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What Watertown Has Taught a Chinese Scholar

Visiting scholar Molly Haoqun Gong has lived in Watertown for the past year – and now she wants to write a book about it.

There's a good chance that a new book about Watertown – its social organizations, nonprofit groups, religious institutions, government, and a lot more – will be published in the near future. The catch is that it might be available only in Chinese at first.

"I'd like to do a book (about my year in Watertown)," said Molly Haoqun Gong, an anthropologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, who spoke last week at the Watertown Free Public Library about her year living in and studying Watertown since September 2010, as a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

"I might publish it in English later," she added.

Gong had already done research on cultures in Thailand and southern China, when her advisor suggested studying somewhere in the United States.

"I thought it was a crazy idea," she admitted to the gathering of 50 or more people in the library last week. "I'd never been to America. Then I thought: maybe it's a crazy, but good idea – why not'?"

Gong chose to study Watertown for several reasons: it's an old town, it has a mid-level economy, it's not too big or too small, and it's close to Harvard. And she ended up living with three different families, learning more directly how families talk with each other, cook, garden, and even raise pets.

At first, some people asked her if she was a spy. "Of course, if I was a spy, I would say 'no' – but I'm not."

Given the competitiveness between the U.S. and China right now, such a question is not that far-fetched. If Gong has been snooping, though, it's not on high-tech companies and other economic linchpins, but on mother's groups, church gatherings, block parties, the senior center, the Watertown Historical Commission, local government, the library, and the new community garden. She even attended a bingo night, first as an observer, then as a player.

"Molly's been everywhere," said State Rep. Jonathan Hecht. "She's a master at networking... No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, she has become a friend."

Two aspects of Watertown that particularly impressed Gong were its abundance of volunteer activities and the openness and diversity of its religious groups. In her own neighborhood in Beijing, Gong explained, there aren't many public places to gather. As a result, families are more isolated and kids are raised more in the family. Gong has a three-year-old son and husband in Beijing, living in an apartment that is only 10 years old.

”Our understanding about other societies is limited," Gong said. "We need to know more. Society has changed in the past 30 years in China; there is more freedom to move, but also less family structure."

She was intrigued to discover all the places in Watertown that residents could gather to share similar interests and to volunteer: the library, senior center, religious institutions, environmental groups, food pantry, and public hearings in the town hall. She drew appreciative laughter, too, when she added that she was impressed with how creative and forthright people were in fundraising.

"They talk about a good idea," she said, "and then ask: 'How much (can you give?)'"

When Gong returns to China at the end of August, she hopes to start a mother's group, another group to hold discussions about beliefs, and a volunteer group that might be able to help with health issues among workers who are constructing the many new buildings in her community. And she might even do some fundraising.

"We learned so much from Molly," said one resident who attended her talk. "It helps us to re-examine our own values too."

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