(Originally written November 20, 2012.)
When I first went to study Chinese in Beijing in the summer of 2005, I was a fairly avid triathlete. This posed some serious issues that, at the time, I didn’t really think were going to be issues — actually, that statement alone pretty much summarizes every experience I had that summer, from the miserable homestay experience that abruptly ended, to the realization that learning Chinese was going to be a hell of lot tougher than I imagined.
But I was also a hell of a lot more adventurous back then. I happily (stupidly) borrowed a bike box from a friend and packed up my $1600 USD triathlon bike. After all, I had the duathlon world championships in Australia scheduled for mid-September, and I planned to be in Beijing until late August. I also had a coach who had prepared a hardcore training schedule for me. Before I left the U.S., we agreed that I would “check out” the area in which I was going to live (with the homestay family) and the university facilities, and then go from there with the biking and swim training. Until then I could still do my runs.
It’s hard to adequately describe the old Beijing airport terminal when I arrived. These days, I can say it’s just as chaotic as any of the central 东北 (N China) train stations, but at that time I had never seen anything that insane. True, I’d been to China twice before, but it had been in student and tourist groups, with a guide and without overflowing luggage — like a bike case. I grabbed my suitcase off the baggage belt and looked around for the oversized baggage area. In short: there was none – or so it seemed. I did finally locate my bike case, along with other oversized items, strewn across some random baggage area section. No markings for flight number or to whom it belonged; anyone could in theory have taken my bike. Luckily, I was met by the homestay company guy (actually, a shady foreigner I shall call “J”) who thankfully had driven to the airport to pick me up. On the way out of the airport we were accosted by several taxi drivers; they suddenly stopped yelling at us and started yelling at each other. I asked “J” about it as walked to the garage: he coolly responded: “they’re fighting over our business…” (Note: the novelty of this quickly wore off as it happened to me numerous times, especially when I had to move the bike from the homestay to my new digs and the taxi driver gave me a “surcharge” for transporting the case.)
Without getting into details, the homestay did not work out too well, but it wasn’t too bad for training. You see, I was staying with a family that lived in some new apartment complex out west of (what I now know is) the fourth ring road. They lived south of the summer palace, so I could run up there for my long runs. Now, in Beijing 2005, this did require some skillful running around since there was construction everywhere, and I tried hard not to disturb the curious migrants sleeping on the unfinished sidewalks outside the building. (They used to huddle around TVs at night, right outside the fancy apartment complex where I stayed.)
The other big perk was that this homestay family, like so many others at the time, lived on the husband’s western salary and thus had a fancy gym membership. The husband, a graduate from some American university’s master’s program (yet barely capable of actually speaking English and entirely incapable of coherent putonghua*), had bought some kind of life-long membership for this new gym. When I mentioned my triathlon training, they gladly offered to take me to the gym whenever I wanted. I still don’t exactly know how it was they did this, but I went to the gym with them every time for free. I couldn’t speak Chinese very well, let alone understand it, but I did learn something about guanxi from the wife. When I asked her how much I should pay and she said nothing, I pressed a little bit and insisted I should pay something. Instead, she firmly told me: “no pay! we already paid them lots of money when we signed up, so you go for free!”
My first adventure at the gym involved the treadmill and a cycling class. I quickly learned a couple of things: women, for some reason, rarely run on treadmills (or as they’re called in Chinese “running machines” – makes a lot more sense actually). The second thing I learned was that it was highly unusual to see any foreigners, let alone a female, at a gym like this. So when I started running, people started staring and asking questions – was I a famous athlete? (Ha, I wish.) Why was I at the gym, who did I know? (My homestay people got a lot of social prestige points…) I also went to the cycling class, which, and I can say this because I’ve also taught indoor cycling classes, was out of control and not in a good way. The small room was closed up, air shut off, cramped with too many bikes, and the instructor liked to play bad techno with a fast beat. My first experience of intense screaming in Chinese while standing on a bike. (Note: a year later in Dalian this became normal.)
