Walking Beijing's streets in the morning on weekends, I often wonder where have all the non-elderly gone? Was there a sweeping epidemic that selectively claimed only the young and the able-bodied? Or is the fact that I am out at the crack of dawn and they aren't, a reflection of my own age?
In fact, now I am convinced that Beijing's elderly are its new young. On a Saturday morning, by the time many of Beijing's youngsters are finished with a late lie-in, and an even later lunch and saunter out of the home and hearth after 12 noon, some of the city's frail and wrinkled people have finished a brisk walk along the Yuan Dynasty canal, done 20 push-ups at one go, without panting in between, and are ready to move on to a round of synchronized tai chi dancing.
Silver-haired gents in vests and knickers scramble for a go at the mahjong with the passion of boisterous school kids. Elderly couples with failing eyesight, sitting on park benches, hold hands and look into each other's eyes as if they have just fallen in love and the rest of the world does not matter. .
Beijing's elderly seem to have a zest for life that its young can, at best, emulate.
The youthfulness is manifest in the curiosity and sense of wonder that Beijing's older generation often display. Each time I need to talk to a senior for a story I might write for the paper, I end up answering more questions than I manage to ask. Is it too hot in India? Are all people there conversant in English? Do I like being in Beijing, especially now that it is summer?
One morning, I was walking south along Andingmen Outer Street, when Ling Liang chatted me up. She had only a smattering of English. My Chinese was next to nil. But we managed to talk. As we paced side by side, stopping at traffic lights, light-footing it over zebra crossings, exchanging information about India and China, Ling thought it was a good idea to get me started on basic Mandarin. She began pointing at the objects around us and giving me the Chinese terms for each a flower was hua duo, shu was what you called a tree, and gardens were yuan lin.
"You could take Mandarin lessons from me," she said, after a while, a little sheepishly. "You can have it for free."
I thought that was sweet and said so. But if I took lessons from her I would like to pay. "No need, really," she said. "I am your mother's age. I don't look it, but I am 58."
I did not have the heart to tell her that despite the jet-black hair, probably dyed, and the girlie frock she wore, she looked exactly the age she said she was.
From my recent reading of Confucius I remembered that dying one's hair was almost like a coded message, telling the world that one was still capable of caring, rather than be cared for.
Ling said she walked every morning from her Beitucheng Donglu residence to Ditan Park and back, and since I loved walking (I had already told her I had begun walking from Huixin Dongjie and wished to go at least till Wangfujing) I could get exercise, sight-seeing and language classes all at one go.
I told her there was an Indian adage that said if two people walked seven steps together, they became friends. "Ok, friends then," said Ling, putting her cheek lightly against mine, before turning to go back. "You'll call me, right?"
I never called Ling Liang. But I know I can get in touch with her anytime I want. I only need to walk between Beitucheng Donglu and Ditan Park between 6 and 7 in the morning. I know I'll meet her on the way and resume the Chinese lesson from where we left off.
(China Daily August 4, 2009)