(Literally rather than figuratively)
Since I’m living in the world’s largest city and can’t do without some nature every now and then – but what living thing can? – I’m a regular park walker. Even after many walks they’re still special, because I see things I would never see back home.
These are some wonderful Chinese habits you’ll most definitely be able to witness during your weekend stroll through the park:
People playing games
In most parks you’ll find locals socializing over a game of cards. Especially the early mornings, late evenings and weekends are busy times. The places they pick for their games seem to be very random: I’ve seen them on benches, rocks, tables, next to toilets and in bicycle parking lots. Since they are local men and women and (most of them) thus don’t speak English, I never found out which games they’re playing. One of the games I do know is Mahjong. We’ve got the Western version, they have the Chinese one with a completely different set of rules. Therefore, joining them might be a bit tough!
It’s hard for me to judge if their voices are any good, since after 6 months of studying I still can’t express much more than ‘你好’ and ‘谢谢’ (‘hi’ and bye’). Sometimes they’re just singing to empty air, sometimes some people gather around and take turns singing. Mostly they’re accompanied by some Chinese tune. It’s like advanced outdoor KTV. I love KTV, but somehow one of the few Comfort Zone Challenges I didn’t dare to complete yet is ‘Sing a song in public’. First of all, my singing voice is not great – thanks mom, for those genes 😉 – , second of all: many Dutch people are kind but quite modest or shy when it comes to these things. We have a frequently used saying “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, which means something like: “Just act normal, you’re acting crazy enough as it is!”.
However those people’s voices, I have to give them credit for trying!
Groups of local people gather daily in the parks and streets to dance a typical Chinese dance. Sometimes they’re solo dances, sometimes it’s more like couples ballroom dancing. I joined them a few times and had so much fun. Everyone will be happy to teach you, so don’t be hesitant to try! Often they dance to Chinese tunes, but sometimes to surprisingly modern day music. Once I heard Rihanna’s ‘Only girl in the world’ (OK, already came out in 2010, but still not very Chinese) blasting out of the speakers in the park, only to find about 40 women dancing their Chinese dance to it. It’s not for nothing that in most parks you’ll find decibel meters to measure noise levels.
People playing the èrhú
Of course I’ve seen people play instruments before.But here I’ve seen them way more often and also playing a very populair Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument, much like a violin: the èrhú. I would describe it’s sounds as basic but beautiful, and relaxing.
People practicing Tai Chi
Of course: Tai Chi, the Chinese martial art. Although people in China generally don’t do sports like I know them (read: swimming, running, playing soccer), they do exercise. Popular sports for youth are basketball and gym for guys and badminton for both guys and girls. I got invited for some badminton myself a couple of times during my time in Shanghai and enjoyed picking up this sport I used to do when I was younger. If kite-flying is considered a sport: always kites to find in open park spaces. The older generation likes to walk, stretch and practice Tai Chi. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. They don’t seem to care much about an audience. They seem to practice it mostly for the health benefits as strength, coordination and flexibility.
People walking backwards
The first time I saw someone walking backwards I was stunned. What on earth was he doing? I remember thinking: It must be for some kind of challenge. But the more I saw this appearance, the more I realized I was the weird one here for finding this strange. When talking to my Chinese friends and colleagues I found out their reasons. Again they mentioned health benefits, which Chinese people care about a lot. They assume walking backwards to be good for improving coordination. And they do have a good point. Compare it to our convincing research about using the ‘other’ hand. It’s supposed to increase connections between our hemispheres, improves our creativity and even make us more open-minded! Interesting.. I know using my left hand for eating and brushing my teeth is difficult; using it for writing and putting on make-up must be downright impossible. Should I make friends with Lefty? Challenge accepted!
This doesn’t just happen in parks, but basically everywhere. Restaurants, cars, scooters, sidewalks, you name it.. Where you probably get arrested for it in some parts of Europe, here it’s nothing but normal. Can’t say I hate this habit of taking naps in random places 😉
There are many other ‘strange’ habits you’ll encounter in China. But when you think about it: not so strange after all. Tapping arms and legs, stretching, walking backwards.. Surely will bring us something good.
One last thing.. Since at least 90% of the people engaging in those activities and habits belongs to the older generation and the newer generations are not picking it up much, I’m afraid those things are slowly becoming less and less. I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually – unfortunately! – disappears completely.
Have a wonderful day 🙂