People generally do not learn how to swim by reading a book. So, how could it be I once stood in a bookshop selling materials on how to dance? I would expect that dance could only be learned by doing and not reading. After all like a great many things in life reading how to do it and doing are complete opposite. I found the bookshop at a cross-roads on a lazy Beijing Sunday morning. Although it should be pointed out ‘lazy’ is not a common word to describe Beijing with its fast pace and never ending streets of people. Nonetheless I was on a quiet walk for once and decided to street my eyes like I use. Usually in the city, it was very difficult to take in the surroundings. Everything was moving so fast it felt as if everything simple flew by. Every street was the same grey blur. But on this late fall day I was greeted by an all too unseasonably slow day.
It made perfect sense to go for a walk. Finally I could stop the blur and see the people and streets. It did not matter if they were repulsive or attractive, I just wanted to see what my surroundings were really like. It is easy to dismiss everything around us and wonder why we are not living exciting lives. I left my apartment complex and made way for a large park about 2 miles to my right. I remembered it because I had past it whilst on my way to a police station. My friend had not applied for a renewal on his visa in time and had to sign into the police station and pay a fine. The staff in his hotel were as useful as a fart in a spacesuit in the respect they knew where the police station was but were not willing to help us. Instead they sat back and read their newspaper scratching their heads like buffoons.
I made my way down the street where I had remembered a small launderette. I remember it so vividly because one night I met a guitarist there. He was playing an old Gibson with an amp. He played very well and when he pushed me to play something I froze. I am not sure he knew how much that old Gibson guitar was worth, or maybe he did but did not care. I hope it was the latter. The streets were badly planned. It was as if someone had made them as they went along, which would not surprise me. The streets flooded so easily when it rained. Many people blamed street vendors for dumping their garbage into the street gutters. In reality flooding was an issue because they city was never built for rain much like many houses in the south of China were never built to handle cold weather considering It is so rare that it would be cold.
I met a crossroad where on the four sides I could see the predicament China was in. On one corner of the cross road there was an old man who was a cobbler that also fixed bikes. He worked out of a massive tool box attached to his bike. He was obviously making a pittance but enough to keep himself going. On the corner in front of the old man was an old shop. The walkway leading to the front entrance was guarded by fruit vendors who would not pay attention to me because they were too shy to assume I spoke Mandarin or they would feel embarrassed if they spoke the wrong English. Inside there was a small tobacconist and the left and the full shop to the right. Everyone was bored to death and apathetic to their work.
I had gone to this shop maybe 3 three times before and I was already greet with a grunt of some kind. On my third visit I bought ice tea and a box of plasters. I had forgotten my plasters because I was too busy tucking into my ice tea and when I returned after fifteen minutes, the box was still there with the shop keeper trying to blow air into a fan which was winning the blowing contest. I quickly grabbed them and left. On the adjacent street to the old shop was a fenced community. It was recently built and well-guarded. I expect the security was well paid considering their uniforms were tucked in and ironed. This was something I rarely seen with the police let alone a security guard. These were the type of people who would avoid the subway to travel by taxi everywhere. This was not out of convenience, but out of ignorance that they believed that they were better than everyone else. Although everyone was Chinese and together in China’s rise, there was definitely a hierarchy of those who felt they were above everyone else and everyone knew it.
Facing this complex of superiority was a bookshop. It had a quirky name in Mandarin which escapes my memory. It had the words dancing in it somewhere but it did not make it obvious the bookshop solely sold books about dancing. I could not pass the chance of a new bookshop. Locals would find a nice book and sit on the floor next to the bookshelves and read them. It was odd at first but soon became a staple of my trips to bookstores. While the outside was sticky with heat and humidity, the inside of the bookstores were air-conditioned. The soft nature of the bookstore assistants meant that even if you sat down on the floor and read a book, they would never intervene out of fear of losing face. Or perhaps it was because they plainly just did not care. After all, with their wage, I do not see how they could.
I entered the bookshop and hastily made my way past the assistant at the counter. I did not want to have to bear another person tell me to leave somewhere because there was no English. I began scanning the shelves. The great thing about Mandarin and characters in general is you do not have to tilt your head sideways to read the title of the book on shelves. The characters are printed vertically and can be read rather easily. The characters can be read left to right and right to left, up and down, down and up, it makes no difference. The bookstore was slightly larger than it looked from the outside.
As I scanned through all the books I could see, I quickly found almost every section had some related topic to dance. The majority of the books were teaching materials on different dances. From traditional Miao and Han dances, flamingo dancing to even river dance, everything was here. It seemed odd that this entire bookshop could be filled with literature on dance. It did not seem possible. I continued to search for a book without the topic of dance. It could not find one. I then made the mistake of making eye contact with the enthusiastic woman behind the till counter. I got a smile and a downward nod as if they were making the point that I should come over. The jig was up, I was a westerner in a Chinese bookshop which sold literary works on how to dance. I was not sure how I was going to explain my way out of this without saying I have no interest in dance.
I have never seen the value in dance. I have often heard from people involved in dancing that it is a form of expression through the human body. I agree that it is a form of expression, but it has never been a form of expression that I have ever enjoyed watching. I have sat through every type of Chinese, African, South American and Europe traditional and modern dance and I have never been left feeling that was a beautiful expression. Sometimes it is enjoyable to watch but it is never something I can admire or take an interest in. Now I was faced with someone who had all the interest in the world in me. I decided if I was going to be asked anything I would lie. Lying would be easier than explaining I did not know what I was walking myself into.
I walked over to the counter and the older gentlemen greeted me with a very Chinese “Hallo” and smile, which I appreciated.
I replied in Mandarin “This bookshop only sells book about dancing? He replied “Oh yes, we are the only kind in Beijing I think. Not many people come here but the ones who do usually know what they want, what do you want?” He said with a massive grin and a tilted head.
It was almost as if he was admiring my taste in dance and being able to speak Mandarin. I replied with a lie saying “I am looking for a book on traditional North Korean dancing”. He grinned again and laughed.
I had completely forgotten that China and North Korea had such strong ties and he directed me to a set of books which he explained were reprints from some 20-30 years ago that explained everything I would need. I smiled and thanked him. I paid 20RMB for the books or about $3 at that exchange rate. Again I thanked him for his help and walked out.
That was a very strange day. The one time I decide to go looking at my surroundings and I come out the other side with Mandarin book on North Korean traditional dancing from the 1980’s. I was still rather perplexed as to how anyone can learn how to dance from a book. Surely dancing is something you have to have a feeling for or at least be trained and taught in. I remember when the World Cup fever broke into China, books were printed for children on how to play soccer. Instead of playing soccer children read books on it. It had seemed this is how a lot of people were educated. Many of the people I met in China were educated in English. They had high written and aural skills but lacked in any oral sense. They learned from books and could not express themselves. Was this bookstore providing the same experience? The bookshop catered for people with an interest in dancing already. Obviously it was only providing literary works for the use of reading materials and not the use of teaching someone how to actually physically dance. I could not be sure. It was much too odd. That was always the case of being where I was in China. Something odd always happened.