Third Places

Having trained as a community developer for the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand the concept of third places – something I’ve always found significantly important for my personal tranquility, but also something I can now recognize as vital for healthy communities and personal edifications of residents.

It’s an easy definition. People … perhaps especially Americans … spend most of their time at home and at work. And perhaps even if we adore being at one – or both, if you’re lucky – of these places, this consistency of residence can lead to stagnation of inner peace, creativity, etc. Hence cabin and cubicle fever and what not. The third place idea is that we have somewhere else to spend time and unwind besides home or the office.

Work is the first place (though I think it should be home).
Home is the second place.
What is the third?

Healthy little Midwestern communities have coffee shops, community centers, parks – places where people can go and live and commune or be entirely alone, depending on their preference. Especially in these times of increasingly fractured communities – we seldom sit on our stoops in the sunsets casually exchanging news with our neighbors these days – it’s important to the vitality and happiness of place-based community members to have that time to step outside of their domains and be a part of something more. Thus, the third place is a safe and warm place beyond the home or the office where you can be yourself and spend your time as you choose.

Between long commutes from bedroom communities, increased expectations, and the workaholism that seems to be a national affliction, I’ve found America, in general, to be sorely lacking in third places.

China was not.

In China, there were a million days when I simply couldn’t stand being in the office (which was either unbearably hot or freezing) any longer, and though I loved everything about my little apartment, my first home to myself, when I found myself conversing with the geckos on my ceiling, I’d know I was losing it a bit and needed to be elsewhere.

If we’re talking about third places being places of complete comfortableness and inner solitude in China, then we need to add the vital and never assurable stipulation of not being accosted.

Some of my fellow PCVs would likely be annoyed that the constant overtures of the Chinese – overtures of curiousity, of jeering, and very occasionally of friendship – fall under my hegemony of being accosted, but when you’re searching for time to be yourself outside of your normal places, the pain of interruption is severe.

I can think of four third places in my small town of 300,000 – places where I would often find myself, after long days and long nights. Places where the need to be “on” was curtailed, if not entirely gone. Places where I could be alone, but surrounded by the comfort of humanity. I can think of many more places of peace and solitude, but these always took significant climbing or planning and weren’t every day accessible to weary laowai.

Without a doubt, my favourite third place in Fuling was what we called the tansu paigu restaurant. It’s kind of funny – we never really knew the names of the restaurants where we went, so we – across the board – tended to identify them by whatever dish they made that we found particularly outstanding. The duck restaurant, the mushroom dumpling restaurant. And the tansu paigu restaurant was renowned (among foreigners) for it’s sweet and sour spareribs – short little things in this lovely brown sugar sauce so delicious that we would pour it over rice, or in the mashed potato soup, so not a bit was ever wasted.

You got to trusting the local PCVs on what to order when in their site restaurants, or you learned very quickly to do so. Not all dishes are created equal, and your favourite dish in one restaurant could be utterly foul in another. The tansu paigu restaurant, in addition to the wonderful short ribs, boasted excellent mashed potato soup/porridge, divine twice-cooked pork, and my personal favourite – gan bian sijidou/tudoli (julienned potatoes or whole green beans with pickled vegetable and bits of pork stir-fried into them. Add to that a wonderful staff and a particularly sweet waitress who would sometimes sit down with me (and was always welcome to do so) and chat about normal, female things. And a loud, saucy laobar (boss) with hair permed into tight curls who ran the place with an iron fist and who loved me because my face brought people into the restaurant – but who would also protect me if those people accosted me. After hearing me wistfully ask if there happened to be any cold beer every time I came in in the fall and spring – the Chinese take it lukewarm or warm except in the incredible heat of summer – they even perpetually left a bottle of beer in the refrigerator for me.

I went three or four times a week, and took every visitor and colleague – Chinese or foreign – there for dinner at least once. But my favourite times to go were in the middle of the afternoon and late in the evening. Even when I showed up during xiuxi (siesta), they didn’t get crabby, just tossed my usual order – twice cooked pork sans la jiao and gan bian veggies du jour – into the wok and went back to napping over crossed arms on the veneered table tops. It helped to be a low-maintenance customer, I’m sure. I would sit for an hour, or two or three, nursing a cold beer and engrossed in a book, picking at my dinner as suited me, completely comfortable and happy in my haven.

It’s taking joy in the small wonders of every day that help us remember why life is so good, and worth living.

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