Friday, 20 September 2013

China Snapshots

I'm actually a better-than-average photographer. You'll just have to take my word for that, because I can't offer you any proof, not now. Every time I see something worth photographing here in China--which, when I am outside, is every other minute--by the time I've got my camera ready, it's gone. And besides, you have to keep your wits sharp when you're out and about here. No walking around and staring up at skyscrapers; no goggling at over-loaded rickshaws driven by tiny, weather-worn grandmothers; no swerving around to look back at the entire family of four perched on an electric bike, shopping piled high on the back. In the two seconds it takes to point and focus, you could be flattened by half a dozen cars driving at top speed. California gets a lot of flack for letting its drivers turn right on red lights, but at least there you have to come to a complete stop first, and other cars and pedestrians get right of way. In China, not only do you not have to come to a complete stop, you don't have to stop at all. In fact, you don't even have to slow down. Crossing a street here demands your full attention as does walking along the sidewalk, where you may compete for right-of-way with electric bicycles, motorcycles, bicycles, and even cars. Believe me: I have lost hundreds of incredible, National Geographic-worthy shots, and it is only because I value my own life over art. It is agonizing to have lost so many wonderful photo opportunities, though, so tonight, on my way home from work, I decided to write my photos instead.

I took all of these word photos at six thirty in the evening, in a crowded alley between two narrow rows of  restaurants and bars. In China, there is a lovely custom: people go out in the evening and fill the parks and public spaces, where they chat, play games, dance, do martial arts, parade grandchildren, and generally hang out in the cool of the evening.

Photo 1:  A little boy dressed in a white shirt and blue trousers is sitting all by himself at a table, frowning at a pad of paper. He is chewing on a pencil, his face screwed up in concentration, his  features as serious as a six-year-old's can possibly be. It is obvious that he doesn't see anybody around him--all his attention is focused on the pad of paper. Suddenly his eyes widen and his mouth opens. He grins and pounds his fists on the table, then jumps up and cries out, at the top of his lungs, waving the pad of paper about. He has solved his puzzle! None of the adults around him pay him the least bit of notice.

Photo 2:  Three seconds away from the little boy, six college-age girls in short skirts and tight blouses sit together around a small round table. They are all holding mobile phones, and although their mouths are slightly slack -- they all have eerily similar expressions -- their thumbs are working hard. They take no notice of anybody around them.

Photo 3:  Next to the girls, three middle-aged men sit on park benches, smoking. Two of them have their white T-shirts hiked up so that everything but the tops of their shoulders is exposed. Half-smoked cigarettes hang from their mouths. Believe me, this cannot be described as an attractive look, and it is odd that only middle-aged men here feel the need to bare their chests. The men barely look up as we pass.

Photo 4:  As we turn the corner past the men, two more college-age girls come towards us. One girl is dressed normally, but her companion is eye-popping in a hot pink Minnie Mouse-style short taffeta skirt, fishnet stockings, five-inch heels of some glitzy silver-and-white material, a strapless silver top that seems to defy the laws of gravity, and what looks like half a pound of make-up. As they sashay past, I do my best not to stare, but it's tough. The girls don't seem to notice us, though.

Photo 5:  Around the corner there is a small public square where a CD player is blasting out music. It is so similar to the folk songs you hear in Japan during the summer festivals that I stop, filled with nostalgia. A dozen middle-aged women are dancing together, synchronizing their movements, their arms lifted high one moment, then swooping down in graceful arcs. They strut and dip and turn; they move backwards and forwards and sideways, and it is obvious how much they are enjoying themselves, how happy they are. We stop to watch them and they keep dancing, showing not the tiniest trace of embarrassment. My admiration is complete. One of them flashes me a broad smile, but they keep dancing.

My camera stays in my backpack all the way home.