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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: October 14, 2013 NO. 42, OCTOBER 17, 2013
Just a Walk in the Park
By Francisco Little


One of the things that makes living in Beijing enjoyable is being able to walk through a public park on the way to work. The park in the northwestern part of the city is a sanctuary for senior citizens, who pour down from the surrounding high-rise apartment blocks that characterize Beijing, to go through their time-honored morning rituals.

At the park entrance are the "bird men." Most people who imagine life in China will no doubt have an image somewhere in their minds of elderly, vest-wearing men carrying bird cages about. Well, it really does happen.

There are usually about 30 bird men about, having hung their cylindrical bamboo cages amongst the trees in the early hours. Each cage is transported, usually on the back of a bicycle, covered in white or blue cloth. Most of the birds are thrushes, larks and mynas and the combined singing volume can be heard almost two blocks away. Larks can imitate the sounds of other animals, and to hear a lark producing pitch-perfect goat snorts is something worth recording.

Displaying birds is a vital part of urban Chinese park culture and dates back 2,000 years. With the birds sorted, the men sit around shooting the breeze (or lack of it) and sucking on cigarettes, vests rolled up to show their stomachs in that unique Chinese fashion of keeping cool. Some also form mahjong groups, loudly slapping down their ivory pieces in morning bonhomie. Perhaps the birds are just an excuse to socialize.

Further on in the park a man in his pajamas hangs by his arms from a tree branch, like a large fruit, having a morning stretch. A vacant-faced woman near him slaps her body, beginning with her head, then chest, legs and back in a massage routine. Her loose-limbed movements belie her advanced years and each slap increases the wistful look on her wrinkled face.

The dog brigade follows—a great showstopper. Middle-aged women kitted out in an assortment of flesh-revealing outfits gather in tight groups, heads bent, engaged in the latest juicy gossip. But they are not the main attraction here, as that honor is left to the canines. This is small-dog territory, and while there are several breeds on show, quite fittingly the Pekinese reigns supreme. The bulging-eyed, flowing-haired pooches prance and preen in garish outfits of their own, knowing they're being watched by passersby, to the obvious pride of their gaggling owners.

Passing the dog brigade, pause to watch an eccentric-looking fellow writing Chinese characters on the cement pathway. He uses a sponge tied to a broomstick as a brush, and water as ink! Even to the untrained eye, the characters are beautifully formed. The idea apparently is a cheap way for the writer to practice his calligraphy, exercise his upper body and share words of wisdom with the community. As he writes every seventh character the first one fades... a great lesson in the transience of life.

Feeling suitably inspired, push on into martial arts territory. An elegant man, resplendent in white silk Chinese pajamas, goes through a free-flowing taichi routine. His students are all ordinary folk also on their way to work and follow his movements effortlessly. It's relaxing just to watch as bodies of all ages rise and dip in the air.

A group of elderly ladies nearby pierce the air softly with silver swords like gentle, fragile warriors, while their neighbors step and swirl, cracking open large red fans in trained synchronicity. On their left, two ladies walking backward, chatting at the top of their lungs, stop to share their thoughts with an animated man spinning a large wooden reel, using a length of string and a lot of energy.

Everything is in motion. Even passersby seem to fall into a rhythm, absorbing the energy of others and for a few moments lightening the load. It's the timeless part of China that embodies well-being. A need to nurture body, mind and spirit—all in public.

At the park exit a smartly dressed businessman, leg stretched high against a tree trunk, chatters on his cell-phone while retaining his serene pose.

Back on the noisy street, the contrast to the parks' easy flow is stark. Yin and yang. You've got to love it.

The author is a South African who worked in Beijing

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