Come morning, Shanghai roars to life. The horns from the busses, taxis, and cars merging at the intersection of Haining Lu and Henan Bei Lu make one constant hooooonnnnkkk! Pollution begins to rise from the horizon up into the atmosphere. Construction--the whine of the concrete saws, the zaps of welding, the teeth rattling sound of jack hammering, and the rumbling of big Japanese pavers--resumes. As I head to work, crossing Qipu Lu, people intent on shopping push me aside, shouting to their friends or into their smart phones, stopping at the fruit stands for fresh-pressed pomegranate juice or cantaloupe on a stick. Every other person drags a trolley laden with black plastic garbage bags, each one stuffed with cheap clothing and cheap shoes. People eat as they walk and then toss their trash unceremoniously onto the street, scarcely caring if the vinegar from their dumplings ends up on your clothes.
When you live in a city that's, like, 90 times the size of your own, it's easy to think you'll never have a moment's peace again. One thing that's great about my neighborhood in Shanghai is that after about 9 pm, the whole place shuts down. Most of the stores on Qipu Lu are closed, the rumble of trolleys and the call of vendors silenced. The streets are littered with the day's trash--skewers from street barbeque, half-full Styrofoam bowls of ramen noodles, watermelon rinds--but it's quiet. Quieter than New York City, less quiet than Spokane. There have been a few times when I walk home from the subway, from work, and I can actually hear crickets, softly chirping in the bushes. It's past ten, and the sky is black, the surrounding buildings brightly lit, like stars.
My morning walks to the Bund have been like a renewal for me: a reminder that yes, peace does exist in spite of Shanghai's chaos, that the water in the river still flows and that the lotus still blooms, even from the muck.
As if pulled by the same idea, I see couples taking their wedding photos there all the time. Just two days ago, I saw nine different couples! Other than the Catholic Church in Xujiahui , Waitan (the Mandarin word for the Bund), is the most popular spot in Shanghai for wedding pictures. New beginnings.
I always see something interesting on my walks. One morning I saw a man flying a kite, a black fish about five feet long, high up in the air. Kite-flying is popular on the Bund, but this huge kite was the most amazing I've ever seen.
This morning, the interesting sights continued: I saw four different groups of uniformed practitioners of martial arts. The first group was in light pink, dancing slowly with their swords near the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes. It was all so beautiful that I paused on their stairs: A breeze rippled the loose pink clothing, swirled the tassels on the hilts of each sword. Seabirds glided over the Huangpu River; tourists walked by, some taking photos. Each pose, each movement of the practitioners seemed Zen, unhurried, knowing that a consistent gentle push might be more persuasive than a hard shove.
Not wanting to disturb them, I did an about-face and descended the stairs.
Below the Bund is a small garden, twisting and turning paths woven into the trees. There is even a small wooden bridge near a waterfall, with lotus and lilies blooming up from the ponds. Latticework arcs overhead, woven with trailing vines and filtering the sunlight. Classical Chinese zither music wafts from small portable radios. Retired people are there every morning. Some just sit, almost as if meditating or just allowing themselves to wake up. Some do taijiquan or other light calisthenics. Some stand and talk with one another, the men with wrists clasped behind their backs like old scholars, looking like they're trying to balance themselves between Confucius and Chairman Mao.
As I made my way through this garden, I could hear more music, flute this time, and spied two long lines of people practicing another form. Tai chi? Wushu? Kung-fu? I knew a lot of the names, but not enough about the forms to identify them quickly. Their uniforms were white satin rather than pink, but they were just as graceful. Carefully I edged around them, thankful they were without swords.
It's hard to believe that modern Chinese people still practice these ancient arts--thousands and thousands of years old--but it's still a part of them. It makes me feel good to know that the Cultural Revolution wasn't able to take everything away.
China seems to me to be a nation of survivors. The battles between warlords in seemingly every dynasty; 60 years of invasions by the Mongols; World War II…I can understand why bamboo graces so much of Chinese art. So strong it's used as scaffolding, Chinese bamboo can hold the weight of many men, but it can also bend in the slightest wind. The Chinese talk about being descended from dragons, but sometimes I wonder if they didn't spring up out of the bamboo, ready to bend or to be strong, whatever the situation required.
Unlike the first Americans, who took that bold step into the unknown--and escaped--the Chinese made a stand. Perhaps, if they'd been living in Europe, surrounded by ocean in many cases, taking a boat far away would've made more sense. Or perhaps they chose to stay. I don't know enough about China or Chinese history to make a real guess. I think both histories, in spite of their differences, should be revered, though. It takes just as much bravery to start over as it does to stay; to try something new as it does to keep going through the daily grind.
I thought about how China had survived so much. I thought about how America, in its own short history, had survived what it has so far. Maybe both countries are made of survivors. Perhaps stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, human beings just keep on going.