It snowed today, for twelve hours straight. Miraculously, it stuck to the ground. This is an occasion. We stayed in most of the day, making turkey soup and doing every project under the sun to fight the boredom. In the late afternoon, we took a family walk. Not one foot outside our apartment building, I tripped over a 1-foot-tall snowman in the walkway. Then I looked up just in time to dodge the sharp twirling points of an oncoming umbrella: there were crowds out to celebrate the white stuff, and everyone brought their many-purpose umbrella. [In China, umbrellas are used equally for sun, rain and snow.] Lakeside, more miniature snowmen awaited: one on every bench, to be precise. They were exquisitely crafted, some of them trios: mom, dad, baby. The perfect family of three. They looked remarkably like each other: in this country, there is never, ever just one of anything.
We walked for 45 minutes, and in that time I saw exactly one woman wearing actually pants. The rest wore short-shorts with nylon stockings and high heels: the normal cold weather wear. No one wore gloves or mittens, and few wore hats. Giant, puffy, faux-fur-trimmed jackets, however, were ubiquitous. This did not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm: everywhere, groups of people tossed snowballs at each other with red, frozen hands, cackling and leaping in the air. Children waddled around with buckets and shovels (repurposed beach toys), busily filling up the small buckets with snow.
It was a special day, and so the men with big cameras, Hangzhou’s army of amateur photographers, were called into action. But the grey sky meant the lighting was poor, and the slipping crowds and trampled slush made it hard to capture the day’s essence, that calming softness of the snow, in a frame. The scene was beautiful, but also fleeting, out-of-focus. We stopped with Owen to make snowballs, and the big cameras converged. There in Owen’s red-cheeked smile: what everyone was feeling this day. The perfect shot.
As we played, a policeman walked past, carefully stepping so as not to slip in his wet, worn black shoes. He was kicking down the snowmen, using his dripping leather shoes to reduce each one back down to its individual snowflakes. He paused near one bench and lit a cigarette. A street sweeper called, “You off work yet?” No, he replied, just resting a moment.
As we walked home, past the row of fancy Jiangnan-style restaurants, we watched a group of waitresses in uniform wiping 3 inches of snow off someone’s parked car with their bare hands, chucking snowballs at each other and laughing with exhilarated delight. In the bushes across the road, one of the chefs hid, his tall white hat and puffs of cigarette smoke revealing his position. His laughter could be heard, even before the flash of white streaked across the road and thwacked an unlucky waitress in the rear.
Later, after Owen’s bedtime, I took myself on a walk through the neighborhood.
Through the window of the tour-bus-destination Thai restaurant, a brown-haired Chinese girl served coconuts with brightly-colored drinking straws to a table of heavyset men. One door down, at a mid-level Chinese restaurant, enormous dead fish floated in the cold tanks outside; inside, a man lifted the choicest bit of meat from a giant tureen of soup and placed it on his date’s bowl of rice.
At the corner convenience store—a shop wedged into a one-foot-wide space, so narrow that the single employee has to stand sideways if s/he wants to be in the store itself and not on the sidewalk—the shopkeeper lifted the lid off his rice cooker to check the doneness of his evening meal. Soon he would eat a steaming bowl of food, standing sideways in his shop, chopsticks in hand while selling cigarettes and tea soda to passersby.
Outside the nightclub, a young woman stood under the icicle-laden eaves, her skirt so short as to be completely covered by her faux fur sexy Santa peacoat, her boots up past her knees. She shivered into a cell phone, “I’m here.”
And in the alley, the informal restaurants were dark. The egg seller was inside for the night. It was quieter than I’d ever heard it. A door to a house was cracked open, and I could hear many voices inside, gathering close for warmth. The windows are drafty and the heat is feeble here. The nights, I am sure, are very long.
But the snow has brought a lightness to this place, and the blue sky we’re all-but-guaranteed tomorrow brings everyone one day closer to spring.