It is an oft-repeated trope that life in China (as in many a tropical and/or less developed country, but also in Southern Europe, for example) tends to happen “on the street,” using the curbside as an extended living room, much more than life in most of Europe, let alone the USA (unless one counts the drive-thru and the strip mall, perhaps).

In the ways that “the teeny-weeny outdoors” is sought out as an everyday place to relax, “play,” have company, and simply enjoy, there is a fascinating contrast to the ‘Western’ indoors living only seeking out “the great outdoors” for lonely enjoyment of grandiose landscapes and as the fitting scenery for personal sports performances.

Sure, “sports” are also being performed outdoors in China, but it’s (still) rather more likely to be gymnastics or taijiquan done in groups than a lonely run – or, for that matter, it may be a communal dancing “class.” “Not losing face,” i.e. not making a fool of oneself, getting embarrassed, is a guiding concept in China, but such activities are communal and thus safe: if you are a beginner and make a fool of yourself, you still don’t lose face from it (although, as foreigner, you would become a spectacle).

Traditional pastimes of other kinds are also strong, however. The practice of water calligraphy, painting onto the pavement, for example.

Water Calligraphy

Or, flying kites.

Flying Kites

And, finally, people meet up outside to enjoy the sun and the company and perhaps play cards or mahjong, even in the winter cold.

Playing in Winter Sun

In all the exotic allure of the far-away (assuming that you are not from China), it’s only too easy to take such pictures as the signs of how different (and perhaps, similar) we all are. They certainly get taken (and indeed, presented) as that rather often. And we are. People in ‘the West’ might not usually meet up outside on freezing-cold-but-sunny winter days to chat and play board games, but people do get outside to do something for their fitness; and picnics, barbecues, or days at the beach aren’t exactly unpopular, either.

Of course, there are salient differences. We are talking about different cultures, after all.

We’d also do well to think about the contexts – both the cultural, and the simply practical, material, ones – to understand and make ourselves at home in and between them. When the houses are less comfortable (often, cold in winter and hot in summer – and this only applies all the more to many of the newer developments), and with social support for doing so, it’s the natural thing to go outside and enjoy a little time there, in the accepted ways. Try going Nordic Walking in China, though…

And, of course, we can always learn a little from the ‘other’, consider ‘their’ ways of living on and in the world they, and we, inhabit, in all its differences and ultimate sameness.

Welcome home.