Sunday, April 14, 2013
Running in China
It has not been due to the lack of things to write about, or time to do it, but rather I have never felt like I could put everything that I have been feeling, experiencing & seeing into words.
That is, until today.
Today is what I like to call the calm before the storm. The day before we start mock exams at school and our students are at home revising and working hard for their exams this week. Us teachers, on the other hand, have a carefree weekend with nothing to prepare for. Our work comes during the week when we have to grade all of the exams the students take.
On weekends like this I like to go running.
I have had to adapt my outdoor running quite a bit since coming here nearly 2 years ago. I used to never run with headphones; now they are a must. I used to have at least 2 dozen different routes I could choose from with differing lengths and gradients; now I have 2 in-complex runs and 3 out-of-complex runs, all but one are as flat as a pancake. I used to never think about the air quality before I went running; now I am dependent on my iPad app that gets hourly air quality updates from the US consulate in Guangzhou. I used to NEVER run on a treadmill; now I run on one at least 2 times a week if not more.
Despite the challenges of running in China. I have never regretted it. Sure, there have been times when, like today, an entire family slows down their car as the father points out the window at me so the children can see the "strange foreigner" who is running. I smiled and waved back at the stunned 8-year old boy who was straining his neck to gawk at me. Or other times when I come back and blow my nose and it is grey (sorry if that is too much information). But I always come back from my runs with a new story or a better understanding of where I live.
One thing has become very apparent to me while on these runs. China is two very different worlds.
One of my runs I call the "River Run", as it takes me down to a small channel off of the main Pearl River. Along this run I see the entire spectrum that makes up China's population. From poor to rich, educated to unable to speak and understand Mandarin, and city slicker to country bumpkin.
My run starts out in my gated complex where I can see people talking on their iPhones wearing their Prada and running laps around the lake in their new Nike running shoes. As I go out of my complex I see the roads full with traffic. Mercedes, Fiat, & BMW along side old men peddling their bikes with fresh fruit to sell near the entrance of our complex.
Next, I run through a park across the road from my complex. It is filled with people young and old getting their daily exercise. Some jog while others prefer to follow what seems to be decades old Mao Era tapes that count out yi-er-san-si-wu-liu-qi-ba yi-er-san-si-wu-liu-qi-ba over and over again as the crowd of people follow the exercises being shouted over the counting.
After the park comes the foreign primary English schools and large high schools. After those are the gated working communities. Although not as big and well known as the Foxconn work communities, these gated work communities still house many young working age rural migrants who have come from all over rural China to the east coast to make money. Many of them spend the majority of their time in these places. They work long hours, eat & sleep here in order to save as much money as they can to send home. On some evenings you can see these young workers (18 - 24years old) walking around outside with their friends before they have to be inside its walls for curfew.
After the working complexes is when I get to the area of urban renewal. Last year this area was full of small shanty dwellings and little garden plots. Now, most of the gardens & shacks have been bulldozed into the ground. A few still linger on the far side. Late in the day the people who live in the remaining dwellings usually burn their trash and you can see curls of smoke coming from their 'yards'. Today it looked and smelled like they were burning plastic with the distinctive black smoke and chemical smell. I ran by fast as I held my breath.
Oposite these dwellings is a high-tec financial zone. It seems like it doesn't belong. a group of about 5 20 story shiny glass covered buildings clustered together around well maintained water features. The occasional man or woman usually strolls by in business attire while young people tend to flock to the water features to take each other's photo to post on the social networking sites Weibo or QQ.
Finally, I reach the river. There are paths along either side of the river channel along the top of the levees that flank either side. Here, you will find families strolling together, people fishing in the murky, polluted waters, the occasional runner and the more frequent motorbike. On the far side of the channel there are even a few squatter homes made out of tarps and bamboo. There are only 2 now as 3 of them got moved, most likely by water after the last round of hard rain. There are even a few hand-made house boats that look like something straight out of a Mark Twain novel.
The entire loop I do along the river is paved with either bricks or slate. Not very good for the shins, so occasionally, I go off the trail and onto some of the grass. This seems to really confuse people as I run by along the trail. But I just smile and nod and make my way back home.
China is full of haves and have-nots. Coming from a place like the United States I was just not use to seeing the stark contrast of the two. At home, poverty tends to be in certain areas and people tend to avoid those areas if they can. Here in China the extremely rich are next to the devastatingly poor and they are forced to see each other.
Over the last 2 years I may have damaged my lungs more than I have improved my health by running on the streets of Foshan, but I have slowly started to understand this mysterious ever changing place called China.