Like Running Water

Wuhan, China: June-August 2010

Early one Saturday morning, I rise quietly with the intent of bird-watching at a pretty park I noticed while walking back from work a few days ago. After dressing lightly because of Wuhan’s hot sun, I quietly slip outside of my hotel into the bustling city. After passing a huge monument  dedicated to a Communist revolutionary, I enter the park, which teems with people at this early hour. Groups of men and women walk the twisting paths, while others sit in delightful pagodas playing Mahjongg. On the square in the middle of the park, pairs play badminton, while a small group follows a Tai Chi routine. Their leader transitions gracefully from movement to movement like running water. She incorporates a sword with a rich red tassel swinging from the bottom of the handle into her movements; some of the others have similar swords, but a few have to make do with their umbrellas. The park eventually leads to the back of a large complex of yellow buildings with tiered red roofs; these are part of a temple I visited the other day. But as I enter, I realize that something has changed; the temple has awakened. The ornate incense burners positioned around the multiple courtyards are now lit and burning with an intense crackling flame. From within the elaborate golden Buddha shrines, I hear a mysterious chanting. Afraid to go in, I peer around the corner of the entrance and spot a group of distinguished-looking monks clothed in golden yellow sitting around a table singing a hymn. Tears sting my eyes as I watch the swaying of their bodies and the devotion in their eyes. Later on, as I enter the office building where I work, I hear the famous Flower Duet from the French opera Lakmé blaring over the loudspeakers, which all but washes away any memory of the Buddhist monks.

In one morning I have witnessed, frozen in time like a highly-coveted snapshot, a complex country changing so quickly that nobody can catch hold of it. Reeling with dizziness from the memory of incense and ancient chant paired with the air-conditioning and sleek tile of the trade building, I step excitedly into the elevator, eager to return to the park next weekend. This time, though, I will not go to watch birds.

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