Dispatches from Abroad: Finding Space in a Crowd

Perhaps the most inescapable aspect of being in China is the feeling one gets from being in a sea of over 1.3 billion people in a country the size of the United States (which has less than 1/3 of that number). It always feels like every last one of them is in the street at the same time I’m trying to cross it. Yet for all the traffic in its innumerable forms—cars, tricycles, pedal-powered and electric bicycles, donkey-drawn carts, and feet—going every which way at the same time, there are few accidents. The vehicles and pedestrians move at slow speeds and just seem to flow organically around one another in a Brownian dance.

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Brownian traffic flow at an intersection near Beijing’s Olympic Park

But even more noticeable to a Western (i.e., US, European) eye than the crowds is the cultural tendency in China for people to do things in groups, often really large ones. The most noticeable are the groups exercising together on the streets and in the parks, but tour groups, school groups (all in identical t-shirts), and large family groups are everywhere and personal space—so important in many Western cultures—feels painfully absent.

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Evening exercise on the plaza at Beijing’s Olympic Park

And as a visitor here, albeit one who was invited to various institutions and is being supported by the Chinese government, this feeling is accentuated by the seemingly constant companionship (or in my more churlish moods, “handling”) of friends and colleagues who appear to manage effortlessly to fill virtually every waking hour of my days here with seminars, field trips, discussions, and meals—all activities that keep me en-grouped.

So while I’ve been in China, not only have I had to work hard find and make time for myself when I’m not otherwise sleeping, but I have also found myself looking for instances and examples of how people here carve out even small amounts of personal space.

And it turns out not to be that hard to find. For every group of wannabe musicians at their Saturday afternoon lessons in the park, there are others in the shelter of trees playing their own tunes, and for every group dance, there are individuals weaving and spinning to their own songs (click on any image in the two groups below to see them all enlarged in a slide show).

Some occupations are more solitary than others. Chefs and cooks are absorbed in their work, and herders spend much more time with animals than with other people (click on any image below to see them all enlarged in a slide show).

And when time or space permit, people here, like people everywhere, find a little time for quiet contemplation or intimate conversation (click on any image below to see them all enlarged in a slide show).

And so at the end of the day, I feel much better about asking for a day, or even an hour, for myself here in China.

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