Over the weekend, I hiked to the top of a mountain at Fragrant Hills Park, an imperial garden in northwest Beijing. The park is well-known for its Smoke Tree leaves, which turn red in late autumn, attracting thousands of tourists.
I reached the peak – 557 meters above ground – in an hour and a half, and after I climbed the final set of stairs I turned around to take in a view of the city. Just as I pulled out my cellphone to take a picture, an old man using a walking stick passed me. He was hiking barefoot and shirtless, and moving at a brisk pace. He must have been at least 60 and was fit too, especially for his age.
While I stood in the shade to collect my breath and give my burning legs a rest, the man kept going, passing a large rock formation and an ancient temple, until I could no longer see him.
I felt a bit embarrassed. After all, I come from a country where people drive around Walmart parking lots for 10 minutes just so they can find a parking space close to the entrance and not have to walk more than a few meters. Because of our widening girths from a growing appetite and lack of exercise, we’re building wider seats on airplanes, sports stadiums and movie theaters.
While newspapers and other struggling industries continues to downsize, we still supersize at the drive-thru. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of Americans, more than one-third of the population, is now considered obese.
Compare that to China, where the obesity rate is around 5 percent. I go days, sometimes weeks, without seeing an obese Chinese, especially someone who an American would consider overweight. And that man who passed me on the mountain? He’s more the rule than an exception.
Every time I go to the park near my apartment to jog, I see elderly men and women, some walking with canes and hunched over, exercising on park machines, playing with their grandchildren and walking their dogs. Some of them look like they should be bed-ridden and living in an assisted-living home, but instead they’re at the park, moving and trying to maintain the independence that comes with staying healthy in one’s latter years.
In 20 years or so, I hope to return to Beijing to see how much the city has changed. And if I do, I’ll probably go back to Fragrant Hills to see if I can still climb the mountain. I wouldn’t be surprised that if, when I got to the top, that old man passed me again – older and a little weaker but just as determined as ever.