, a circle of Chinese life is represented here in my neighborhood park, and I’m glad to have had the chance to open my eyes wide enough to see it. My mother once said to me that she wished more Americans could see the simple, common pleasures of daily Chinese life, if only to help Americans to better understand the universal nature and goodness of all people. I believe in humanity’s potential because I see the Chinese people as I see them in my neighborhood park. I see just about all people that way because we are all lovable, friendly, selfless and virtuous. We can choose to be. We can choose the world we want to live in and leave for our future generations. I look at my neighborhood park every evening and picture that park on a global scale. I wonder what it would take to have the entire world grab a partner or pair of inline skates and dance and move together. I don’t entirely know how to make that happen but I’m learning.