Claude Monet once told how, appalled at his own behavior, he was gazing into his dying wife’s face when he realized that he was also analyzing the changing colors in her complexion as she slipped away.
Sometimes I feel like that. Everyone does not have to be taught. Yet thoughts and strategies arise in my mind unbidden.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve sent out anything through this channel. The picture shows Aiwan Lake, the closest pond to my apartment. The once-abundant summer lotus bloom has shriveled into scribbles. The willows, last to turn yellow each fall, blaze through the water under the retaining wall. Above the wall stretches a straight street, mysteriously plagued by drainage problems.
I recently had dinner with an old friend of mine, who actually grew up on these grounds. It was an exciting time. In this small patch of park, he and some other boys once discovered a buried stash of old coins, sequestered perhaps fifty years ago, but never recovered.
Things have changed so much since those days that he feels a bit of two minds when visiting the campus now. Yes, it’s the same place. No it’s not the same place.
The lakes are smaller, for one thing. Turtle Pond hasn’t seen a turtle in years. They don’t even call it that, anymore.
The canals are gone. That road along Aiwan Lake is actually an old filled-in canal. In the old days, it was part of a watery network that ran for miles. Not only could you sail across campus, you could even sail out to the distant “Water Park,” Tianjin’s answer to New York’s Central Park.
My friend’s father (who is actually a bit younger than me) is the man who named Aiwan Lake. It comes from two characters that mean “love” and “evening.” It’s meant to honor the pensioners who lived (and still live) next to it. As I ride my bike to class in the morning, I can glance through the iron fence and see such old guys, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, sometimes with younger men, practicing their Tai Chi to warm up in the coolness of morning.
On the edge of that pond, for many years, lived an old man in a small tent. At least he lived there during the warm-weather months. He embodied the spirit of Aiwan. I took this picture of his tent during the spring of 2009.
He raised ducks and geese on the pond, grew roses and other flowers in a stone flowerbed, and studied Japanese in his copious free time. Most times that I passed the tent, he seemed to be hosting visitors. I used to write about him when I first arrived here, and about his ducks – Moe, Larry, and Curly. Yeah, Curly was the first to go. In the grand scheme of things, isn’t it always Curly who’s first to go?
This old man was not the last to go, though. One day, I suddenly noticed his tent, crushed to the ground as if flattened by a steam roller. It maintained that state of shock for weeks, until one day, it finally picked itself up and wandered off. Neighbors fed the remaining ducks. They reported that the man’s daughters had fetched him. So now he lived with them. So I guess he’s doing okay. His departure seemed to mark the passing of an “old guard” — not just the person himself, but a way of life. Now, even the ducks have vanished. Maybe they’re off visiting the turtles.
I snapped this picture at the same spot this week. The “new guard” here is parents walking their kid to kindergarten. I wonder, though. Will they walk this plane much longer?
Our university’s big move to the countryside, involving thousands of people, is coming soon, probably over the summer, but nobody has officially announced how it’s to be done. Nobody knows precisely who’s staying. Nobody knows precisely who’s going. We only know that most are moving on, a few will remain, while a fortunate even fewer will make Lotso™ money from developing a large piece of this old campus into a business park. In fact, it’s the same piece where my friend once lived and grew up.
Some teachers have purchased homes out near the “new area.” They won’t be as convenient as the homes they have now, if only because they’re located much further from the job site, and a heck of a lot further from the city. There’s not much public transportation out there, yet, either. “Some day” there will be. But, whatever. Shouldn’t the burgeoning automobile fleet take care of such minor details, and tide everybody over for a few years? It’s too far for walking, but driving’s no problem. Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?
Well, the thought of the “water park” inspired me to stop by there over the weekend. What a great perquisite to living in this city!
When I first saw it in 1998 it was surrounded by a high fence, and charged an admission fee. That all changed a few years ago. The fences dropped, leaving a little short frill of painted ironwork that even oldsters could vault. It makes the grounds seem an accessible part of the city, and not a walled-off facility.
And vaults aren’t necessary to gain access. The ticket kiosks were shuttered. Now anybody in the city can wander in without cost, and so, many of them do. And at the same time, the landscaping and structures have been upgraded.
These new facilities attract a constant flow of strollers whose warm presence is what gives the place its real meaning. There aren’t quite so many now that the season is turning colder, but there are still plenty, their population dwarfed in the picture by the huge expanse of the grounds.
It’s a place for birdwatching. It’s a place for you and your twenty friends to practice ballroom dancing. It’s a place for clubs and organizations to set up displays. It’s a place for just you and your one friend to hang out.
It’s a place for men to gather around unending public games of chess. And if it rains, you can all duck under some traditional long corridors, spacious enough to conduct dance sessions or almost any other activity.
And adjoining the water park is an amusement park for the kiddies. The ferris wheel appears in the picture above. There’s also a double-decker carousel, a little Casey Junior type mini roller-coaster, and even my childhood favorite – the bumper cars.
And all this festivity is infused with snack and souvenir shops, including the venerable favorite — cotton candy. Little plaster statues of cartoon-like characters overrun the place, blazing smiles of amusement and friendship.
There is only one plaster human figure among them, a character that I had hoped would have disappeared by now. Alas, he was still lurking out there this weekend.
The sole human plaster figure sprawls just inside the park entrance. It’s a blue-eyed foreigner, fat and drunk but not afraid of further intoxication.
In fact, he’s drinking beer from a bottle when all the time he could have had draft! How daft.
I don’t know. I watched people taking souvenir portraits with it, and reflected that for many kids, this would be their first contact with the apparition of a foreigner. To me, it mars what’s otherwise a superlative experience in a well-thought-out park. But maybe for most folks it’s just not that big of a deal.
I had also come to the park that day to snap a picture of an equestrian statue, located just down the block from the entrance. It’s General Nie Shicheng. He led the Chinese Army in this area about a hundred years ago. The general had come up in conversation recently because of his role in the “Boxer Rebellion,” when he also lost his life to a foreign bomb right here in Tianjin.
It always seems odd to us Californians to actually stand at the location a major event featured in a high school history book so long ago. To us in California, except for the Bear Flag revolt, history is something that mostly takes place out of state, Jedidiah Smith notwithstanding.
Yet here I was. Tianjin stood literally in the middle of the Boxer rebellion, whose major actions took place just north and just south of us. For those Californians who may have forgotten the event, think of an army of Bruce Lees. You can learn more about the general here.
Well, I think I’ll close now before I give in to the dark side of pedantry. Actually, you’ve been spared. I’ve written quite a bit more than what appears here, but I keep erasing it. Meantime, the government continues its stepped-up blocking of ever more web sites and Internet access from outside the country, so you could be forgiven if you thought you hadn’t heard from me because of that.
I hope then, that you enjoy the pictures and that it might give you some insight into what life’s like here “on the ground.”