After a long day of walking around Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City in the hot sun, we explored the quiet beauty of the Temple of Heaven, a group of religious buildings where emperors would worship, and the vast park that surrounds it. The Temple of Heaven Park is filled with hundred year old trees, little chirping birds, and if you're lucky to see them, old Chinese guys playing with yoyos. Upon entering the park, I got to discover a side of Chinese life that greatly differed from the bustling, traffic heavy streets of downtown Beijing. I didn't realize how important parks were to Chinese city culture. Most Beijing residents live in small apartments with little to no private outdoors space, very different from my fenced-in backyard at home. The park is a place where Chinese people can go to escape the cramped city life to find peace in nature. I observed old people playing cards and Chinese checkers, little kids running through the park's sprinklers, and yes, a man playing with a Chinese yoyo, which unexpectedly made a very odd droning noise when whipped around on a string.
Our group was surprised with a Tai Chi lesson from a real Tai Chi master, who taught us how to relax our bodies and minds and find the balance between strength and weakness. The movements in Tai Chi are natural body poses that are not supposed to be forced, teaching us how to discover the true strength of our bodies. The movemnts look similar to those of Kung Fu, but are just performed much, much slower. It's a lot harder than it looks! Practicing the different moves made me feel calm but energized at the same time-my body kind of just took the wheel. We had to hold our arms out for an extended period of time, and while my mind was telling me it hurt, but my arms stayed put. I felt at peace. After our Tai Chi lesson, we got to visit another beautiful traditional chinese building, called the Hall or Prayer for Good Harvests. It's a large, circular temple adorned with beautifully painted patterns of gold, teal, blue, and red. It was here where I was asked to take a picture with a cute old Chinese woman! Many Chinese people ask to take pictures with foreigners on China - something that is both awkward and very flattering. I'm famous! We also took an awesome squad pic in front of the temple.
We switched gears quickly from deep breathing and spiritual sites to intense arguing as we traveled to the Pearl Market. I thought I was a master bargainer, even though I technically have only bargained once in my life, and it was accidental. I was quickly humbled when I realized that I was going to have to be willing to storm away if I wanted a fake Gucci Belt for the lowest price possible. My friends and I were bombarded by one salesperson to the next as we walked throughout the different stores selling knockoff handbags, patterned silk scarves, and porcelain tea sets. I had some successful purchases, including a Great Wall snow globe, a dragon tea set, blue porcelain chopsticks, and what my friends at home will think is a real Gucci Belt. I was so proud of my bargaining skills until I heard that other kids in our group bought the same things-for much less. I may have spent all my cash- but it was totally worth it!
I felt really good about today because I got to apply some of my existing knowledge of Chinese history and culture while also learning so many things I didn't know. My knowledge of Chinese culture was composed of a lot of different puzzle pieces that didn't quite fit yet, and today I started to put some of them together.