written/non-written things by me (from 2005-2008)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Night Park

Why have I never written about the Night Park? It is essential to my daily life here in ShiJingShan, the necessary ingredient which lends authenticity and richness to my “China” experience--which can too often seem astoundingly similar to regular life.

I routinely pass by the Night Park (otherwise known as the Hill Park, during the day) while jogging or biking around my neighborhood. I shop at a little grocery store across the street from it: a manicured, strikingly green hill amidst a canyon of white-tiled apartment towers. The hill is coursed by little red-tiled footpaths, along which there are stone benches and clusters of trees and flower bushes. I often sit on the benches and grade papers while the other women around me do knitting. During the day its over-run with grandmothers, young mothers and pants-less babies. And when the sun goes down around 8: 30 it rings with music and the playfulness of adults that is only witnessed at night.

I boast possessively about the Night Park to my poor colleagues who lack such charming places, (besides the 24 hour “massage” parlors they reside above). Once, I heard myself saying something I would find a little awkward and cringe-worthy to hear someone else say, “I have to stay near Bajiao station [the subway nearest my neighborhood] when I change apartments. I cannot leave my little Chinese park.”

So, why have I never written about the Night Park? Maybe because it’s so quintessentially the “Charming Chinese Park” that I find it challenging to write of it in a way that convinces others (who know me too well) of its pure sweetness. I find it tricky to write in a way that convinces even myself that I am above leaning toward the ironic self-awareness that usually characterizes my writing, or the dry sarcasm that characterizes me in general. Or, can even write of China in a way that doesn’t make it sound like either a dazzling neon spectacle or a grey austere landscape punctuated with colorful, strange happenings? But this self-inflicted impasse must be passed. It’s time for some colorful travelogue-esque sketching of my “little” exotic, charming, and vivacious neighborhood park.

I am always in a great mood after my adult conversation class. Teaching my small night class of six adults (apart from the two precocious 14 year olds) is hands down the best way of earning money I have ever had. They are shy, but willing learners. They respond animatedly to my clumsy repertoire of facial expressions, charades, and terrible drawings I use to demonstrate the meanings of new words. They seem to like my childish games and act intrigued when I go into a mini-lecture about something random like gendered divisions of labor or eXXtreme weather. All in all, I leave the class feeling like something of a success, like a skilled grown-up type, which is a markedly different feeling from when I leave my naughty grade school classes, like a Jekyll and Hyde nonsense speaking school marm type. So in this warming self-satisfaction I get on my bike and ride with a leisurely pace home, taking the busy boulevard, hesitating behind pokey old men, dodging watermelon trucks and finally making a detour at the Night Park.

On the east periphery of the park, outside of the hill, is a wide common area where two separate troupes of middle-aged to senior women dance in dense line formations. I headed there first and take a seat on the steps with the other spectators. The two troupes are similar in appearance, but contrast comically in terms of skill and music choice. The troupe to my left dances lethargically to techno-fied, oldish Chinese tunes. When they jump, it’s at most, about an inch off the ground, and their timing is so off that it reminds me of that carnical game where you hit the squirrels on the head with a mallet as they pop out of their holes. Their arm movements are heavy and imprecise and I wonder if they are just warming up individually, or if it were actually doing a choreographed dance. To my right, is the liveliest bunch of 60 year old women I have ever seen in my life. They are dancing synchronously to what seems like a fast-tempo Worker’s song. The music was so great, I wished I had a mini-disc recorder to capture it. It was emanating from a little home karaoke machine that was strapped to a rusty bike cart. The volume was turned to full strength, which made the speaker filament buzz and rattle, making, for me (a lover of eccentric field-recordings) the experience grittily low-tech and sublime.
I watched the dance troupe a bit and moved on, weaving through the clusters of old, shirtless, dress pants-hitched-to-the-armpits old men that gathered in circles around card games. I am ignorant of card games, but these seemed like something I, if I were Chinese person, would call Vigorous Energy Go Fish, where you slap the cards down as hard as you can and yell “Huh” just as vigorously. I get a few strange stares loitering around these men’s games, so I proceed.

