After finishing his breakfast this morning, Owen marched straight out of the kitchen, grabbed his stroller and started calling for me to let him out the door. (This is how he calls for me: “BAAAAB, BAAAB, BAAAAAAAAB.”) Owen, where do you want to go? I asked. He, looking at me with all the intensity of a 1-year old with big things to do, and never enough time: “BAAAAAAAAB!”
Okay, okay, let’s go to the park. But let me grab my coffee.
We put on our shoes and headed out into the misty dawn. I shuffled the stroller down the bumpy street, trying to push with one hand and slurp coffee with the other, while Mr. Excited strained forward against his seatbelt and kicked his legs in an effort to increase speed. Then we got to the park.
Nothing makes you feel like even less of a morning person than a Chinese park before 8AM: choreographed crowds of exuberantly smiling old people, performing well-practiced routines, showcasing puzzlingly and sometimes ridiculously impressive skill, concentration, and physical fitness. It’s like the opposite, I imagine, of an old person with weak knees trying to keep up in a game of basketball with nine trash-talking teenagers. But even worse, because they’re goin’ on 70 years of poor nutrition and nonexistent medical care, while I’m young and eat salads. Used to, anyway. Slurping my coffee (I wish this cup was bigger), I can only watch as circles of ballroom dancers swing gracefully ’round erhu players, would-be gymnasts and sidewalk calligraphers. The latter group use water and brush to write-out the elegant, softly-shimmering characters of long poems they’ve memorized. Meanwhile there I am, supposedly pretty fit and fairly cultured, and if you asked me for any kind of performance I’d just stare at you like an idiot, coffee in hand. Realizing this, the caffeine only awakens my shame.
But for Owen this is like Saturday morning cartoons. (That comparison is, of course, illustrative in more ways than one.) On this particular morning, he was really into the Tai Chi practitioners. The group we watched must have held tryouts: every one of them was perfectly-synced, serene and focused.
Not wanting to get too close to the sea of zen, Owen and I stayed on the outskirts of their little area. After approximately 12 seconds of studious observation, Owen then turned to his never-ending project of organizing the dead leaves on the ground. All was well. Then, perhaps because he spotted a stray leaf further afield, the little collector took off. I followed his shaky run across the concrete and stopped where he stopped, right in front of the very-serious senior-citizen Tai Chi performance team. The martial art is slow and focused, and the practitioners were keeping their eyes to the ground as they made their way through the careful flow of movements, blocking all distractions to their perfect synchronization. It struck me that we were being a little intrusive.
I was about to direct Owen’s attention elsewhere when the closest man, whose frowning observance of the others marked him as the leader, in one split second completely broke character. With his back still turned, he rotated his head mid-movement and chirped, “Xiao baobao!” [“Little baby!”] Then he swooped his extended arms out to the other side, back still turned, and stole another glance over his shoulder: “Xiao baobao!”
It was peek-a-boo with a tai chi zen master, and Owen about fell over with amusement. The game continued, with the old man sneaking a peek with every change of pose, sometimes making a goofy face or sticking out his tongue, sometimes yelling something affectionate Owen’s way. His students continued with their same composure, seemingly unaware. Meanwhile Owen played along by doing his new performance, which is to dance to whatever music is playing by slightly bending his knees and furiously wiggling his butt. The two of them met each other’s glances with chuckles (Zen master) and full-on uproarious belly laughs (Owen).
And having finished my coffee, I laughed right along with them.