Take an evening stroll in any one of the many open public spaces in Taipei, and you can see the dancing Ajjis (grandmothers) of Taipei. I first noticed them on my return from yoga class. It was dark and I could hear English music. On closer look, I realised that there were women dancing on a platform near one of the Institutes! Thinking it would be rude to watch (or gawk) at them this way, I quickly moved away. First I thought this was some sort of group class held at the Institute (which it was), but then I noticed the phenomenon happening almost everywhere – temples, public parks, community halls, gardens.
Generally Taipei-kars have early dinner. Most are done by 6:30 pm. That means a couple of hours later these old ladies are ready for their dance. They look like they are in their 60s or 70s but I know many would be much older. Dressed in smart pants, longish shorts, with short, cropped hair (most old women here sport short hairdos – unlike our Indian ajjis who have long hairs, coiled up in buns) they congregate in the public places for their spot of exercise. There must be some instructor, who leads them, though it is difficult to make out in the dark. There is also a tape-recorder (or CD player) belting out peppy numbers – both English and Chinese. The movements are simple, but graceful, some hand gestures, some walking back and forth, some twirling around – definitely not pelvic thrusting, knee-jerking ones (as one might think from the music). Sometimes some ajobas (grandfathers) also join them, but they are few and far in between. (The ajobas prefer more sporty badminton, jogging or tai-chi, I guess). Sometimes the Filipino/Indonesian carers of the old folks join in these dances. Their ajjis are content to sit in the wheelchairs and watch the dances, and enjoy the music.
No wonder Taiwanese are some of the fittest people in the world. Every Taipei-kar I see seems conscious about exercising/activity. There are plenty of public parks for walking and running (and you can see many sweaty, old folks jogging away, not just young ones), community gyms, dance & exercise classes that make exercising fun and social. It is not uncommon to see many doing their regular laps as late as 10 or 11 PM. And then there are the early risers who are seen in the parks at the crack of dawn (I have seen them making a beeline (or perhaps returning) from my kitchen window, on the rare days I have gotten up that early). During lunch hours, many head to the gyms to keep up their appointment with their favourite form of exercise. The younger, fitter ones prefer badminton, tennis, cycling, swimming and aerobics and almost all Taipei-kars enjoy hiking. Why come any clear weekend, and you can see a group of cyclists (in their gear) heading towards the cycling tracks that abound, or others (with their walking sticks) making their way towards the numerous hiking trails.
My mind travels back to India, and I confess I haven’t not seen such enthusiasm in the Indian oldies. The most that they would indulge in are ‘morning walks’ – but their walks lack the briskness and spring in the step that I see here. And I have definitely not seen any of them jogging. Many congregate in parks only for social interactions. One may argue that the infrastructure is not good enough, or that their health has been declining due to pressures of living with constant struggles (which are a part of the Indian scenario). The ease of living in Taiwan is far higher. But it may not have been always so. On the contrary many of the Taiwanese old folks who are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s have undergone a fair amount of hardships and struggle.
I see many old men and women, confined to wheelchairs, being taken out to parks during mornings and afternoons (when everyone is away at work) by their carers. And I think my grandmother back home, who is confined to her house, and barely ventures out. On my first visit to London, when I went to enjoy a play, I was astonished to see a group of English grandmothers coming together for a drink before the play and heading out to dinner afterwards. They definitely looked in their late 60s and 70s, but each one was impeccably made up and carefully dressed. The contrast between their Indian counterparts couldn’t have been more stark. I mused then, as I muse now – why the mental lethargy in India? When can I see some of our ajjis dancing and enjoying their twilight years?