Anyone who has ever visited China has most likely been surprised in some way, either positive or negative. This is not only due to the differences in culture, work ethics or the way of living, but mainly due to the fact that China evolved from a lot of traditions that are very different from the West. This is why I like to compare my first visit to China to the ‘opening of a fortune cookie’, since the message kept inside always remains a surprise. China is a country full of surprises. Everyone has a certain perception about this country developed from various sources; some learned about its history in school, some have had Chinese friends and others like me have never heard much about China before.
So I arrived in China with only little clue of what I was about to experience. Apart from getting to know the Chinese people and their culture I made some very interesting discoveries. One of these discovers that struck me the most was that Chinese people are true sport fanatics, as sport is central to the Chinese culture and integrated into everyday living. I only recently found out that in 1995 the government made it a public concern to encourage the general fitness of its citizens, which explains its popularity. In the attempt to keep its citizens healthy, most physical activities take place in the middle of public places and encourage anyone to join. Exercise in China is neither limited to a certain place nor to a specific time. In contrast, in Germany I am used to exercising at designated places, such as gyms or courts, but in China you can stand in the middle of a public place and squad, jump or do a handstand without being laughed at. This was something very new to my German mind and needed some time to get used to, as I was frequently exposed to various Chinese types of sport.
It would start on my way to my internship, when my attention was caught by a group of Chinese exercising, they were doing Tai Chi movements in front of a big shopping mall, dressed up in traditional clothing and mimicking the movements that were shown on an oversized screen mounted on the building in front of them. I started to imagine what the chances were of seeing such a scene in Germany and immediately realized that they were 0%. This wasn’t just a one-time occasion, but happened quite frequently on my way to my internship. The other day I watched a man completely on his own stretching and performing Chinese dancing to loud music in front of my gym. Instantly, I wondered why he chose to exercise in front of a million eyes when the gym was only a couple of meters away. After I finished my gym session, I was surprised to see that 20 others had joined the man and they were all exercising joyfully together. This was when I realised that Chinese exercising is a different concept than in the West. It was equal to a form of socialising with others and not like in the West a way to reach a personal goal (lose weight or gain more muscles). I was once again reminded that China is a rather collectivist culture than solely focusing on the individual.
I soon realized that these events are very common in China. Apart from the rather ordinary sporting activities such as basketball and badminton (which also happen openly on the street), I got a taste of the real Chinese sporting activities such as Thai Chi, traditional Chinese dancing and a form of sword fighting, all of which I would observe in the middle of a public place with hundreds eyes watching. As an example, I observed colleagues stretching or going for a run in the park during their lunch break. What I find most interesting is that these events are considered ‘normal’ by any other Chinese, while a Westerner like me can’t help but be amazed.
This aspect about China still surprises me and has challenged any expectations that I had before my visit. I opened my fortune cookie and discovered a message that hit me with surprise. While China is known to be a regulated nation, it remains the most liberal in the way that exercising is not limited to any place or time.