After a weary week of headline-grabbing pollution levels, spring is knocking on the door. The sky is blue, the ice is melting, the wind keeps shifting the smog – and everyone’s talking about it. Beijingers don’t share the display of elation that a sun beam activates in Londoners: they don’t start walking around in T-shirts or overcrowding parks, or insist on opening all the windows and standing outside at the pub. But the sun does prompt a big change here that I particularly love – when the smog clears, the children come out.
About a ten-minute walk from our house, there’s a primary school nestled between an ostentatiously designed shopping mall and a row of parked rickshaws. On bad pollution days the students – as with all schools in Beijing – are kept inside, but on a clear day they’re let out for exercise. When I pass the school in the morning, the fenced sports ground is filled with hundreds of young kids in multi-coloured jackets, bobbing up and down in time to an adult’s voice crackling through a loudspeaker. They’re too young to follow the instructions exactly, and some look distracted or over-excited, but they stay in their places and try their best. The result is a charming show of bouncing and wiggling children, set against the blue sky and the shimmering glass of the shopping mall.
I remember doing something similar when I was at kindergarten and primary school in Japan. All the students would stand in rows in the school grounds – often in order of height, shortest first, so I was always near the front – and listen to the headmaster’s talk or do some exercise in unison. This was the way sports days started, too. I also remember going to a nearby park early in the morning during the summer holidays, where the local community would be stretching to a daily radio programme – the “rajio taiso (exercise)” is still a national institution.
Here too, in Beijing, one of the most heartwarming sights is of the locals gathering in the park and following a leader in some spontaneous exercise, dance or martial arts moves, set to jolly music blasting from a stereo. We see this outside office blocks at night in the dark, and once in the main tourist area in the Temple of Heaven we saw a peculiar scene: a man, woman and child who may or may not have been related taking turns to improvise some casual moves, stopping mid-way through a song to sit down or eat, and even though they weren’t asking for money they were watched intently by a crowd that was large enough to make a Covent Garden entertainer jealous.
The sunshine also entices out the pensioners in Beijing. The fitter ones use the public exercise equipment that you find on street corners and in parks, and do some cross-training or cycling or swinging off bars. The metal is cold and the maintenance standards are unclear, but it’s easy, it’s gentle and you can do it wearing coats and shoes. The less mobile pensioners are brought out in wheelchairs and parked in the sun – a popular spot is by the shop window of the new multi-level H&M.
I must confess, on sunny spring days like this I wish I could go into the English countryside, with the golden daffodils, the damp fields, the sheep poo. But the same sun is kind on Beijing too, and it’s a lovely sight.
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