Friday, January 15, 2016

China on the Move

About a dozen young men gather nightly in the old gardens of Henan University in central China to practise their kung fu skills. Overhead, thousands of bats skim and flutter in the deepening twilight, their twitters momentarily lost in the shouts and bellows of the martial arts practitioners below. This is my introduction to night life in the campus gardens. For the participants, this scene can hold little allure, but for me this is one of the memorable encounters I was fortunate to have on my first trip to China. On the long journey eastward from Ireland, I had hoped for difference, and I’d already found it on the first day. For me, bats and kung fu were a thrilling start to my ten-week stay in Kaifeng.

Daily and nightly, the gardens of the old campus hosted several fascinating activities. Sometimes there were up to 150 students of tai chi following their teacher’s every move; there were seniors whose badminton games must have started at dawn, judging by their enthusiasm and the  glean of sweat on their foreheads when I passed them each morning at 7.30am on my way to class; not far from the pagoda were the singers, whose voice strengthening exercises didn’t seem to differ much from the kung fu fighters’ bellows and shouts; and then there were groups of up to thirty students who regularly gathered by the trees and on the basketball court to revise en masse for their next exam; further away, there were one or two lone students by the pond whose manic mutterings only ceased when they glanced down briefly at the text book to refresh their memory . 

On most afternoons I spent a few moments at my hotel window watching up to half a dozen toddlers joyfully pursuing the cutest members of the large colony of feral cats that lived close to the car park. The cats tolerated the “fun” as long as they were given food, but when the treats finished, the cats vanished. As winter advanced and the temperature dipped to freezing, the toddlers’ movements became increasingly ungainly, being swaddled, as they were, in multiple layers of clothing, topped by a padded coat. Fun over, cats gone, the toddlers were rounded up and wheeled or carried away. Children, I quickly learned, are worshipped in China. I wonder if Freud was thinking of China when he wrote “His Majesty the Baby”.  

And then there were the nightly fireworks. I couldn’t understand what the festivities were about when I first noticed these spectacular displays. I inquired of my students as to the occasion but they were puzzled that I was even asking the question. In the end I concluded that the Chinese had firework displays for apparently no other reason than because they could. After all, China is the cradle of gun powder.

Another mystery was the marchers. Every evening, at a few minutes before 8.00, I heard stomping feet and a series of shouts in unison, very close to the hotel.  I heard the marchers clearly but couldn’t see them in the darkness from my window. In the final week I saw them, and they were not marchers. While I was sitting on a wall, waiting for them to pass, I heard a softly fluctuating tune arise from the gardens behind me. Through the hedge I glimpsed dancers. They were dressed in black flowing robes, moving gracefully in the gloom, blending their movements with the surrounding shadows. When the dancing finished, the group signalled the end with a series of shouts and stomping feet and then they dissipated under a moon hazy with the high level of pollution in the atmosphere. 

In the third week of my trip I discovered power walking Chinese style. A couple of my teaching colleagues had mentioned that instead of joining a gym they had joined Chinese power walkers on the athletics track behind my hotel. I’d never power walked before and since my colleagues were so enthusiastic, I put on my trainers, slipped past the kung fu practice groups in the garden, and strolled over to the athletics field. Immediately, I was struck that the majority of people were in groups, some of which numbered up to fifty strong; this was power walking en masse. The few loners I could see dotted around the track appeared to be in the serious business of race walking - Olympic style.

For no other reason than proximity, I chose the group of around fifteen people that was closest to me on the track and, somewhat self consciously, slid into their ranks. It soon became apparent that I wasn’t as fit as the others. The pace and distance were a challenge for me but, by moving to the inside lane, I was able to keep up. On that first night I kept going mainly because my ego refused to let me drop out. But by the time we finished, I had determined to join the power walkers at least three times a week while I was in Kaifeng, and that was even before the endorphin rush.

I enjoyed the power walking partly because of the wonderful Chinese “get up and go” music the “leader” blasted from a speaker attached to her belt. There was no mistaking that this woman with the music was the leader. She was in the front line, flanked by her “lieutenants “, and she set the pace. Those of us behind followed the red blinking light of her speaker, which moved slightly from side to side in the darkness, in tune with her gait. And her gait was unique; I had time to study how she moved, lap after lap, week after week. I noticed how her right arm swung left to right while her left arm moved forward and backward. Her right leg brought to mind a staircase, climbing up a staircase. For me, the overall effect of her arm movement and robust gait was inspiring. Yes, the energy of the group was crucial but I felt it was she who powered us around that track.

There were other, bigger groups than ours, but we were the fastest. Coming up behind another (slower) group, our leader would raise her arm and point leftwards to signal that we were to cut across the field diametrically and rejoin the track on the other side. By then our bodies had settled into the rhythm of the pace, we’d reached “cruising speed”, when less effort was needed to keep up. The music urged us on, but in the silences between one song and the next, the sound of our footsteps marked a tempo of its own. The hour we spent on the track nearly always flew by, and when we entered the home straight in tune with the final chords of “I like to move it, move it. You like to... move it” darkness had completely surrounded us.

Now that I’m home, I miss the camaraderie of the power walkers, with their cheerful banter each time one or the other felt brave enough to test their English with me. Exercising in a gym, under the glare of fluorescent lights, with pop videos for motivation is not the same. I hope I will return to Kaifeng, to the power walkers, and if I’m brave enough there is always the dancers. But that option requires true courage from me.