Running, Pull-Ups and the Oneness of Humanity

I’ve never been able to endure even the idea of running on a treadmill, and only reluctantly do I join the walkers dutifully circling the track at local Chinese schools and universities. (My mind constantly runs in circles, so I don’t need cardiovascular reenactments.) Even plodding along familiar streets gets me restless, which partly explains why I love to run in new places. On a recent day in Suzhou, when my balky body had granted relatively enthusiastic permission for a run, I soured on what might have been a sweet outing, partly because my responsibilities as a friendly tourist nixed my locomotion. Walking (and stewing and brooding) burned a few calories, but I was glad to get out the next day.

We were, however, most favoured tourists. Our more-than-gracious hosts’ apartment  was across the street from Central Park, quiet and leafy in the modern section of Suzhou, so my live-in travel agent and I laced up and lumbered. Ponds and stone avenues, lawns and impromptu dancersize groups of Chinese women gave way to streetcore tourism as my bride signalled she’d had enough. I went straight down Broadway – actually, it was called Xinggang Lu, which means “Denim is my Destination”* — toward the Pants. More respectfully known as the Gate of the Orient, this huge dual tower looks like a pair of low-rise jeans on a hipless Chinese girl. Central Park punctuates, for a few blocks, Xinggang Lu as its traffic flows toward and away from the TrouserGate, and it was only partly for the sake of avoiding getting lost that I went Pants-ward. Impertinence aside, it’s enormous and visually quite compelling, and I didn’t resist its bowlegged charms.

* It most certainly does not mean that.

The boulevard made for pleasant city running.

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Waking Up the Dads

These things happen when you’re a wai guo ren in the most Chinese places, instead of hanging safely in the ex-pat havens. I had boldly gone – and only through the dumbest of luck – where no “outside country person” had likely gone before. No big deal: I was in the mid-court seats of a chilly Dalian gymnasium, the ones where Party members or other administrative kingpins sit for the bigger ceremonies. It’s the closest thing to corporate boxes at my university’s indoor stadium: padded office chairs roll freely behind a ten-metre-wide desk, instead of the moulded blue plastic bum-holders in the rest of the building. Can you see me now?

I was minding my own business avidly minding every bit of business connected with the on-court director of our newly-stumbled-into youth basketball club, and with my son’s performance of a medley of this young coach’s greatest hit, “50 Ways to Beat a Pylon”. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in my head it has the same tune as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.) Reassurance to my sports-averse readers: this isn’t really about basketball. It’s about me, and China, and Chinese fathers (one of ’em),

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Afternoon on an Overpass

We don’t see many beggars in Dalian, at least not in my neck of the asphalt jungle. Yesterday, though, on an elevated bridge over one of the busier bottlenecks of traffic, at Heishijiao, was a doubleheader. I am eternally conflicted, and all the more so in China, where most people are convinced that beggars get rich.

Or get someone else rich: the popular belief seems to be that every beggar has a pimp who preys on the helpless sympathy of passersby – in my view, most people are quite well fortified against this! – and of course the pathetic needs of the (often-handicapped, or apparently so) “collectors”. I’ve seen and chronically misunderstood or misread enough of this country to believe that there could be truth to this urban dogma, but also feel compelled to ask those who spout it a head-tilting zhen de ma? (Really? Really?)

I was on my way to McDonald’s, lately my go-to spot for a little (not so) quiet thinking, reading, writing and people-watching. But I didn’t plan to watch that: pedestrians on the bridge parted in oblivious avoidance of a long-haired man, half-naked on a zero-degree day, lying on his stomach on the concrete, muttering as he flopped his head and torso violently up and down, up and down. On the downward stairs at the other end of the bridge, a bundle of clothes (possibly old, possibly female) was kneeling, unseen forehead nearly touching the concrete landing.

I read my novel. I ate a McFlurry. I made plans. I scribbled notes for a draft of a proposal to supplement a project I’ve been avoiding. I read encouraging non-fiction. McChicken and fries followed. I watched the young woman two tables over, hunched over her needlework . (She outstayed my three hours, and ate less.) My introvert-in-the-crowd engagement over, I walked back to the bridge, heading for the number 28 bus back to family, sweet music and fresh hot conversation.

Still, in the darkness of a late afternoon, the kneeling shape silently begged. Still, more than three hours later, the spastic figure wearing only pants jerked and muttered. I put a little money in their hats, and didn’t feel better at all.

Is China Really Upside-Down?

When I was a kid in southern Ontario, our favourite mind-altering impossibility was to imagine digging, not to unearth potatoes or worms, but straight down “until we get to China!” We understood, in a five-to-seven-year-old way, that since the world was round – there was a globe in my brother’s room, so that part was obvious – then the Chinese people must be upside-down. (And their children were starving, as I knew from my mother’s frowning over every uneaten vegetable.) In places like Canton, Ohio, or Pekin, Illinois, or half a dozen other American towns, apparently even the grown-ups nurtured the same fantasy about the inscrutable other side of the planet.

We’ll be there by lunchtime, I think.

Now I live in northeastern China. I don’t feel upside-down, well, not most of the time, and my little family is proving the old global-awareness mantras: yup, people are pretty much people, wherever they are, and they love to eat and sing and laugh, and they love their families and get mainly-unexplainable pleasure when “one of theirs” wins a game or a race or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They want peace and a better life for their kids. The usual.

The longer I’m here, though, the more I think of my old backyard dreams, because in ways mostly silly and insignificant, there is a definite strain of oppositeness. It starts with food. (Doesn’t everything?)

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