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Published: June 19th 2010
Watching the World Cup (世界杯) in Xinhua Square
Xinhua Square is a large park in downtown commercial Huhehaote. I knew that people went there to roller-blade and fly kites; what I didn't know was that, since the World Cup started, it has been a meeting place for large crowds to come watch the matches. How I ended up there tonight was pure chance.
I had gotten up today to meet a friend (a student at a local university) for lunch and window-shopping. We ate at a small Korean-style restaurant (I ordered sizzling rice with egg and spicy sauce, my favorite Korean dish so far). After looking in several shops and finding a pair of men's
cargo shorts that I liked (haha, did I mention women are tiny here?) we ran smack into one of my friend's English teachers. She was riding on her bike with a houseplant sprouting from the basket when we flagged her down.
By all apppearances she had just gotten back from shopping; I had met her before and she asked me how I was liking my job and generally what my plans were. She invited us to sit and talk with her while she
ate lunch at "Happy's," a good 炒菜 (stir-fry) restaurant. After making some interesting suggestions to me about Chinese classes and teaching English and the like, she invited me and my friend to meet her and her crowd at McDonald's downtown before going to watch the first soccer (sorry, football) match of the evening: Japan v. Netherlands.
McDonald's was crazy (as always), and even though foreigners are not that rare in Hushi I got stared at anyway. I had gone back to my home to relax for a few hours, and I was relieved when my friend and her roommate arrived to keep me company and take my mind off the starers. We went inside and ordered; the others were running late. After the others arrived we went shopping for a bit in the "Victory" shopping mall before walking on to Xinhua Square. I was interested to see a fashion-show out front: some beautiful models modeling some truly heinous dresses. I wondered who funded the show.
As we walked down the sidewalk packed with men and women peddling everything from CDs to cherries and plums, a man caught my eye and pointed to one of the many bags of
different kinds of dried mushrooms on his cart. I'm not really sure why he singled me out as we were walking at a pretty neat clip. I said "No thanks" and smiled; I'm not sure his reply was so gracious.
We got to the square and I immediately began snapping photos. The first thing to catch my interest was the trees: they were being watered in a most interesting fashion: by cans of water suspended from wooden supports and slowly dripping water at the roots via an I.V. - like mechanism. My friend said in Chinese that it looked like a "tree hospital." I bet this method is more economically and environmentally sound than sprinklers.
Next, we took some photos towards the "front" of the square - and that was when I noticed the crowd. Hundreds of people had already assmbled to find a spot and get ready for the game. It was as much about being outside with family as it was about soccer. Many persons of the entrepreneurial persuasion were out in force, selling toys of all desciptions, and making a pretty penny, too.
We found a spot to sit but realized that the others
must have finished eating by now and now we had to find them in a huge square with tons of people. Thank goodness for cellphones and extensive contacts lists. Two calls later I had located our group: the person on the end of the line told us to "go towards the kite." Fortunately theirs was the only kite flying.
The teacher was rooted to her spot on an inflatable mattress: she is a serious soccer fan and was slightly amused that the foreigners were the only ones cheering at the game. I mingled with some other students and teachers that I know from the university and had a good time just chatting and people-watching. At one point the huge fountain in the center of the square began its cycle; I followed the crowd to watch dozens of adorable kids get drenched despite their colorful rain-slickers and umbrellas.
The night held other surprises and wonders. We were treated to a beautiful sunset. After dark, friends lit a "Kongming Deng" - "Wishing Lantern," which drew a considerable crowd. As we were leaving, I noticed a couple of older men practicing calligraphy - using giant brushes dipped in water to write
on the dry pavement. I had heard of this practice, but was very surprised to see it here. I watched as characters formed, blurred and disappeared to the sound of a man playing erhu (Chinese violin) in the distance. I found the cultural scene enchanting: such global culture blended with distinctly Chinese sights and sounds.
I got a taxi (miracle) who let me off when he was informed he was needed by a wife or relative (bummer) before almost immediately getting another taxi (another miracle). The others headed home on their bikes, which in spite of a cop forcing them to move several times had finally been left at the side of the square without incident. I would have stayed out longer; funny that an event ostensibly about soccer was really more about getting out and seeing the locals at their best and most relaxed.
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