A Kiss on a Whim

April 24, 2013

They are wrinkled and quiet, she with her elegant earrings and careful ‘do, he with his handlebar mustache. Their table is covered with a large number of assorted plates. There is too much food for two.

If he peered down from above his mustache, just past his bulging belly, he could glimpse the newspaper balanced on his knee. But he doesn’t; instead, he stirs his coffee, and handles his fork and his knife. She sips from a cup, gazing out the window, or perhaps at the TV screen above it.

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I think, subconsciously sadly, that they look so traditional, the man actively reading the paper, the woman passively watching TV. Perhaps he is a business man, and she a sweet wife accompanying him on a business trip.

I think, subconsciously happily, that it would be lovely if I were similarly old and wrinkled and in such company, but spontaneous, and smiling frequently, and kissing on a whim.

The newspaper still on his knee, the mustached man leans over to ask her a question in Spanish, and she points at various dishes, describing, and looking back at him as she talks. But he is not looking in the direction of her finger, but at her face, and leans over more, and she leans forward, and they kiss, as if on a whim.

And then he picks up the newspaper from his knee, and doesn’t bother about any other dishes, and she returns to her people watching.

In the United States, we see grandmothers and grandfathers on the buses, in the grocery stores, at family picnics, in nursing homes, in our offices and volunteering in museums. Some live highly social, sometimes professional, lives; some wile away lonely days in seclusion. Never, however, have I seen people with silver-tinged hair congregate in public spaces in such numbers as I regularly observe in China.

In my past few weeks in Beijing, wherever I have found a large space, I have found elderly people engaged in public activities. From my bedroom window I can look down into the courtyard of my residential community. Sometimes, I see grandparents accompanying children to the pond or on a walk over the little footbridge; frequently, however, they are gathered without children on the benches, engaged in conversation. In Wangfujing, a crowded, popular tourist spot, I find a corner, upon whose benches (and around and hovered above which) are huddled some twenty men with wizened fingers and sharp eyes, engaged in an animated chess game. And anywhere there is a park, amongst the sleepy weeping willow trees whose leaves just brush the lotus flowers floating quietly on the pond waters, I am met with the scene of at least one aged person engaged in some sort of exercise–perhaps tai chi, their slow movements reflecting the peacefulness of the ambience, or perhaps playing the pipa, its ancient notes inviting the ears of passersby old and young.

And then there are the simple machines scattered about the city in the most random of places, their bright blues, greens, and reds appearing in public parks, residential communities, on dusty curbs near subway stations and in front of auto body shops.  And these metal monstrosities, some of them shiny and some of them peeling and old, are well-used, as people with balding and greying heads swing from, stretch upon, and resist against them in these public places. However, the spectacles that put me most in awe are the mass choruses, the mass dancing groups, and the mass performance groups.

The Olympic Park is best-known for its Nest, its TV tower, its Cube, and perhaps even the spectacular Sen Ling Park at its northernmost part.  During the day, if no particular event is taking place, upon the vast spaces between its few monuments will tread map-scrutinizing, camera-wielding tourists of various languages and creeds, vendors hawking their wares at unbelievably loud volumes in strongly dialect-accented Mandarin, and a few locals enjoying the free outdoor space. Overall, the park’s atmosphere somewhat reflects its visitors: rather mellow and overall generally quiet (except for those vendors…).

Perhaps its best-kept secret, however, is what happens at night. Sometime after dinner, when all the tourists have gone home and the vendors have ceased their screaming, is when the Olympic Village truly comes alive. And the sight is incredible. At night, the main plaza walkway is lit from above by the palm-tree-shaped lamps and from around by the various screens presenting the park’s various features.  Surrounding the visitor is a cacophony of song, of color, of energy, and of movement. And the source of all this joyous ruckus, by my estimation, is at the very least 80% over retirement age (which in China, by the way, is nowhere near my American definition of “elderly”).

First, there are the groups of Yang Ge dancers. To the side sit a small-in-number-but-not-small-in-sound music group, one man beating some kind of congo and three men wielding their crashing cymbals, brightly colored cloths streaming from each of the instruments. Dancing in two long columns, first facing each other, then turning away, then forming a third and fourth column, are 25-ish women and men dressed in neon-bright colors, their equally bright cloths streaming through the air as they move their arms in wide arcs, side to side, now over the head, now below the waist, their slippered feet keeping time to the banging of the drum and the clashing of the cymbals and the swinging of the cloths. The scene is one of color, of passion,  and of energy, and it is just surprising to see the wrinkles upon the faces of these beautiful figures.

Next, I am drawn by the Western techno beat blasting from a crowd up ahead, and so I meander over to watch as a grandmother stands before perhaps 100 or more people, mostly (but not all) women, moving and grinding in unison. “Boom, boom, boom, I want you in my room, we’ll spend the night together, now until forever…;” the beat is rousing, exciting, and the dancers throw their arms, rotate their hips, turn left, turn right, look up, look right, turn around, bend the knees. I am in awe of how synchronized their movements are, how everyone seems to know every move without seeing their leader, and how these old folks are not afraid to swing them hips!  My grandma would find this nightscape a bit scandalous! And yet, as I continue down the plaza, I discover there are no fewer than four such humungous groups, exercising en masse in the brisk night air.

Then, last but not least, I stop at the sound of many voices joined together in harmony. Huddled in a circle three people deep is a crowd of dignified ladies and gentlemen, their mouths open wide, engaged in a rousing song, whose topic  I so want to know!  What could they possibly be singing about with such energy, such perfect pitch, such volume, and such, well, such volume!!?? In the middle of the circle stands a very petite woman, gesturing broadly as many a conductor does, pointing to first the men and then the women, smiling at each person, her own motions eliciting louder and louder and more and more enthusiastic participation from the venerable singers surrounding her. I could have stood there and listened to their beautiful sounds forever.