By Matt Cutugno
I stayed in a neighborhood called the Upper East Side, and I had dinner one night in another neighborhood called Soho. The traffic throughout the city was normally congested, with a preponderance of late model American luxury cars. While in line at a Citibank ATM, I noted a number of overweight people on the street.
Who would guess that I was in Beijing, China?
It was mid-September of this year, and I was finishing up a stay in The Middle Kingdom. Beijing was my last stop. I had spent most of my time in rural areas, the countryside, where few westerners tread, places like Huangyan, a district in Zhejiang Province, and Yingcheng, my wife's hometown in Hubei.
Now I was visiting China's capital, its second largest city, and I was struck by how much I felt like I was already back in the States. If imitation is a sincere form of flattery, then westerners might well be embarrassed by all the attention.
I'm a Sinophile, a lover of Chinese culture, even as I acknowledge the problems of the world stage that present themselves to that country. I especially cherish rural Chinese life, where the people are friendly, hardworking, and honest. My biggest problem in rural areas is being stared at. For many there, I am the first westerner they have ever seen up close. On the positive side, I get to practice my slowly developing Mandarin skills, and I try to give the folks a good impression of lǎo wài— foreigners.
Pond in Si de Park
I love the local food, with its emphasis on fresh vegetables and soups, and I like the primacy of bicycle riding as a means of transportation.
In Beijing, though bicycles are still common, they are seen in diminishing numbers, and westerners are no novelty. This past summer, there was a backlash against foreigners in Beijing, resulting in a "roundup" of those working without official government permission. Violators were in no uncertain terms escorted to the airport and asked to leave.
At the same time, Starbucks are everywhere in Beijing, as are McDonalds, and Pizza Huts, and western style clothing and popular music. There is an ever-enlarging expatriate ("expats") population that is hard to deny, or avoid. All this is to suggest that China's capital, in its drive to be modern and New York-like, has lost some of its own identify, and charm.
Luckily for me, my host in Beijing brought me to a place that seemed more typically "Chinese." It's called Si de Park, and it is a welcomed oasis on the city's Upper East Side.
Si de means "four of them," referring to the four (sì) benefits that any citizen can receive from visiting the park. One can find peaceful contemplation; one can commune with nature; or learn more about the plant life that abounds. The fourth benefit, an endearing notion, is the long life that comes with spending time in natural settings.
Ballroom Dancing - Si de Park
The park is not fancy, and that is its great attraction. There are no ball fields, no Frisbees flying, no vendors selling hotdogs. There are just winding paths through rolling fields of grass and willow trees, past ponds full of bamboo and lily pads. There are benches throughout where visitors can rest, and there is an ice skating rink for enjoyment and exercise when the weather turns cold. Too, the park features the common activity of ballroom dancing, which takes place mornings and evenings and is always lovely to watch.
So, Western World, keep your fast food franchises and gas-guzzlers. Just leave me, as Joni Mitchell once implored, the birds and the bees.