Archive | November, 2011

“Like it or not just in to gym”

16 Nov

If I haven’t been blogging, you may wonder, what have I been doing? Among other things, I joined a gym. I figured it would be more productive than sitting in front of a computer, and a good way to burn off the few pounds that anyone living with a Chinese family gains.

At every opportunity, at every meal we eat together, my host mom does her best to force-feed me. She insists that I eat more – soup, fish, dumplings, chi haiyou! The first week, I obliged, if only to establish that I enjoyed her cooking.

“Why are you eating so little?” she asked during the second or third week, by which time I’d reduced my daily intake. “It’s too much food,” I replied.

The next day, I faced another, seemingly unrelated, question: “Are your parents tall or short?” I said, “They’re about the same height as me.” “You know,” my host mom responded, in her earnest, motherly manner, “if you eat a lot, you will grow taller. Look at Dawei,” – my host brother, whose height is, unscientifically, above average for a Chinese person – “he ate a lot and now he is very tall.”

I was amused by her logic, though I understand why, in a society ravaged not too long ago by deprivation and malnutrition, the thesis would seem sensible, so I feigned assent. “Okay, whatever you say.” Also, “DNA” was never one of my vocabulary words.

When I first heard about the gym from my program director, I was skeptical. How big is the gym, does it have a locker room, are foreigners allowed to join? The last point prompted the most uncertainty because the on-campus gym prohibits non-Chinese students from using its facilities.

My questions and fears were largely answered and assuaged by Kate, another gap year student and gym member. A month ago I bought a two-month membership for 600 RMB, about $90 USD.

Healthy Star Fitness Center, as it is called in English, is a 10 minute bike ride from my apartment. It occupies the fourth floor of a small shopping center where forgettable Chinese ballads are played, across the street from a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

An area of perhaps 2000 square feet is devoted to treadmills, ellipticals, free weights, and a variety of weight machines. Equinox it is not, but for a country where the cult of fitness is nascent, it is adequate.

I’ve never belonged to a gym in America, but I can say with relative certainty that the idiosyncrasies at “Healthy Star” are unique to Chinese gym culture. Here’s my typical routine, what I consider a benchmark of balance and normality: I first spend half an hour doing cardiovascular work on the treadmill; the next half hour I lift weights; then I spend 15 minutes on core workouts and stretching.

Of the Chinese members – that is, everyone else – I’ve noticed two distinct groups: the “cardio crowd,” composed of equal parts women, pot-bellied old men, and fit men; and the “Schwarzeneggers,” Chinese men full of machismo who treat this middling club like their own Gold’s Gym, which is, in a sense, fortunate because I don’t know how tolerant the real Gold’s Gym and its patrons would be of my companions’ tendencies.

Evidently, everyone is a VIP at 健之星健身中心 (Healthy Star Fitness Center)

One of the trainers, an amiable man named Steven (not his actual name, I presume), is a fluent English speaker. We chat for a few minutes each time I’m at the gym, and on occasion he’ll speak very candidly with me, I think because he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so with other Chinese. Once, Steven asked if I thought “Healthy Star was a good gym.

I’m always perplexed by questions asked by Chinese people (often in English) that require me to pass judgment on something. It is never clear whether I’m expected to answer honestly, as a foreigner unconstrained by the Chinese notion of “saving face,” or to answer falsely, doling out affirmation in the same way a Westerner hired to attend a factory opening is perceived to add prestige.

“Uh…” I stammered for a few seconds, trying to answer delicately. “It’s not ba… er… pretty good?” “Really?” he replied, “I don’t think it’s so good.” I tried to equivocate, to exchange the native’s hat for the foreigner’s: “I mean, compared to other gyms in China…”

A different time, Steven commented on my expertise using the weight machines. “It was required for gym class, so I had to learn,” I informed him. He was surprised, and impressed too, I think. “When new people come in,” he told me, “most of them have no idea what they’re doing. I have to show them how so they don’t get hurt.”

It came as no shock to me that so few people have prior gym experience. In my eyes, it’s a forgivable offense – Chinese high schools are notoriously spartan, focused solely on preparing students for the gao kao, or “high test,” essentially the SAT on steroids. Only in the past decade or two has a “fitness revolution” begun to take hold. The trouble is the nuisances a lack of experience engenders.

Between Monday and Friday, I go to the gym three or four times, often in the evening. Inevitably, I encounter some of the same people. Even when faces escape me, certain behaviors are all to familiar.

A few other people and I care to carry around sweat towels. But, curiously, I’m the only one who wipes off a machine after use. It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine’s crush (George’s latest nemesis) leaves a piece of equipment coated with sweat – only a thousand times worse. (No word on whether, like George, anyone urinates in the shower).

Plus, George and Elaine never had to contend with people who annex machines – and, other than treadmills, there is just one of each kind – for 30 minutes at a time, performing 10 reps every five minutes while playing games on smartphones during each interlude.

Then there are the roving bands of “Schwarzeneggers,” in their twenties and thirties who treat the gym primarily as a social engagement. When not ogling themselves in the mirror, four or five sit idly on adjacent machines, watching one friend lift weights. A dirty look is required to free up a place.

The situation in the locker room could stand to be improved too. Smokers are everywhere in China – when a pack of cigarettes costs less than a pack of gum, why not? – but the gym was the one place I thought I might find a reprieve. Alas, many members fail to perceive that contradictory nature of smoking after exercise. Inhalation of second hand smoke, the story of my life in China, continues unabated.

All the antipathy I harbor doesn’t go to waste, though. When fatigue sets in, the motivation I derive from it works wonders. And at the end of a workout, when I’m trying to chill out, there is an abundance of characters whose more benign mannerisms I can cull laughs from.

One of my favorites is the lanky guy with the body of a prepubescent boy. Inexplicably, he wears muscle shirts that accentuate his lack thereof. His favorite exercise is playing games on his phone.

I feel like I should tell him that his second favorite exercise – attacking a punching bag like a banshee, arms and legs flailing violently – probably won’t help him gain muscle mass, and, in general, makes him look like a fool. But I won’t, because it’s simply too entertaining.

Another hero of mine (a legend, really, since I’ve only seen him once) is the man who wears a green camouflage-patterned spandex onesie that ends mid-thigh. He tops a list of fashion faux pas that includes the multiple people who wear street clothes while exercising.

Absurdity also reigns in the locker room. On my first day, I walked in and nearly burst out laughing. Two men, unclothed and fresh from the shower, stood in front of a mirror using a blow dryer to dry themselves off; to dry everything off. This, I have since learned, not an isolated practice.

The Chinese, God knows why, have an aversion to normal, Western-sized bath towels. At both my current home-stay and one the previous summer, I was provided with towels no larger than two-thirds the size and half the thickness of my bath towel at home in America. Needless to say, I dry it off more than it does me.

Out of habit, and perhaps a sense of decency, I still use a towel, but my companions are constrained by no such conventions. Let’s just say it can get a tad awkward; not just because of the towels: I’m the only Westerner, and certainly the only Jew.

“Healthy Star” has been a peculiar, if memorable, experience but, when my membership lapses in a month, I think I’ll seek out a more upscale club, one that attracts more expats. One that enforces a few more rules.