“Wow, you ah sooo stro-ooong.” The tone of his voice turned each of the last two words into something bisyllabic. The student had been scoping me out. This is what it feels like to be a zoo animal or a celebrity in America, and just an ordinary foreigner in Chenzhou, China. My job was to be a teacher. But I was also working off the clock as a professional foreigner.
I was in the university gym and recreation center. It was below freezing outside and Crazy English Mountain was dusted with snow. There were no heaters in the school, and you could see your breath in the air. I had been working up a good sweat. Steam rose up from me. An exotic mélange of hip hop and Persian traditional came from the aerobics floor — and there was a sharp crack as somebody broke an eight-ball rack. A dying treadmill droned and squeaked.
Now the student wanted to touch my biceps. “Can I feel it?” he asked.
Preserve the harmony at all costs. That was the cowardly lion inside me. “Oh no, you better not. I have a bad cold right now. Maybe H1N1.” By now, I had been in China for three months and had grown used to the Chinese practicing weird English.
Stuff like, “Do you have a girl friend? Who is the most beautiful/handsome girl/boy in the room? How much money do you make? Do you know how to use chopsticks?”
What in the West would be deemed with cynicism is and should be taken at face value in the East. For now, while China still claims to be a “developing country.” I’m still trying to figure out if these questions are born out of sheer ignorance (perhaps there is a lack of vocabulary) or a societal preoccupation with superficiality. Only time will reveal the answer.
I went to the university gym several times a week to weight train and practice yoga. Since there wasn’t any heating, girls — I would say “women” because I’m talking about college age females here, but the Chinese prefer to be called “girls” out of politeness and for its connotations of youth and beauty – girls practice yoga in jeans, coats, scarves, hats, and mittens. Deemed a “girly thing” for its weight loss benefits, Chinese boys eschew yoga. Instead, they play video games, pay billiards and basketball, smoke, and find excuses to wander into the gym to scope out the ladies. American men, however, are exempt from Chinese social norm. In fact, we are expected and even paid to be strange as professional foreigners. But I digress, for this is the subject of another post…
I tried to educate people about the origins of yoga and expound upon its benefits which go above and beyond the mere physical world. And if I were to just short cut this esoteric explanation and just say that in America it’s okay for men practice yoga (just like it is okay for men to be nurses and women to be doctors) then I would receive giggles and grins — in the same universal giggle co-opted by Trix breakfast cereal, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!” — except here, they will say, “But you are in China!” Regardless of my strange, foreign behavior, the girls and yoga instructors welcome me and tolerate me. And it is a privilege for me to get hot and sweaty with a bunch of Celestial maidens.
Weight-training on the other hand was problematic. The weight room contained filthy and shoddy equipment. It shared the same space as two pool tables. Cigarette butts, ghost turds, and dust littered the floor. The room and equipment made you glad your vaccines were up to date. There was an unenforced sign that said, “Please, No Smoking” or “Qing, Bu Yao Xiyan.” It was a far cry from Gold’s Gym where a band of Hispanic workers continuously spit shined the barbells and sterilized the tread mills. The gym consisted of some 3 barbells, 10 dumbbells, 4 benches, 1 nautilus machine, 1 treadmill, and 3 non-functional stationary bikes. In theory, I could use all the available rubber-lined lead plates to squat my max. In other words, they had about 270 pounds worth of free weight. Unfortunately, only half the plates had holes that could fit the squat rack’s barbell. So I lifted for endurance rather than strength.
It was a typical evening in the gym. A class of girls belly danced. A bunch of guys played pool. A girl jogged in high heel boots on the tread mill. And then there were a couple gym rats like myself just trying to build some muscle and burn some extra calories. I circuit trained, moving swiftly between benches and machines, yoga poses, and side-straddle hops. I focused on my exercises and disregarded the vivacious girls shaking their gluts, swerving their hips around in sinuous rhythms. Perspiration shimmered upon their midriffs and necks despite the cold, wintry air. Their neck muscles flexed. And I pumped out another set. Midway through my workout I realized I was burning up so I stripped off some layers.
But my breath burst forth in as I breathed hard, pressed or squatted. And the girls did things with their shoulders that would make a man forget his old country and feel young again. But we all – pool players and gym rats alike pretended to ignore them.
Ah, hell no. The pool players passed out cigarettes, lit up, and then I had to point out the “No Smoking Sign.”
