Here in Beijing, I am surrounded by the past and the future at every turn. I see technology grabbing the hand of history and pulling it closer, as though history has a history of being afraid to dance and technology cannot take no for an answer. What has resulted is an occasionally awkward intermingling of old ways and new ways here. But, I will hold that the perception of awkwardness is likely only coming from me, the outsider, because I can also appreciate the grace and rhythm that old and new have together, as though they have danced this way for years.
Neither seems in any hurry to step on the toes of the other.
Both are equally (but differently) stubborn.
Both are great dancers.
This kind of dance is evident in simple things that I noticed almost every day here when I first arrived. The kinds of things that are strange to an outsider but eventually become the norm after two months of living in this amazing city. Well, not exactly the norm and I’m still moved every time I notice another example, just no longer surprised. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in Beijing.
For example, most of the brooms here in China are just tree branches. They are bound together in bunches and attached to a bamboo pole. They’re used to sweep up the leaves and dirt and dust that this windy city blows into walkways and pathways. Every morning at around five o’clock, I hear the sound of a campus worker sweeping the road outside of my building. That is his job every day. He uses this kind of broom and I hear the sound of tree branches on pavement, swishing in a reliably steady rhythm, and it warmly greets my dreams through the open window.
Of course, this way has been used for centuries and there is no need to improve on an idea that doesn’t need improving – something we westerners could learn from! – and so I haven’t seen near as many plastic options for brooms in this city. And we all know how often those plastic brooms break, loose bristles, etc. Cheap replicas of a system that was once based on what we could find in nature. Weren’t all systems? Yes, I believe they were.
As I was walking the other day, a woman was walking in front of me balancing two large pots, each dangling from the ends of a pole. This pole was perched horizontally across her shoulders. Again, this technique has been used for centuries and it obviously works; the weight is more evenly distributed and she walked quite easily with what appeared to be two quite heavy (full) soup pots.
Also, in Wudaokou – where the school district is and where huge buildings are being constructed as we speak with glossy signs and glass fronts – there is a railway crossing right beside the subway station. At this railway crossing, there are four large traffic arms that are lowered (by two attendants, one on each side, not automation) in order to stop the flow of traffic when the trains pass. They use big ropes and pulleys and the arms come down with a clang.
Well, one of these traffic arms is a tree. It’s not just made of wood; it’s actually a tree that has just been stripped of its branches and painted black and white. You can still see where it grew slightly bowed in the wind! It isn’t perfectly straight and it tapers at the far end just as a tree trunk tapers at the top. Why? Because it’s a tree!
When I noticed this, I had to take a picture. The other traffic arms have been replaced with more modern metal ones that were factory-made and look all uniform and boring, but this relic of a traffic arm remains (and entertains its metallic friends with its stories, I’m sure). I’m just touched that they didn’t replace it when the others were replaced or rotted away. Maybe that’s the Chinese way, i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” It would appear so. (Does anyone know if there’s a Chinese “chengyu” (idiom) with this same meaning?)
Finally, in Shanghai, I was moved by the rows upon rows of laundry that seemed to float in the air above the streets. Of course, not literally. All of the upper apartments have these long metal arms that stretch out from their windows on which the residents hang their laundry outside of their homes to dry. I wondered how often someone loses a pair of underwear to the wind, or fetches their laundry only to find that a bird has taken off with one of their socks?! The colours floated like dozens of multinational flags. Somehow the gentle movement of the laundry in the breeze made the streets feel more neighbourly, as though everyone were open and airing their lives with abandon. “Who cares what people think of my pink underwear!” says the man upstairs . . .
I love it.
I love the connection points between old ways and new ways. It seems so real and raw at once, both stubbornly fighting to exist and/or remain. It seems to me that each has realized that only through an embrace can they survive.
Yet another lesson, courtesy of China.