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.