Once upon a time in China, there was a town full of honest people.
I’d just moved to this town, and went to the Public Affairs office to obtain my visa.
There was a minor irregularity, so I suggested to my colleague could she simply do what occurs everywhere else in China – offer them a bribe.
She looked at me with palpable horror. Her normally affable face became contorted as she shook her head and replied “we don’t do that here.”
Before we go any further with this story, its important to note that what might be a lemon to you is an orange to me. Every culture has its own unique way of regulating social interaction, and in China, the concept of “guan xi” is paramount. Much more than a system of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” “guan xi” is a means by which everyone understands their responsibilities to the community. We all should help each other. This concept has entered business culture to the extent that it has spiraled into grand proportions, and gone beyond its Confucian heritage and morphed into corruption. The central government, concerned about the extent and range of corrupt practices, has trialed, jailed and punished officials whose corrupt practices were extreme.
But we were talking about a town. A town full of honest people whose officials did not accept bribes, and whose citizens were horrified by the concept. A town where taxi drivers will double back to where they have dropped you off to return an item you have left in their cab. A town where I inadvertently left my mobile phone in taxis and restaurants numerous times, ALWAYS to have it returned.
A nondescript kind of a town – dull grey buildings lined with grey bitumened roads overshadowed by a perpetually grey sky. A town about which people used to say “nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit” – probably because there is nothing really all that special in terms of tourist attractions, unless you count the Shui Shang Gong Yuan – the Water Park.
I lived in an apartment not far from the Water Park ( after I had eventually obtained my visa) and would stroll along the lakes-side pathways with thousands of other people on weekends.
In spring, the glorious China Rose, the honest town’s floral emblem, bloomed in profusion. The Water Park was amass with them and the grey city streets had a momentary burst of tropical colour that lasted for a brief spring.
In winter, hardy old men and women would gather by the frozen waters of the Shui Shang Gong Yuan in their speedos and black one-piece swimmers. Someone would relentlessly poke a stick, or a taiji sword at the ice until it broke. Then others would join in, until a reasonable sized hole was made in the ice. Once enough ice had broken and the winter-black water broke through to the surface, one voracious winter swimmer would jump in. Others would soon follow, braving the chill and subzero temperatures as a regular morning pastime.
Along the ice-thick Hai River, men would plonk their deck chairs beside the Bei’an Bridge, and prod the ice till holes appeared. They’d cast their lines down into the grey-black water and sit, contented, wrapped in their winter woolies, waiting for fish to bite from beneath the foot-deep solid ice.
The city’s temperatures were extreme – six months of frozen winter, whence snow would pile upon sludge and to walk to the local shops was an excerise in patience, trying to avoid slipping on the buildup of frozen sludge. The snow mounds wouldn’t stay white for long – they’d mix with the perennial greyness that marked this town and would become dirty frozen piles of danger.
Months later, spring would come. According to the temperature, spring would last for one brief day before summer hit with its relentless humidity and a weird drop in air pressure.
One afternoon, in what I thought was Day 2 of Spring, but turned out to be Day 1 of an impossible summer, I was sitting in the park, reading. I started to feel dizzy, nauseous, and just plain weird. When I got up, determining it best to go home, I felt unbalanced and breathless. Let me say, as a tropical girl, I’m used to the heat. I like summer. ( You know, beaches, surf, sand, play….). A group of elderly folk practicing tai ji moved towards me, and one of their party broke free.
“Are you alright?” she asked, then moved on quickly to explain my ailments. “It’s the drop in air pressure,” she said. “It always happens on this day, every year. It’s the beginning of summer.” Actually, she didn’t call it the beginning of summer, but labeled it with one of the fortnightly weather patterns that make up the traditional Chinese calendar. I’ve forgotten which one, but have found that those traditional calendric descriptions are always, without fail, unerringly accurate.
“The drop in air pressure causes people to feel dizzy. Many people get headaches or feel breathless – most people stay indoors if they can. It’s not good to go out on this day.” She must have seen my gaze wander over to her group of cohorts. “Especially for the elderly – but we’re used to it, “ she laughed, looking over at her friends, who joined in her smiles.
I looked around the park. She was right. There were hardly any other people in the Shui Shang Gong Yuan. I thanked her and went home, glad to have found a reason for my dizziness and lethargy.
Stay tuned for Part Two of the story about the honest town, in which we will find out more of the history of this place and discover its name. Just to whet your curiousity, this town has been in the news a lot recently.
Can you guess what town this is?