Upon entering the gate to the park I am enticed toward the small amphitheater by some yonder meowing of string instruments and bamboo flutes and singing elder-people. I walk up and watch from a distance, then get a little closer. Soon an old women was ushering me to stand in the middle of the circle of spectators and sing along side the animated singers. I can listen and understand more than I can speak Chinese, but I managed to grasp bits and pieces of all the conversations around me, and they were all about me. I was in the middle of the circle. The high shorts, sleeveless undershirt wearing flautist was bobbing up and down playing quite virtuositically as the seated old man on the Chinese banjo tremelo-ed. They were, and I can’t explain why, waiting for me to bust out with the tune, in Chinese, which they thought I would know. I made an open-mouthed attempt at humming the melody. Pleased enough with my good-sportsmanship, about seven incredible singers chorused in saving me a bit of face. There was an encompassing hug of musical strength around me. I looked up over the group. There were two young men in shorts and sandals midway up the hill. They were playing Vigorous Flutes, having what seemed to be a flute stand-off. It was superb.

Ducking and xie xie-ing myself away from the choir, I walked up the steps of the hill, where couples were crouched pretzel-like around each other. There were kids with green glowing necklaces playing on the Moon-shaped statue. I looked up at the real moon hanging between two apartment towers, whose faces were a mosaic of different colored interior lighting. Sublime.
Music was everywhere. I left the choir and the battling flutes to find as soon as they diminished into the background of chatter and laughing, a gleeful female aria accompanied by zithers coming into resolution. And soon thereafter I came across a old couple practicing a sung passion play for a group of laughing onlookers. And not far from that a large meandering group of ballroom dancers, skirts swirling, and barrel-chested men pointing their dress-shoes in Tango fashion. Now, the pervasiveness of music and chatter was unlike anything else I had heard before. I had been to Mexico walked amidst a music-filled town square and slept in a raging all-night carnival. That is a sound I will never forget: a cacophonous rousing, and indecipherable alien mess of street hawkers screaming into microphones, carnival ride sirens, discos, and the oompa-oompa of Tejano music. But the sound of this Chinese Park is unforgettable for it’s entirely different quality: amid the dance troupe amplifiers, and loud choirs, and seven-piece string bands, and wailing Chinese soloists, and battling flute players, and children with their bizarre humming sound-making yo-yo’s, and ballroom muzak, the music worked together like a kaleidoscope, pulsing and mixing in and out of pleasing arrangements as I walked. It was as if I could hone my hear and bring the far-off zither into resolution while standing in front of the loud jovial choir.

I made my way toward the gate, passing the children’s area where there is a mechanical merry-go-round featuring a loved character from Chinese lore, the goofy-faced Monkey King. It was next to a combination trampoline/ball pit, with the ball pit in the center so that you can leap off the trampoline and land in a cushion of plastic balls! The whole life-loving-affirming portrait of the park was without seedy-adolescent blemish, no malaised looking groups of teenagers loafing about looking bored. All the teenagers seemed to be engaged just as much in the goings-on of the older people and their old people activities. I saw daughters dancing with fathers and teenage boys playing with glow-sticks, and clamoring up the hill with their sound-making badminton rackets. I resisted the thought that this place was, to use a trendy buzz-word, an “Urban Paradise.” But really the Night Park is the closest I have ever experienced in an urban space that so successfully, in design and in actual use, to bring a community together in a pure and imaginative way, like a way only seen on a child’s playground. Where the children are imaginative and playful not just on the physical equipment, but induced by the spirit of the playground itself, by its way of whimsy. In this huge city reknown for its austere governments and inward facing, guarded, massive facades, its Forbidden City and Great Wall, the Night Park welcomes its opposite face, outward joy.

Finally, I’ve written it.

My name is Hannah Pierce-Carlson