Early Birds Flock to Chinese Parks

By Andy Mai

Photo by Daniel Catinella

It was not even 7 in the morning, yet the sound of high-pitched Chinese opera attracted my attention. I could see 30 middle-aged Chinese women performing a synchronized routine with red accented fans in the middle of a park before I even stepped out of the van.

I was visiting one of the many local parks in Baoding, (Hebei Province, China) and it was representative of how elderly retired people in China believe in waking up early to do everything from Tai Chi to operatic singing to weight lifting. During the van ride to this park, the streets around as busy as midday afternoon back home during the workweek. We easily passed hundreds of bikes in the duration of our 10-minute ride.

Twenty minutes earlier, I had just been woken up after two knocks on my door. I discovered it was 6:38 a.m. and my alarm did not go off. I rush to the door to find my study abroad group leaving for our morning activity.

At the entrance of the park, the music came from a portable speaker and any person walking down the street would view this as normal. The scene is reminiscent of Columbus Park in New York City’s Chinatown, where many of the retired spend their time. During a routine switch, I noticed many would return to their bikes are grab a different prop.

Our group was quickly spotted and the women were encouraged to participate in the world famous Chinese fan dance.

My student translator told me that many of the women live near the park, which sits alongside a trickle of grimy, polluted stream. On the other side of this stream was a small market.

Inside the park, people were stretching and exercising as if they were in a gym. But their workout was outdoors on brightly blue and yellow painted public exercise machines such as elliptical cross trainers, leg presses, sit-up benches and hand cranks.

I interviewed a 66-year old woman on an elliptical. She said that most days she woke up at 6 and went to bed at 10 p.m. If it was not for a knock at my door, I would not of even woken up at 6:30. When I asked her why she awoke so early every morning, the woman said that keeping active helped her to feel strong and energetic.

The park was a living testimony to the woman’s philosophy. It was crowded and buzzing with older people playing badminton, jianzi (like hacky-sack but with a feathered ball) and a game that involve spinning a large metal top by hitting it with a whip.

A woman in a black tracksuit and blue sneakers caught my eye as she kept a feathered ball in the air by herself. Her name was Lee and she was 54. She told me she awoke at six every morning to come and exercise in the park. Yet she was different from the others; she still worked.

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