Thursday, July 24, 2008

It is Going to Be an All Night Affair

There are things we intend to do and things we do. Or as folks have been arguing about since Kant changed the rules of the game, we have our thoughts and we have our deeds and which is the more valuable domain is what keeps the prose flowing. I have my opinion on the matter and would love to share it-but another time. Because the above is simply a way of saying that while I intended to keep this post updated frequently, I have fallen far short of that goal. The good news is that most of the delayed posts are partly written and only awaiting a pause in the ceaseless Chinese language study to finish up. The better news is that rather and keep waiting and waiting to finish the posts from weeks back, I am going to throw order to the wind and start throwing posts up as soon as they are done, order be damned.

So the flirtatious French girls, Egyptian weight lifter and a lowdown on how Beijing's environment really is (pardon the interruption, but in the crush of commentary on this issue, do you think any of the writers have actually gone for a run in Beijing? No, I thought not!) will have to wait for the mass of posting planned for this weekend. For now, thoughts on today...

It has been four days since Beijing put its gargantuan net of policies into effect to clean up the air quality and reduce the pollution level before the Games. As my luck would have it, I did not have a chance to run outside earlier this week, when fortune smiled on the organizers and the sky was as blue as the lakes of faraway Tibet. Today I did go for a afternoon run, and sure enough the sky was so gray, that it not only smelled like I was running through old furniture but at times felt like it.

As bad as the air was, that was not what got my attention. Heck the air is that gray pretty much every other day in the capital. The headliner this afternoon was that my corner of Beijing has been transformed: plant sculptures are up everywhere, there are more flowers on the sidewalks than are being sold in Jerusalem on a given erev shabbat (Friday afternoon), and of course, Huanhuan and his friends (the Beijing Games mascots, duh!) are everywhere. On my run through the local park, every lamppost had been bedecked with Olympic flags. Considering this is urban China, where public electric lighting is a national obsession, the only thing that I have witnessed that compares to the fluttering Olympic flags came a few years back when Central Park covered itself in orange banners. As I began my run, a final Olympic banner was being raised in the park. The worker had a pair of hooked claws attached to his shoes that enabled him to hang off the side of the lamppost Spiderman style while he affixed the fabric with Sukka style plastic ties to the metal pole.

But the real attention grabber came at the beginning of my run when I passed the gymnasium that will host women's volleyball in three weeks time. Tomorrow is the first chance in months--and more importantly, the final chance--for locals to purchase tickets to the Games. They go on sale at a variety of city locations at 8am and, as you would expect in a city of 18million plus people, the line as of 6:00 pm is already down the block. I asked a Chinese friend why the people had no sleeping bags or the like. She looked at me incredulously and said "sleep? they wont sleep! If they sleep they will be lucky to find themselves within a few blocks of where they put their head down the night before let alone a chance to get tickets. It is going to be an all night affair."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Moment of Truth

Never trust the man who tells you all his troubles but keeps from you all his joys. Yiddishism

Mondays are always frantic, with the first of the daily Chinese listening and writing quizzes that make every evening a blizzard of scribbling and endless memorization. So my run this morning was necessary circumscribed as well.

The highlight was certainly returning to the large park I had visited the day before. I made sure to enter by a different gate and leave by the same one I had used yesterday. While exiting at the latter gate, I stopped to purchase and hand a park ticket over to the guards. When I turned down the street and began heading for home, the guards raised a hue and cry, confused as to why I had just paid for an entrance ticket and was now leaving! My explanation that I was the same young guy without cash from the previous morning who had promised he would return to pay the ticket fee only made them more surprised that I had actually made good on my word. The small price of two yuan was nothing compared to the chance to leave the guards stunned at my behavior as I ran off down the road.

Swimming in Beijing

You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back. Vincent, Gattaca (1997).

A day earlier I had read in my nicked up maroon paperback version of Bamidbar about the saga of the twelve spies of Israel, the infamous dozen whom Moses reluctantly sends to scout out the holy land while the twelve tribes are traveling through the desert. Putting aside the tragic consequence of their journey, I was inspired on Sunday morning to strike out into a new corner of Beijing. With only a watch to assist me in finding my way—useful in timing how long the legs of a route take, allowing me to gauge where I might be on the return run— I headed to the south and then pushed westward until I arrived at one of Beijing’s largest parks: Yu Yuan Tan (YYT).

