Monday Funday at Colonel Summers Park is one of the quintessential perks of living in Portland. On any given Monday evening, you can head over to the park and hop in to any one of a number of amusements. Break dancing, dodgeball, frisbee, tall bike riding, acro-yoga…if you see someone doing something you want to be a part of, you just start doing it, too. Everyone is welcome, everything is free, and you can come and go as you please. It’s especially cool if you’re on your own for whatever reason but are still in the mood to get out and be social – you can just make friends when you get there. It’s a beautiful thing.
Beijing has a sort of Sunday Funday of its own but they take it up a notch.
Getting together for group social activities in public plazas (or parking lots) has been part of the Chinese culture for generations. And while there’s much to be said for Portland’s feat of amassing 15 strangers into an impromptu hackey-sack game, a foreigner can’t help but be a little blown away at Beijinger’s ability to organically organize themselves into a +75-person choir with segregated alto/soprano/bass/tenor sections. (I tried to join in one Sunday and several ladies, realizing I was out of place, shuffled me over to the alto section where I belonged.)
You can consistently find line dancing and tai chi on any given day in the public parks, but on Sunday mornings my neighbors pull out all the stops – karaoke, ribbon dancing, choir, impromptu bands, tango lessons, waltzing… I appreciate these things so much as a foreigner because they give me a way to participate in the social life of my neighborhood even though I don’t know anyone or speak the language. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues and she pointed out a valuable aspect of the group activity culture. It’s effectively a social safety net for the community.
Even if a person is alone in the city, they have a way to connect to the people in their neighborhood on a daily basis. Since the activities are “drop in” but consistent, a person who decides to participate somewhat regularly can make friendly acquaintances. The activities are non-competitive and improve with the addition of more people, so the mood is welcoming and encouraging. A person of any income, age, or physical ability can join in and spend an hour each day doing something social, positive, and healthy with their neighbors even if they live alone or do not have their own established social/family network.
One especially sees senior citizens participating and enjoying these activities and it makes me think about growing old in my own country. Older adults in America commonly experience depression as a result of social isolation, but a daily gentle zumba class in the park or a senior spinoff of the already-popular A People’s Choir could be strong strands in a social net that keeps our older citizens connected to their community. Maybe it’s time the Portland Monday Funday expanded beyond the hipster scene.