After a day of fieldwork for Patrica, and some writing for me, we walked over to a nearby part of the city where we had not been, and found a lovely park (北极阁公园) where we sat and watched families and their children play with the water fountains throughout the park. After dinner of noodles and dumplings in a nearby restaurant, we passed through the park again and took a look at a crowd of people gathering at the lowest level; there was a KFC on the second level, and a Starbucks on the third level. The crowd was gathered to watch some male teenagers practice their dancing. A group of around 10 guys, with helmets and arm pads, had plugged in a boom box to play music while they practiced their moves — spinning on their heads and other break-dancing type of moves. As we watched them, along with the crowd, people walked past the informal group that temporarily took over a mall hallway in front of closed stores; some walked skirting the group, others boldly walked through the dancers. I couldn’t recognize the music (something that sounded like rap, with a heavy beat), and thought it may be some local Chinese rap — only to be corrected by Patricia that it was a Nellie song that she recognized; a sure sign that I couldn’t recognize what was local and what was global!
Another striking observation were the crowds of families out mingling in the parks; some were older couples, some were younger couples without kids, but the park was crowded (like the shopping malls and the streets of Nanjing). Although the high population and paucity of private space in crowded city apartments can explain much of why large numbers of people are out in the public spaces, it’s still striking that American parks do not have the same kind of crowd mingling together (as Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone, pointing to the decline of American civic engagement). Shortly before I left for China, I was in the park in Davidson with Michael, and met a couple (also with a young boy) who had just moved to Davidson. Sitting in the park, I thought about how without Michael to essentially take me to the park, I would not have met that couple who had just moved in. In contrast, Chinese public spaces are crowded, and even if most people are not there to meet new people, they still interact with neighbors and friends that they see in the park — much more than we Americans do in our public spaces.