Monday, November 13, 2006

Peacock Lake Park

I'm probably giving away too many clues about JH, but I've been looking forward to talking about Peacock Lake Park.
It was a Friday night, and most of the group was locked in a hotel room watching a bootleg copy of Seven on a laptop. I don't mind a movie now and then, but I'd personally rather experience another culture than immerse myself in Hollywood's.
So I went out to roam the streets.
Originally I had planned to buy an unlocked cell phone that would work with China's mobile networks. I still had three weeks left in country with a lot of exploring on the agenda. A phone would make travel arrangements and team communication much easier. And if I could find a cheap one of good quality, I'd be able to donate it to other teams or use it on subsequent trips.
I had noticed a street lined with small cell phone shops, so I went to check it out. When I had first seen cell phone row, I hadn't realized how packed with vendors it really was. This street, with competition unrivaled even in the U.S., would've made Adam Smith proud. Our host, Tim, had said that capitalistic activity keeps the communist country afloat, and now I knew he wasn't kidding.
Sadly, even in this bazaar, there was nothing of decent quality that fit within my price range. So I crossed the street to Peacock Lake Park.
During the day, American public parks are places where kids play, families relax and athletes practice their sports. After nightfall, though, they become places of infamy, dimly lit dens of iniquity frequented by those who plan to perpetrate dark deeds. In China, it's the exact opposite. Most people don't congregate in parks during the day, but at night, when the neon lights buzz on, the whole family comes out to enjoy the electric energy of China's nightlife.
It was like everyone hibernates during the day, soaking up the sun's solar energy to be released as soon as it goes down. Vendors with headset mics barked verbal advertisements through loud, grainy speakers, beckoning potential buyers to witness the wonders of their products. One guy demonstrated a glass cutter while another played a tune on a stringed instrument he had for sale. A circle of about ten senior citizens danced around a tree, singing a sad song accompanied by twanging strings. At the edge of the lake, a crowd had gathered to watch another band of musicians--anchored by a severely nasal female singer--wail the night away. And this was just on one side of the lake.
Circling around, I passed lovers boarding paddleboats and an outdoor party where the drinks were flowing with the melody. A man sat on a makeshift stage playing his acoustic guitar and singing to entertain the crowd.
Even farther along, I happened upon a game called xiang qi, which is sometimes described as a Chinese version of chess. A small, old man with a long, gray fu-manchu crouched in the middle of a crowd, the gameboard directly in front of him. He looked straight ahead, deep in thought, mumbling to himself every now and then. The crowd that had gathered grew restless awaiting his next move, but he sat still, his bloodshot eyes glazing over. He was deep in either meditation or inebriation.
A man in the crowd yelled at the old man, trying to shake him from his stupor. Still no response. The old master's younger opponent waited respectfully for him to challenge his last move. This went on for about 10 minutes before I walked away. The whole experience had a strange vibe to it, like there was something spiritual attached to this particular game. As I moved back toward cell phone row, I wondered if the feeling is a result of my ignorance to the culture, or if some strange energy was afoot. Disregarding an internal urge to stay and watch the game unfold, I walked away and started toward the hotel. I had no cell phone, but I had gained invaluable cultural experience I could share with my teammates.

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