Life in a Square

One of the biggest differences between China and Canada is how life happens in the public squares and parks.

In Canada, activities in parks or public spaces are mostly limited to a small number of people who know each other. One exception would be New Year’s Eve parties or protests.

In Dong Sheng, I had a completely different experience. Every evening, a group of people would gather in the public square, turn on loudspeakers, put in an instructional recording, and start doing light aerobics.

Public Square in Dong Sheng
Public Square in Dong Sheng

Professionals in uniform are joined by people from the city in plain clothes. The speakers blared popular music (mostly Chinese songs, but I did hear Gangnam Style) and a voice announced the name of the move everyone was supposed to be performing.

Professional Aerobic Performers
Professional Aerobic Dance Performers

The result? Hundreds of people form a long line that wrapped around the perimeter of the square. They’re all performing the same move while slowly marching forward to the beat of the song. When I saw this for the first time, I thought it was the funniest thing. It was like a Chinese Zumba class. What made this even funnier? The names of the aerobics moves included softening the arteries, improving memory, invigorating circulation, and helping kidney function. Hmm… I wonder how this messaging plays into the participants’ perceptions of their health and how likely they are to continue these exercises.

I’m not quite sure what cultural things can be extrapolated from this aerobic dance. I have several hypotheses: people are more attracted to collective activities in China; people have no choice but to participate in free collective activities due to population pressures and higher cost of living (relative to earning). This was probably partially intended as a preventative approach to public health, I wonder how effective a similar approach would work in an urban centre in North America?

Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China
Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China

I went with my aunt a few times, and eventually I stopped laughing hysterically and taking photos every five minutes. Its novelty wore off and I accepted it as part of my daily life as well.

In Dong Sheng, dancers, singers, martial arts performers, and walkers would all gather in a large park in the city centre in the morning. It was pretty cool to watch them practice.

Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China
Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China

Every late afternoon, older men and women would gather in another city square to play Chinese chess, cards, or sometimes perform songs.

Chinese chess players and onlookers
Chinese chess players and onlookers. Paternal grandfather (L).

For chess and cards, it’s not uncommon to have a group of strangers play together. After a while, the strangers become friends. There’s usually a large number of onlookers, especially for chess. This is another thing that never happens in Canada. I’m not sure if this is because Canadians are more reserved in this sense, or because there aren’t enough people to get a good game going, or because there are fewer public places where chess playing is commonplace. Culture is everywhere and impacted by everything.

Musicians at the Square
Musicians at the Square

The musicians were actually pretty good.

Singers @ the Square
Singers at the Square

I couldn’t understand anything they were singing. But they weren’t bad either. People took up the mic as they pleased. There were usually quite a few patients from a nearby hospital there as well.

Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin
Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin

Moving a few hundred kilometers southeast, we leave Dong Sheng and arrive in Tian Jin. I lived not near the city centre, but in a suburb. Although there was a large square there as well, activities were decidedly less exciting. They did not have any organized aerobic exercises, perhaps because mosquitoes become problematic once the sun starts setting, or because it’s perpetually hot and muggy during the summer. There were a lot of people in the morning exercising in the square though. I remember rollerblading there as a kid, and I was happy to see many other kids continuing to do so.

My grandma's awesome
My maternal grandma’s awesome

2 thoughts on “Life in a Square

  1. So true about the chess game! It just seems that the social center for the two cultures are different. China is more about KTV, chess, public dancing (for older people) and North America is more about bar/pubs. I don’t know why. Probably just the cultural inertia. Although people in NorthEastern China drink ALOT and talk very loudly in restaurants (which is acceptable in China but not in NA)

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