Seniors, show some respect for the young

Zachary Lowell
This is not the first time that older exercisers in Shanghai have made themselves a nuisance or drawn attention from authorities.
Zachary Lowell

A crowd of evening strollers based in Yangpu District marched straight into controversy recently. According to reports, residents from the Anshan Community started an after-dinner walking group last year. The group, which is mostly composed of middle-aged and elderly people, has since grown to over 100 members. As the pack swelled, hikers broke the bounds of the sidewalk and spilled over narrow roads and cycling lanes, creating potential safety hazards. To the further annoyance of some residents, the group also blared a portable sound system as a way to enliven its evening ambulations.

The walkers’ noise and flouting of traffic rules eventually forced the authorities to get involved. Now, the group’s twilight parade happens under the watchful eyes of police, urban management officials and volunteers, who encourage walkers to stay out of traffic and keep the noise down. To accommodate the hiking throng, plans are reportedly in the works to extend the opening hours of a nearby park, or simply pedestrianize the street used by the group. While I was happy to read about efforts to reach a potential compromise, the walkers themselves seemed less than grateful — in fact, some quoted by Shanghai Daily had choice words for the police, while another complained that the evening routine had become boring without loud music (“Twilight walkers tread fine line with the law,” November 28, Shanghai Daily).

This is not the first time that older exercisers in Shanghai have made themselves a nuisance or drawn attention from authorities. I understand the desire of many older Chinese to stay physically active and socially engaged, but they should do so in a way that respects the rights of others. Furthermore, I wonder what kind of example Shanghai’s seniors are setting for younger generations when they behave in such an unruly manner.

As many are aware, the city’s ubiquitous square dancers have frequently drawn complaints for playing loud music and disturbing the peace of other residents. Specifically, parents typically complain that the ruckus caused by “dancing grannies” distracts children from their homework. Tensions between loud square dancers and those put out by them have been mounting for years, forcing authorities in Shanghai and elsewhere to become increasingly strict on shimmying seniors and their ear-ringing racket. Still, stories about conflicts between dancers and annoyed residents surface from time to time in the press and social media, suggesting an uneasy peace.

Surly seniors also made news in Shanghai back in 2014, when the reopening of Lu Xun Park sparked something of a “turf war.” Dozens of registered activity groups, many of them made up of retirees and older people, clashed over space in the re-designed park. Local police had to intervene between feuding organizations looking to claim prime real estate in which to perform tai chi, dancing or other such activities. According to reports from the time, it was only through mediation from authorities that a peaceful resolution seemed possible between the squabbling seniors.

Being accommodative

I can sympathize with older Chinese people who want to stay active.

Many seniors in Shanghai are, for various reasons, separated from their families or lack the disposable income necessary to indulge in hobbies. Group activities like walking or square-dancing are a low-cost way to socialize and keep fit. Moreover, public group activities give older Shanghainese people visibility within society, whereas in the West seniors are often, literally and symbolically, shunted from public view and forgotten about.

Still, Shanghai is not a village. It’s a complicated society composed of millions of people, all of whom have their own rights and interests. For the sake of public order and common benefit, certain rules of civility must be followed. Thankfully, Shanghai has become more law-abiding and orderly over recent years — for example, a recent crackdown on driving infractions has improved traffic conditions and road safety, making everyone’s life better as a result. The same logic applies to other spheres of public life as well.

Young people in China are often disparaged for being selfish and overly individualistic. Whether or not this is true, older generations also seem perfectly capable of putting their own interests ahead of others. Perhaps the difference is that older folks tend to assert themselves within the context of a group — for example, a walking club or a square-dancing organization. But in my view, a group that disrespects the rights of others is also acting selfishly, no matter what kind of benefits the group’s members might enjoy.

Within Chinese culture, seniors are said to command respect and reverence. This is certainly a commendable tradition, but I wonder what kind of example their occasionally unruly antics sets for the young. In the specific case of the walkers in Yangpu, perhaps efforts by authorities to help their group will at least demonstrate the advantages of being accommodative.

The author is a former copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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