Made in China

Ellie McCutcheon

The garden looked like a Monet painting. The weeping willows dangled over the lake, and a perfectly rounded, stone footbridge connected the island of lush plant life to a Chinese pagoda that housed a restaurant and yoga studio. Where giant lotus flowers didn’t blanket the lake’s surface, the water stood still. In all its tranquility and serenity, the silent lake appeared to epitomize a classic, Chinese garden, though it was just a small piece of the labyrinth of quiet lakes and islands that form Green Lake Park in the giant city of Kunming, China.

Soon, though, my perception of this quiet place was completely redefined. The place was full of activity. People roamed the lake in bumper boats, awning-covered paddle boats and floating, human-sized hamster wheels. Street vendors speckled the sidewalks. A group of Chinese men on a bench beckoned to me with a basketball. For a small fee, I could use the ball to bowl over their tower of empty Red Bull cans. I feigned enthusiasm for about a second, then moved on to watch some locals playing badminton and basketball on the nearby courts.

Behind the courts, a group of middle-aged men and women were doing daily Tai Chi exercises, complete with swords. While this practice is exotic to me, it is quite familiar to the Chinese. If Tai Chi were a popular singer in the United States, it would be Lady Gaga. The martial art penetrates Chinese culture and can always be found in any park or square. 

Today in particular, I caught a glimpse of an old woman standing nearby the people doing Tai Chi as she repeatedly punched her own arm; meanwhile, her husband quite literally threw himself into the tree next to her. Apparently, the idea behind these strange actions was to get energy and circulation flowing.

I crossed over one of those poetic footbridges and came across Chinese dance classes. One Chinese man lead a group of 20 or so middle-aged women in dances of all kinds. It was strange watching them shaking their hips and shimmying to Jessica Simpson-esque music. 

Far from the ridiculousness of the first dance group, the second group danced in a fairly simple and conservative circle to some traditional Chinese music. I should have half-expected that I would soon be put on display because, after all, the Chinese are thoroughly entertained by foreigners doing anything. A Chinese professor and I once drew a crowd simply by speaking English in public. 

Not a full minute after I had joined the audience of the second class, one of the dancers dragged me into the middle of the ring to join them, and somehow I became the star of the show.

Afterward they wanted to talk, and probably invite me to lunch, since that’s what the Chinese always do. Unfortunately, after less than two weeks in China and no previous language preparation, my linguistic proficiency level is still limited to phrases like “How are you?” and “I don’t understand.” This was my cue to leave — time to call it a day in the park well spent.