Watch for differences

One of the ways that I relate to China is to think of how similar it is to India: the crowds, the somewhat cavalier attitude towards public cleanliness, the friendliness of the ordinary person. That’s my mantra for negotiating a foreign country whose language I neither speak nor read. But you have to watch for differences within the commonalities. These give you a frisson of otherness, the newness that one travels to feel.

One such came on me quite unexpectedly. The Family and I sat for a while in front of Yuhua Hall in the Yu Garden of Shanghai, to admire Yuling Long (the Exquisite Jade Rock), when my attention was diverted by a flock of sparrows sunning themselves on an outcrop of rocks nearby. “House sparrows?” I asked The Family. “Maybe”, she responded.

I wasn’t so sure. I clicked a few photos for reference. Now when I look at my field guide, I find this is not the Passer domesticus, but the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus). This is uncommon in India, being found in the mountains, in a belt stretching from Uttarkhand to the east, and in most of the North-Eastern states. My first view of it was in a garden in Shillong. However, it is common across Europe and Asia: from Ireland to Japan, and Siberia to Borneo and Sumatra. You recognize it by the black ear patch on an otherwise white cheek and throat. The sexes look alike, as I noticed while I took the photos. What a lovely surprise hidden among all the wonderful things that we saw.