I’ve written about the park across the street, No. 6 Gongyuan, previously here. But, as with Heraclitus’s river (which you cannot step in twice, for each time both the river and you have changed), so it is with the Chinese public park: no two trips are identical, and in fact the longer we live here the more unpredictable our outings here become.
Since I last wrote about the place, Owen’s ayi has taken to airing him out by the West Lake nearly every day, and apparently she is not nearly as turned-off as I am by the thronging fans (read: she tells people his name when they ask, which I have stopped doing for reasons that will soon become clear). Thus, everyone who lives and works within a mile-radius of our home knows Owen’s name. The men who paddle the boats on the lake whoop “O-wen!” when I pass by; the woman who sell the laser-beam-and-blaring-music-enhanced automated bubble guns in the shape of sharks clucks “O-wen!” as we stroll; and the men and women who plant flowers and sweep and pick up trash with 4-foot-long metal tongs wheel around when we show up, smiling, his name on the tip of their tongues.
Unfortunately, all this fame is not always welcome. The residents and workers are genuinely friendly and don’t bother us at all; they don’t take pictures or tsk-tsk that I’ve underdressed my child when he’s in shorts in 70-degree weather. They are friendly. It is the tourists who are trouble. They lock-in on Owen the moment they hear the boat workers or tofu sellers call out his name. Like zombies they move in, reflexively and unthinking, to pluck him from his concentrated play.
Next, they don’t eat his brain. They just strike ridiculous poses for ridiculous pictures.
Then they set him aside, like so many discarded tofu sticks and cigarette butts around the park, and move on, admiring the photo on their camera’s LCD screen. Owen returns to his play.
I didn’t realize how conspicuous we’d become until today, when I once again allowed Owen to walk in the roped-off grassy area. Other kids go there sometimes, too, to pick up sticks and leaves and do normal stuff. I have been allowing him to play there, with no admonishment, for months now. But today, the policeman for this part of the park (there’s one roughly ever 200 feet) came over. He was frowning, motioning furiously, and saying loudly, “Get him off the grass now! The last time he was there, another policeman took a picture, and I got fined 20 RMB [about $3]!”
Not quite believing him, I pleaded, hopelessly, “But he’s just a kid. Can’t we let him play?”
“No! Get him out!” And then he blew his whistle, three piercing shrieks, and everyone turned to stare at us. The erhu (two-stringed instrument) player, an old man who plays all day behind a home-made sign that reads, “Please do not blow cigarette smoke in my face while I am playing,” stopped his performance. He said in a low voice to me, “Go pick up the boy and take him out.” I did so, and Owen cried predictably, and then we left, but not before the policeman got one last jab in my direction: “That child’s ayi lets him play on the grass, too! I saw her do it the other day. It’s not cool.”
Sidenote: I am considering giving ayi a raise.
Anyway, we’ll be back, probably tomorrow, to Gongyuan Number 6, where everybody knows your name, and you’re sometimes glad you came.