If you have ever heard me discuss anything tangentially related to running, visiting or living in Beijing, you already understand how the capital’s parks are the best thing the city has going for it. YYT raises the ante a few notches however, because the huge lake that dominates the park manages to pack in some of the best water activities I have yet experienced in China. Look for a later post to detail my chance to enjoy Da Shui Qiao, a fantastically weird version of bubble-boy-esque bumper boating I first partook of a year ago in the western capital city of Xinning. This Sunday run was marked by a more traditional encounter with the water, though one none the less memorable.

There was so much to see around the lakeside of YYT that after completing one loop in a half an hour of hard running I revved up for one more. Fate, in this case clothed er actually unclothed in a pack of smiling laobeijingren, intervened. Two dozen elderly locals were towel maneuvering by the rocky banks of the lakes, with a few of their comrades still basking in the green water. The heat got the better of my urge to keep running and before I knew it, my shoes, watch, shorts and shades were hidden away under a branch while I dove into the water. Within minutes I was working on my first ‘huzi,/feiji/ji’ strokes in China. Yet while my arms and legs monkey/airplane/squeezed my body through the water, my mind was swimming through the summer lakes of Minnesota. The water may have been a bit greener than any of the ten thousand plus lakes of my home state, but the chance to connect to summers of the past in one of Beijing’s most idyllic corners made the swim as memorable a dip in a lake as I have ever had.

Running from the Beast

Let me tell you something kid; Everybody gets one chance to do something great. Most people never take the chance, either because they're too scared, or they don't recognize it when it spits on their shoes. The Babe, The Sandlot (1993).

All my life I have wavered between living the life of Smalls and aspiring to the grandeur of Benny. Living the life of Smalls is about identifying with The Sandlot’s scrawny outsider with the funny hat, whose relationship with his peers is as out of sync as his communication with his parents. Smalls is the kid whose very limitations make him hopelessly fated to be the narrator, still reporting from the sidelines when all his childhood friends have matured and disappeared into their own lives. Aspiring for the glow of Benny is about believing I have it in me to be that incomparable speedster, the winner with the magic smile who is known for coming through in the toughest moments.

Benny and Smalls were on my mind on Friday, when my red haired Mexican friend joined me for a run after we finished our weekly exams. Two blocks from the nearby park her legs locked up and despite my insistence that I accompany her back to campus, my friend was equally adamant I continue going. So I did and the result was a Benny experience, an extended moment of complete release when every ounce of physical and emotional strength is exuberantly employed to the point that in that moment you know you are giving everything. Everything. Even if you cannot remember the last time you saw Benny run for his life from the Beast in the climactic finale of The Sandlot, you still should have a good idea of what I am describing. And not because you may have seen it in movies or elsewhere in the media. You should know because unless you have allowed your Benny moments to slip by one by one, you have surely experienced a few yourselves.

Running Solo

God created man and, finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a companion to make him feel his solitude more keenly. Paul Valery

Running can be a lonely business. The bemused looks from the morning masses may inspire me to run faster. But they do not share my thoughts nor otherwise detract from the solitary path I tread each morning. Only someone by my side, matching me stride for stride, can provide such companionship. Finding that someone, however, is no easy task.

For starters, I am not the best of running companions myself. Running for the sake of running bores me. If I am not at the point of exhaustion, unless every stride leaves nothing in reserve, then the idea of running in circles for forty minutes strikes me as inane at best and demeaning at worst. The problem is complicated by the fact that frequent runs have set my ideal pace past the point of the casual runner but nowhere near the speed of anyone with real experience. Though worrying about the pace is really besides the point: like most things, the toughest part of finding a running companion is discovering someone motivated and willing to match their interest to the reality of lacing up sneaks and hitting the road at seven am each morning.

Perhaps my expectations are too high. If so, there is one person responsible—and I will not take the honest yet simple route on this one and look in the mirror. Last summer an incomparable classmate woke me each morning with a soft knock on the door. As I put aside my tefillin, he finished brushing his teeth and together we would set out to explore the winding roads and musty canals of Suzhou. Perhaps it helped that my classmate was an all-everything track star back at his small college in Pennsylvania. Fortunately for yours truly, my classmate’s blistering pace was exceeded only by the joy and dedication he displayed for our daily runs.

No one this summer can possibly compare to my friend of yesteryear. The best replacements I have found are any of several long legged female classmates who ever so rarely join me on runs in the park. For your average local, a girl zipping by in tight running shorts and a sports bra is far stranger than a half naked guy with a watermelon on his head. My female fellow runners soak up the stares, allowing me to run in relative anonymity. Perhaps that anonymity is what having someone by your is partly about—ironic in a way, that a benefit of not being alone is the ability to melt into the crowd. I imagine that the Olympics will rob Beijingers of their na├»ve fascination with spandex clad girls, though I am sure by then someone or something else will emerge to alleviate the solitary nature of running in the capital.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Macarena in the Park

The aim of every artist is to arrest life by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again. William Faulkner

Every time I run in the nearby park, a new activity practiced by China’s intrepid senior citizens catches my eye and leaves me stunned. But not since discovering how fond old ladies are of swirling twin sabers to the tunes of Mozart and Beethoven have I been as amazed by the sight that greeted me this morning. At the entrance to the park, an enormous crowd of old folks were thrusting their hands in the air and shaking their bodies to everybody’s favorite late nineties anthem: Macarena.

