The path around the ancient wall is littered with cherry blossom petals. It looks like the aftermath of a spring wedding the way the trees drape over the sidewalk, dropping the blossoms that float down like white and pink butterflies dancing delicately to the ground. Last week’s marathon of rain has left everything greener than it should be, including the river that has risen at least a foot or more. I walk through crowds of day-walkers, the massive population of retirees that always seem to be roaming about with their hands locked comfortably behind their backs on their endless strolls. Some are crowded around small tables that look to be child sized. Men and women crouch down or sit on plastic stools that they brought from home. They’re intent on their game of mahzhong, a gambling game that the folks play from daybreak to long past sunset.
A woman has opened shop a few feet away from the gamblers. She’s cutting the few remaining hairs of a gentleman, while another lady shines his shoes. I walk through a hoard of scooters, wheelbarrows, pedal bikes, and bodies to get to the other side of the wall. The road passes under an arch, and for a moment I can imagine ancient Jingzhou. It wouldn’t look much different. Swarms of people, ringing bells alerting of impending danger, parents shouting orders at their kids, farmers balancing bags of rice and chicken corpses on a bar that rests across their shoulders. Maybe the motorbikes would be replaced with horses and the neon lights with lanterns, but all in all, I imagine it looked much the same.
Once through the wall, smells of baked sweet potatoes, steaming corn, and fried sesame paste balls waft through the air. Vendor after vendor line the path, selling their treats for less than a single U.S. dollar. I stop by the man selling chopped sugar-cane, and buy a bag. When I ask him how much, he looks up from picking his fingernails and his eyes widen to the size of water chestnuts. He says nothing and nudges his wife. She turns and he points at me. “How much is one bag?” I ask again. She holds up five fingers, and I dig into my wallet. The silent exchange leaves a smile on my face, and I wonder if they are the same vendors who saw me face plant on the bumpy riverside during my morning run only a few hours before. I thank them and continue in pursuit of a place to sit and read.
Everyone is out today. Day-walkers have their children’s children out, and they teeter along in their shoes that squeak like rubber dog toys. Couples walk hand in hand under the romantic flower canopies, and clusters of girls clomp along in their six inch heels with their iphones extended to catch a picture of the pretty trees. A table of beauticians has parked itself in the grass and a few women sit to have their faces plucked, prodded, and painted. A dentist’s office has a stand only a few feet away from the ladies, but the doctor looks lonely with his q-tips, toothpicks, and flyers as his two aides lean back and absorb themselves into watching soap operas on their phones. Despite the foot traffic, no one seems interested in getting their teeth cleaned at the park.
There are people selling balloons and bubble makers, paper rainbow hats and cheap plastic glasses, neon fish bowls and tiny caged rabbits. A man in a long-bill cap, a suit vest, and a tweed jacket sits near the archway. He stares straight ahead, deep in thought. His little table has a sheet with diagram of a hand and the image of an eye. He’s a palm reader. He looks more like a retired college professor than a fortune teller, but the intensity of his stare is a certain indication of his other-worldy-powers. Or he has found some way to sleep with his eyes open. Either way, he too has no customers, but I make note to come back with my Chinese friend as interpreter. There are performances today too. The tents where people are dancing and singing are so close in proximity that the sounds overlap each other. An older woman and man dressed in ancient Chinese folk outfits smile and dance in a romantic role play. He has an exaggerated moustache glued to his face. She’s wearing white robes, embroidered with red flowers and gold trims. She’s painted her face white as well to exaggerate the pink blush on her cheeks and the black makeup wrapping her eyes.
The other performances are more subdued or have yet to reach their peak. Another couple is prepping their tent to sing, staging their mic and cords, and another tent is playing “My Little Apple”, China’s anthem since last summer. Away from the performances and stands, the sidewalks free up. An occasional tandem bike rides over the bumpy stone path and the honking of an impatient scooter sounds every now and then. I watch as a man carrying a cart of rubbish stops and takes out his broom made of fallen tree branches. He starts sweeping at the flower petal that have accumulated in the edges between the earth and concrete and over the drains that were meant to guide the rain back to the river below. The flowers fly up around him, a beautiful warfare petitioning against being moved, fluttering around him in a furious floral uprising. He sweeps and sweeps, awakening the broken wings into a migration aimed at the patches of grass. He’s a tiny man in a big hat, and his broom is much longer than he is. People from the countryside are always much smaller, tanned and leathered versions of their former selves. I take a seat not far from his mobile rubbish bin. People walking by watch me with curiosity as I sit among the flowery ruins and pull out my notebook. A young group of couples rides by on a 4-seater tandem bike, and one of the girls in the front shouts “Hello!” She and her friends giggle when I shout “Hello!” back. I pop a piece of sugar cane into my mouth, squeezing out the sweet juices and trying without success to spit the fibers out in a graceful way that doesn’t involve a dangle of slobber or bits getting stuck into my hair. A man on a motor bike yells “Laowai!” as I peel sugarcane out of my ponytail. I start writing, feeling almost invisible in the shade.
After a while, I hear the unmistakable throbbing of club bass. It’s approaching me, slow and steady. I look up and see a group of women, apparent mothers and grandmothers. They’re smiling and chatting as the bass builds. It isn’t coming from them, that much is obvious. I look behind them and see a man in a black leather jacket. He’s balding, and walks with a strut. His gut is pushed out so that it looks like he is walking from the groin, his center of gravity distorting his body into curve similar to the posture of a very pregnant woman. In his hands he is holding a portable boom box, the kind made so that you can mount your iPhone. He looks around, tentative as he passes the women. The lack of confidence is an odd contrast to the music playing. It pumps out low rhythmic notes that rap: “I want your sex. Let’s go get naked.” The lyrics blare out from the speakers, pulsating through the peaceful utopia I’ve shielded myself in. “Let’s go and do this. Let’s go get naked,” the voice raps as the man struts groin first through the grannies and their children. They’re all smiling and laughing, blissfully unaware of the profanities and inappropriate suggestions being played around them. The strangeness of it all grips me, and I try to hold an eruption of giggles from escaping me.
Only in China.