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Yin and Yang in Kunming

We’d flown into Kunming and spent just a night there, but the changes in the anthropological landscape were immediately striking: this was now quite obviously Central Asia. The people were swarthier and spoke less (no) English, and architecturally buildings were still very communist, concrete apartment cubes hung with window boxes sporting plastic flowers. The music was different, less stereotypically Chinese (fluty, reedy, high-pitched) and more braying, chanting, drumming: braaaooooooh, not wee-wee-wee.

In the morning we went to the park at six to watch the city wake up. The gravel paths were filled with people massaging their elbows and faces, slapping at their chests, braying, humming, singing and shouting. To the unprepared, it might look like the garden of a large asylum. But it was wonderful. What I saw, I think, was a community keeping healthy together.

On the common square between the trees laid out in checkerboard fashion, a boom box hanging from a ginkgo blasted out a broadcasted aerobics-and-stretching class, as people meditatively jogged in place or bent over. Near the gates five or six couples played unofficial badminton, volleying birdies back and forth without nets. Under the weeping willows lakeside people practiced elegant, eloquent tai chi routines, performing for the water lilies. Others stood looking at the water too, kneading their rusty joints, massaging their eyelids, oiling their jawbones. Even amidst the noise and movement of those shouting and boxing, people minded their own business, concentrating on their own internal thoughts and movements, until they were ready to do their own unabashed shouting or boxing or singing.

Old men brought their birdcages and hung them from trees so that the birds could socialize too, the men aground with their blue canvas pants and newspapers and cigarettes, the birds aloft with their porcelain water bowls and beady eyes. Others strolled about with I ching balls, grinning toothlessly at the Westerners blown over by the park’s clean morning energy and light; precise, linear, bright.

Which brings me to yin and yang. Everyone knows the basic Taoist principle they symbolize: balance. What I think makes the country so successful at balancing modernity with tradition is precisely that”balancing modernity with tradition. If in the morning one goes to the lake for tai chi or shadowboxing or fan-dancing, perhaps then workdays possibly spent in dismal factories or monotonous bureaucratic jobs or hectic big business (oversimplifying here) are made more passable.

And secondly, people do their own thing, not paying attention to who’s following the aerobic workout and who’s fallen behind, unlike the competition-level body sculpting classes people go to in the States. I took one with a bunch of Providence housewives who jockeyed for who could do the most crunches or have the fittest abs or the cutest outfits. What a shitty way to stay healthy.

These two attitudes translate to the streets. Given the bedlam and commotion manifest here, in contrast to America’s comparative order and sterility, it’s ironic that I’m characterizing China’s system as accommodating and chill. But the chaos actually operates according to an internal logic.

A traffic example:

Let’s say a truck and a taxi are going in opposite directions, and one of them”the taxi, say”has to make a left turn. Without pausing, it’ll simply turn, and the truck will have to go around it; in front if there’s room, behind if there isn’t. No honking on anyone’s part, just acceptance of the inevitable fact that if the truck doesn’t alter its course it’ll hit the taxi, and who wants a collision? The alternative is to take the U.S. approach, in which the taxi would slow down until the truck passes, and then go. But because the cars and trucks are so old and crappy here, no one wants to lose momentum unnecessarily, and so drivers negotiate an understanding where instead of following rules that are in principle sound (“halt before turning left to avoid danger”) but in practice wasteful, situations are worked out instantaneously, on a case-by-case basis. Simple actions like these, when multiplied, contribute to an economy of motion that helps China host cities three times bigger than our biggest, in a productive, functional way. Could you imagine the chaos on Miami’s streets if they had twice as many people on them?

Of course, it’s a little shocking when on the highway your car slows down for the traffic jam ahead, and the motorbike to your right makes a U-turn around you to avoid it, taking the escape lane in the wrong direction. But yeah, I’m sticking to my point.

Nathalie Jordi