Discovering that Macarena has been added to a list of park activities so vast that nearly any musical genre, style of dance, form of combat or callisthenic—in short, anything that could make the show America’s Got Talent is likely being performed by senior citizens in a park somewhere in China— is on the list only confirmed a remark I had made to a friend over Friday night dinner at Chabad. My friend had marveled at the presence of a kosher restaurant in Beijing, commenting that it was so out of place. I replied that a kosher restaurant was actually perfectly suited to the random and wild tableau that is China’s capital city. And that character is not simply a modern development. Before earning the sobriquet “Forbidden City,” imperial China’s capital cities were often among the most international metropolises in the world. And as any globe trotting traveler knows, the 12th century rabbi Benjamin Tudela was not the first nor will today’s young Israeli backpackers be the last wandering Jews with a knack for finding their ways to all four corners of the globe.

The shirtless foreigner running at high speed through the parks of western Beijing is sort of like that kosher restaurant. For all the odd stares I get, when I am running in the park I am as much a part of the local character as the married couples having their photos taken by the shore and the old ladies playing hacky-sack besides the silent qigong master. The last half century, when China was largely cut off from the world and the Jewish community was increasingly repositioned in Israel rather than across the world, suggest that a Jewish presence in China is a misnomer. I am convinced that it is actually a suggestion of untapped potential, of what two ancient civilizations and dynamic modern communities have to communicate to each other. It is difficult to say when or if I will have the opportunity to further that potential myself. But from the welcoming nods I now receive from familiar faces in the local park, I know that the steps necessary to forge such a relationship come from recognizing that my own activity in China is only as unsuited to the local environment as I imagine it to be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Con: Chasing Chinese

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most….When we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. Marianne Williamson

Learning a foreign language, especially one as challenging as Chinese, is a tricky thing. The key trick is confidence, with a generous serving of perseverance for those times when your mind cries out in protest against reliving the early days of childhood. As an aside, there is nothing like maintaining a strict language pledge to empathize with screaming babies who, like yourself, are hamstrung in the verbal game.

China may have bestowed me with many things but topping the list has to be confidence. Despite running through a laundry list of doubts each time I stumble over an old grammar pattern, the confidence I have in China is so pervasive that it colors the dull grays and reds that otherwise dominate the Chinese palette. My travels in Western China—dancing in Qinghai, getting “arrested” in Tibet, motorcycling to distant villages in Yunnan, volunteering in Sichuan— are when the seed was first planted. But it is the warm reception I have had from regulars folks throughout my western travels and back on the Eastern seaboard that makes finding my way in (what was and in many ways still is) an alien culture such a confidence boosting (and endlessly enthralling) experience. By warm reception, mind you, I don’t mean Israel’s unparalleled hospitality. We are talking China, so we are talking a huge range of reactions, from staring at my watermelon, asking for a photo together, taking my passable accent as suggesting my Chinese is far better than reality suggests, and more than anything, displaying a depth of positive energy and intrepid kindness that gets overlooked in panoramic discussions of China’s billions.

Which brings me to what may or may not be the first and last comment on the strictly academic component of my summer. Classes start in earnest tomorrow (June 16) and I have been placed in the highest level. It is not so much a comment on my Chinese mastery as a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of my classmates have only studied the language for one or two years. Having completed the second tier course now being offered in my previous stint in Beijing in January, and with not enough advanced students this summer to have multiple higher level classes, my “honor” at making it to the top of the hill is simply a technicality.

Technicalities aside, placing near the top of my program marks a dramatic change of pace for someone who has grown well used to struggling fruitlessly near the bottom of every language class I have been in since biblical Hebrew lessons in first grade. At every step of my Chinese studying career I have struggled with the reality that despite committing twice the amount of time into my studies as most students, my progress in the language has been stilted at best. Now I am viewed by teachers and classmates alike as someone with the sort of Chinese skills others aspire towards. Even while recognizing the untold distance I am from any real degree of fluency, there is something to having much expected of oneself that, confidence-wise, promises to benefit my progress this summer in and of itself.