Sunday in the park with Richard


At the height of the recent anti-Japanese protests, a lot of my students told me that they were going to Lushun for the weekend. Their explanations were a bit confusing, but I gathered that it had something to do with Japan. Lushun is a sensitive area, off-limits to foreigners. In addition to a huge naval base, it apparently features museum commemorating Japanese war atrocities – the whole peninsula was occupied by them in the 1930s and ’40s. Naturally I assumed that they were going for some sort of protest.

I was completely wrong. They were actually going there to see the Cherry Blossom Festival – just like in Japan, they told me, when this flower blooms huge numbers of people go for a day trip just to take a look.

When China blooms it can look really beautiful. Out of the window while I write, I can see a large apple blossom tree blocking out the dull view that kept us depressed those long winter months. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Another thing I’ll really miss here is the parks in the summer. Without ever really seeming crowded, they teem with people, singing screechy opera numbers and playing those instruments that I never got round to learning the names of, playing badminton and that ubiquitous shuttlecock-kicking game that all Chinese people can play a thousand times better than me, or gathering under the trees for a game of Mah Jong, Chinese chess or cards. It makes for an enchanting and very friendly atmosphere – people seem so content that I often feel I’ve just blended into the background, sitting on a bench soaking it all in.

Just yesterday I was sitting watching someone’s hilarious attempts to dislodge a mis-hit shuttlecock by throwing the same rock up into a tree again and again, when a young guy sat down beside me with a book. We had a fascinating conversation for about 20 minutes about the different books we were reading. At least, that’s what I was talking about – it’s quite possible that he was telling me that he’d just failed his driving test for the third time and was thinking of buying a canary.

You sometimes see odd sights in the park. In Beihai Park in Beijing a few weeks ago I was startled to see what looked like an entire army unit with their riot shields and truncheons drawn, all marching in formation behind two soldiers carrying between them a flat-screen TV!

The simple friendliness of some of the people who’ve been part of my everyday life these last ten months is a memory that I’ll cherish. The woman who sells me pineapples and bananas, and who used to sell me strawberries until they were suddenly replaced by cherries, exhibits remarkable patience with my Chinese, and astonishing dexterity at cutting up pineapples. The old man in my local shop is also relentlessly enthusiastic about my Mandarin, even though all I ever really say to him is ‘me want two beers/four eggs/one big bottle water/one small cold bottle water’, thank you and ‘Bye Bye!’.

And this cafe I’m sitting in right now is quite a find – friendly, efficient and cool. They also finally helped me to learn the word for cheese. Just a shame I only discovered the place yesterday.

好, that’s it. I’m off to the beach.

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