If I had been asked to paint Independence as a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, the resulting red-white-and-blue canvas would likely have featured George Washington riding a bald eagle with the US Constitution clutched in its talons. By that time, I naively fancied myself well-versed on the subject – I had been in college for two years, cooking my own meals, doing my own laundry, and in general being an Independent Woman. As a patriotic southern American, therefore, I was mildly surprised when I learned to redefine freedom on the other side of the globe, in the People’s Republic of China.
Let me back up. This isn’t a story about how I learned how to stand on my own two feet in a far-off land. This is a love story about running.
Though my school-sponsored study abroad trip to China did mark my first steps on international soil, the mere act of living abroad was not liberating in and of itself. The program, a study on globalization, was a strictly scheduled tour of China’s great monuments, interspersed with some economic and political coursework. For three weeks, I was shepherded through every Chinese landmark I’d ever heard of. I traipsed through the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall, and rose 1300 feet in the Jin Mao tower. These monuments, while grand and impressive in their spectacle, never took me out of my comfort zone. I trekked through each with my American university group, seeing only what I was instructed to see.
I have jetlag to blame or thank for my discovery of Lu Xun park, in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. I had no interest in exploring the area around our hotel, but 24 hours of travel had left me wired and restless at 6 AM on my first morning in China. I pulled on my tennis shoes, plugged in my headphones, and headed out. Three miles later, I first entertained the thought that I hadn’t been keeping track, couldn’t read the street signs, and had no clue where I was. What was worse, I didn’t quite mind.
I ran down side alleys and through crowded fish markets. I ran around Tai Chi classes in the park’s dewy lawn and past old men smoking under crooked trees. Somewhere in my morning lay a valuable lesson about the danger of a teenage girl getting lost alone in a city where she didn’t speak the language, but I must have missed it. When I finally made my way back to my hotel an hour later, I’d already planned to add solo morning jogs to my daily routine. My constant movement and the thickening crowds gave me anonymity and opportunity to just observe, without expectation or agenda. In a city where every site clamors for superlatives – biggest, tallest, densest, newest – Lu Xun park was beautifully ordinary. Even in the pale dawn, this perfectly average plot of urban greenery already brimmed with thousands of unique, emotional, intricate narratives.
It’s a false and tempting cliché to assume that my daily runs through Hongkou showed me the “real” China, but the tanned and thrifty salesmen selling tomatoes in Jiangwan Road weren’t any more authentic than the tourist merchants at the Great Wall. In contrast, these slow and solitary jogs taught me that vibrant reality bursts from every common corner of the world. Running showed me how to imagine individuals complexly, beyond the role they play in my own life.
To this day, whether I’m lost in a foreign continent among 23 million strangers or trotting around the neighborhood where I was born, I can always find solace in the steady bass line of my feet hitting the pavement. I am free to chart my own path, but the detours and quick decisions along the way usually provide the most memorable stories. I no longer need to travel long distances to find the extraordinary in the everyday, but I first discovered that skill on a soft May morning, lost in Lu Xun park.
About the Author: Brooke Watson is a 21-year-old former athlete, future doctor, and present gypsy. She’s been to China and Cape Town, and is currently planning a year-long Antipodean adventure in New Zealand and Australia. Sometimes she takes pictures .