They smiled and tolerated me and laughed at the foreign devil. I had just made a good joke. But this was the one place where I would not tolerate smoking in China. I stood my ground. The boy waited with his cigarette lit. He finally realized I was willing to lose face, and prolong the conflict and continue disrupting the harmony. That’s when he put it out.
I resumed my exercises now that the pollution had been dealt with. The girls danced and I built up some muscle. Many of them wore form-fitting classroom attire. Not that I noticed. Strappy leather boots, skin tight pants, and bright girly shirts. Their nails were filed and painted. Some wore jewelry and metallic hip belts and shiny beads that jingled and jangled and dazzled. Their hips and pelvis writhed and whirled while their thin, arms extended laterally, proudly inviting the entire world to view their come-hither beauty.
Meanwhile, a guy had been watching me all this time. He was the guy who wanted to feel my muscles. Since I was a nice guy from America I made nice. Plus I was a teacher trying my best to emulate my best teachers. He told me I was so strong. I actually stopped watching — I mean, working out – the girls, and allowed him to practice his oral English.
So I gave him some exercise tips: strength train at least 3 times per week, walk at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week, and be sure to eat well.
Culture tip#234: There are two definitions to eating well. The Eastern definition: Keep eating fruits and vegetables, decrease your rice and soybean intake, and increase your meat intake. The Western definition was simpler: Increase fruits & veggies, decrease meats & breads. And one more thing. Tobacco does not count as a vegetable.
His name was Wang Yan Wu. He was an engineering student, and “Can I make friends with you?” was his most burning question.
This was how it was back in kindergarten too. My best friend in the whole world at that time was somebody I had met during recess. I asked him what his favorite cartoon was. This was during the early 1980s, The Golden Age of Saturday Morning Cartoons, when many children had gotten up early with the rising sun and a box of their favorite cereal on “Cartoon Day.” We both enjoyed The Smurfs. It featured a commune of diminutive fairy-like creatures wearing blue and white uniforms. Every Smurf had a talent and worked together to forage for Smurf berries in the surrounding woodlands. They lived in a mushroom hut commune, and were led by the wise, red capped Papa Smurf. And they were continuously under assault by the evil sorcerer Gargamel who wanted to grind up their flesh, blood and bones to make gold. My friend knew he wanted to be like Handy Smurf, but I had trouble deciding which Smurf I wanted to be like. I wanted to be Poet Smurf one day, Doctor Smurf another, and Painter Smurf the next. And then there were some days I didn’t want to be a Smurf at all. I wanted to be like Johan, a human knight allied with the Smurfs, who defended the weak and powerless during the Dark Ages. But despite all my confusion, my friend and I shared one thing in common: Our crush on Smurfette. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Our mothers saw to it that Cardinal Forest Elementary put us in the same afternoon kindergarten class. His name was Andy Heinz, or as I liked to call him when I wanted to be like Jokey Smurf, “Andy Ketchup.” But I digress as I am want to do.
Wang Yan Wu had just asked if he could make friends with me.
What the smurf? Were things really that simple here? “Of course,” I said. “But the best way to talk with me is by email.” I preempted his request for my cell phone number.
This was a big problem in the Chinese ESL environment. Give your number to one student and within a week it’ll go viral with a 1,001 texts saying, “How r u?”, or “W’sup?!” They wanted to practice their Teen Text English. Only the most die hard ESL students communicated by email. In which case, they wanted to know if Jesus Christ supported communism, or if the President Obama knew how to use chopsticks. That narrowed it down to less than ten emails a day.
Just in case, I made sure that Wang Yan Wu saw me ogle the belly dancers. Not that I noticed their thin, lithe bodies shimmy and writhe to the music. Not that I was thinking about them at all: Their black hair or chestnut brown hair bouncing lightly upon their shoulders or back, as they thrusted their chests forward and shoulders backward, holding me captive with their pendulum swing. These were short, happy days. Every day was a movable feast that would last a lifetime of famine in the waste land. And I decided that it might be a good idea to watch the girls carefully in case I ever wanted to them in a story.
I went back to my domicile all hot and bothered. Do I swing back to America where people have finally begun to realize that smoking was a form of oppression, and begin another arduous journey to become a physician assistant? Or do I stay in China because the girls – no, not girls, women, dammit! – were so stunning that I needed to stay for scientific purposes in order to observe whether their beauty was more than skin deep?