A Nanjing afternoon: I wonder what they are doing now

Seniors play cards outdoors in the warming air. Photos by Sandy Detwiler.

Rick and I visited China during the first three weeks of January this year. Our purpose was to visit our daughter and her husband, who teach at Nanjing International School, an independent, private school for children of multinational diplomats and businesspeople posted in Nanjing.

Here we are two months later, deluged with reports of mandatory quarantines, lines for medications and fear of the spreading coronavirus, and I find myself remembering vividly one afternoon’s stroll through Wuchaomen park.

I imagine the park is empty today, quiet but for a few masked, gloved walkers hurrying out for their daily exercise. Just weeks earlier, the green space buzzed with joy and purpose.

The park, on the site of the ruins of a 13th century Ming palace, serves as both an outdoor senior center and a playground. Lingering roses, purple pansies and yellow blossoms line a winding path leading to an open grassy plot where a wrinkled man with furrowed brow bent to untangle the line of his home created kite. A dozen hand-cut newsprint diamond-shaped panels spaced two feet apart were connected by the knotted string which the determined man struggled to loosen. He scowled as he twisted and turned the snarls. Only a few knots were undone when we passed by him a final time as we left the park.

I wonder….is he continuing to disentangle while stuck in his apartment or has the virus undone him as it has so many elderly?

Above: A group of girls asked Sandi Detwiler to take a photo with them in a park.

Off to the side of the kite man, lilting tones led us to four senior women who held their arms high swinging in time with the melody. Slowly their bodies swayed back and forth. Each woman’s hands closed and opened to the rhythm of the music. Concentrating, almost meditative, the foursome was oblivious to the shouts of the little soccer players running among them. Arms like feathers, floating through the air, the women’s faces were masks of focus.

Are they still waving their arms or are they confined to their apartments?

Nearby a group of three girls about seven years old clutched tall calligraphy brushes which they wet in buckets of water. Each child dipped the pointed brush in the water and began to draw Mandarin characters on the pavement. Mothers offered instruction as the children concentrated on learning the first of the 2,000-3,000 characters an educated Mandarin reader and writer must know. Once they noticed us watching, they turned to one another, burying their heads together with giggles, but soon flashed smiles as we offered our smiles in return.

Now that all schools are closed, are they still in the park practicing with their brushes or are they restricted to their homes?

Near the drawing girls, a pair of helmeted, knee- and elbow-padded little boys laughed and struggled to stay upright on their roller blades. An ancient man dozed on a bench in the pale January sun. His neck bobbed up and down as he slept while his creased, tan face suggested he’d spent many an afternoon napping in the warmth.

Couples danced in the park in Nanjing, China. Photos by Sandy Detwiler.

Where are they skating now; where is that man napping?

A row of young trees separated the napping bench from an area where a humming sound attracted us to several middle-aged men who were engrossed in diabolo spinning, an activity where a round object is threaded in the center by a long string in order for the handler to spin and create a whirling, buzzing sensation. Fascinated, we watched, thinking how difficult it is just to keep a toy top spinning. One particularly adept spinner furrowed his brow with concentration as he paced circles around the concrete, all the while pulling the string to keep the disc humming.

Now, is he spinning at home or is the disc collecting quiet dust in the corner?

At the far end of the grounds, more seniors sat on fixed stools playing cards on concrete tables covered with fabric. The card players shouted and laughed as they waved to us with smiles of gold teeth which shone in the afternoon sunshine.

Sadly, perhaps the teeth are now hidden by surgical masks while solitaire emerges as the game of choice.

Dancing couples brought us smiles. A discreet boom box played music, nothing recognizable, but the sort of music that makes a couple want to assume classic “dance together” positions. The couples appeared to be in their 60s or 70s, wearing casual pants, shirts and sneakers, everyday clothes. Their footsteps fell light on the grass and concrete. Confident men twirled their partners as they glided across the space. Two pairs of women moved with more energy and sass than the mixed couples. Though my feet were itching to join them, I hesitated, not wanting to offend anyone. Now I wish I’d jumped in.

Are they still dancing? I’m hoping they will again soon.

As we were strolling out of the park, two young girls walked up and said in their best English “Hello. This flower is for you. May we take your picture?” I smiled. “Thank you for the pansy. And I’d be happy for you to take our picture. Let’s have a picture of all of us.”

A passing woman snapped the memory of an afternoon, a delightful afternoon, when we didn’t yet have to fear being with strangers.

Though I had assumed the lush park was a place for simple relaxation, I realize now that most everyone there was fully engaged, concentrating on his or her activity. As I think back to those memories, ask myself those questions, I do so with a new perspective on the Chinese people.  That focus, attention to detail, and persistence evident in a Nanjing park offer me faith that the Chinese people will overcome this latest challenge, perhaps teaching the rest of us something about their culture along the way.

I wonder…