Early mornings are where it’s at here in Shanghai, a good thing if you are an international traveller who never knows when you might wake up. This time of year, it is also cool in the early morning, at least relative to the 100 degrees in the shade that it will be by 10 a.m. But besides beating the heat and having something to do at 5 a.m. an early morning walk or run in Shanghai teaches the westerner what a communal versus an individualistic society looks like.
By way of contrast, consider early mornings in Chapel Hill. Not naturally a morning person, I’ve become one because of motherhood, time constraints, and my dog. For a while I was driving to the gym very early and now I run with my beast most days. When I head out, the streets are empty except for the street cleaning truck. It is beautiful and quiet. We will see deer, sometimes an owl, and always the beauty of the changing seasons. By the time I’ve returned home, not much has changed, perhaps a few more cars come and go, and a few dog walkers and joggers have ventured out. Not so in Shanghai. By 5 in the morning, at least an hour earlier than when I head out at home, bicyclists and walkers are heading to open-air markets to buy vegetables, chicken, fish, or ducks. Folks from the countryside are unloading huge mounds of fruit. Grandparents are pushing grand children in strollers or supervising them on tricycles.
Shops are opening; people are waiting to buy steamed buns for breakfast. Women or men alike may be washing clothes in a basin on the street or hanging up laundry to dry. Any open space from a park to a parking lot becomes a gathering space where people of all ages are coming together sometimes for commerce and often in play.
As I keep walking I might see people line dancing to traditional Chinese music or perhaps U.S. country pop favorites, friends playing badminton, and adults of all ages practicing Tai Chi.
On other trips I’ve seen men wielding swords wearing beautiful velvet robes, women in shorts moving gracefully with fans to Chinese music on a boom box. Fathers and sons might kick around a soccer ball. And I’m never surprised but always delighted to hear men singing Puccini to greet the day. Would I ever tire of watching these scenes? I don’t think so.
Somehow all of life combines of a Chinese morning to dispel the dualities I so often live in: work or play, elders or youth, indoor or outdoor, song or dance, waste or creation, old or new. These separations are illusions. Chinese mornings change those “ors” to “ands.” As the duality disappears, the communal emerges and I find myself grateful for the chance to learn such a lesson.