My arrival in Shanghai coincided with the coldest winter in the last 15 years, complete with snow and icy sidewalks. Today was the first day in the city that I could leave my room without a warm jacket, so I treated myself to a walk in the park.
Jinqiao Park is just a few blocks away from Jinqiao Residence Hall in Shanghai. Unlike many American parks, it is completely closed off with only a few entrances. I walked past a mass of mopeds and motorbikes and entered an overgrown and unkempt winter landscape. Nearly everything was similar shades of a dark brown or a gray-green color, but I could imagine how vibrant the park would be in just a month or two. I walked past a dilapidated white building and arrived at a lake that made up the center of the grounds. As I passed the building, I noticed a red scythe and sickle symbol above what I assumed to be the name of the building — a reminder of China’s intensely Communist history.
I took a seat along a stone bench that bordered the edge of the lake. I realized there was no support or guard railing to protect someone from falling in and wondered if parks in the United States had such precarious seating. There was an elderly man playing an erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument with two strings and played with a bow, who was accompanied by an electronic sound machine. There was so much noise. The voices of the many people around me speaking Chinese did not faze me, since I very easily tune out language if I cannot understand it. Their voices competed with the sound of the erhu player which could not overcome the sound of even louder music from across the water.
People talk about the smog in China, but I never had a clear idea of what it would be like. If you imagine sunlight filtering through on a cloudy day, you would have a pretty good idea. The smog is omnipresent; you might overlook it because it just looks like a haze. But the light that passes through seems to have a yellow tinge and makes most things look drab.
For the first time since I arrived in the city, I finally felt warm. I enjoyed the breeze. The jacket I had worn sat next to me unneeded. I sat alone amongst many groups of different people, all closer together than I was used to, but everyone seemed at ease.
There are almost no animals in this city. Understandably, there are no squirrels, but what surprised me was the lack of birds. I hardly noticed their absence until I saw a pet cat about a week in and realized it was the first animal I had seen the whole time. That day, I still did not see any birds, but for the first time, I could hear them. It left me wondering if their absence had more to do with the poor weather than just the polluted air. A young couple smiled and pointed at the water, which made me notice a crowd of thin gray fish competing for crumbs that a young child had dropped for them.
At this point I decided to take a walk around the lake, where I discovered the source of the noise that had almost drowned out the erhu player. A crowd had gathered around a woman who was singing into a microphone, accompanied by men playing the piano, guitar and drums. I could not tell if the performance was pre-arranged until the woman’s song ended and she handed off the microphone before joining a man at the edge of the crowd. Another man took the microphone and began a song of his own. I was in awe of how this group of people had come together to enjoy music.
Farther away, beyond a pathway lined with elderly people gambling over card games, was an amphitheater with another crowd gathered to enjoy communal music. I watched as a woman told the piano player what song she wanted to sing. The sense of community gave me chills. I was so pleased to be a part of that experience, even if I was just listening and watching. I felt as if I was at an amusement park with the amount of fun I and everyone around me was having.
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