To this day I have no idea what happened to that gym. Perhaps, like so many others in China, it closed. Western-style gyms have never really gained the popularity they have elsewhere, and I often think that – among those with money in urban areas at least – it’s because there has not yet been a middle-class fitness revolution.
Meanwhile, I started my classes at BLCU (北语) and checked out the on-campus facilities. The gym – Fusion Fitness – was the kind of nightmare I had been happy to avert while at the luxury gym. The equipment looked like it belonged to a 1980s gym, and the “locker room” for women – really just a Chinese-style toilet stall and a dangling hose for the shower – looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the 1950s. But, they did offer towel service, and the price was dirt cheap: ~300 RMB for the entire summer.
Luckily, I went downstairs to check out the pool in the same building and discovered what I would now call representative of the Mao era: a lovely, mostly empty, 50 meter / 8-lane (i.e. Olympic-sized) swimming pool. (Memory fails me, but I seem to remember it also had its own locker rooms and showers, which were far superior to the sad looking gym locker room upstairs.) I immediately bought a pool pass and within a day went for my first of many swims that hot, muggy summer. Swimming in there was always a pleasure as it was generally quiet and mostly full of old male professors who, if they weren’t spitting too much, just swam laps and ignored me. Occasionally, I ran into other foreign students also looking for respite from the oppressive Beijing summer.
Next to the gym was an outdoor track that remained empty during the day but, as I later found out, filled to the brim with locals from the surrounding community after dinner. I learned fast that running there after dark, which seemed like a good option considering the heat was unbearable during the day, was nearly impossible with the throngs of people walking in endless circles while chatting.
After I left my homestay, I moved closer to the university to be near the on-campus facilities and closer to student life. I missed the fancy gym sometimes, but other times I realized that being able to set my own hours around the pool (it was open late!) and for running made my life easier. I would often attend classes 8am-noon, then either head to work out right away, or grab some lunch and do a tutoring session and do a work out in the later afternoon or before dinner. For example, I might go do intervals on the track or at the gym, and then go straight to the pool and swim (or vice versa). I maintained full contact with my coach and recorded all of my workouts. (I still have these on my computer somewhere, and they’re interesting to re-read for the extra bits of info I popped in there about strange gym experiences.)
Two things made training in Beijing extremely difficult – two things that, had I known about them in advance, I may never have gone to Beijing for the summer. I was very serious about keeping up my biking and running at that time, and I just couldn’t find a group of cyclists to train with. My bike case continued to sit in the corner of my tiny room at the International Student Center, and it remained there until the day I went home. I had to tell my coach the truth: without a group, I feared for my safety on the roads. I didn’t know any routes outside the city, and I couldn’t speak Chinese well enough in case I got into serious trouble. Nowadays there are expat groups that put together weekly trips, but at the time there was just…. nothing. I pleaded on English-language forums, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I gave up, and so my coach designed workouts for me on the dreaded stationary bike at the gym. He patiently re-wrote workouts that could be done in intervals on the machines, often switching levels back and forth to alleviate boredom (which only somewhat worked).
Believe it or not that was not the worst of it. After about three weeks of running outside I came down with an incurable cough. My coach panicked–according to some of his independent research (google and talking to doctor friends), he decided it was no longer safe for me to run in Beijing air. (In at least one respect I think he was probably right: my cough didn’t go away until I returned to the U.S. and took anti-biotics, and I think the polluted summer air in Beijing probably didn’t help what was already a serious sinus infection.) I had to move all my training onto a treadmill… ugh.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: no big deal, just a few weeks left, suck it up and deal with it. And that’s basically what I was thinking. But what I haven’t mentioned is that I had also signed up for an October marathon, and not just any marathon but one in which I wanted to qualify for Boston (so I needed a sub 3h40m time). The treadmill very quickly became my dreaded hell–and a source of strange and unpleasant gym experiences. The entire summer the gym itself was kept at a toasty 82F; I soaked through at least two towels whenever I ran on any of the machines. When I did intervals, my speed was faster than the machine could handle. A few times, the machine bounced so much the gym staff became concerned and asked me to turn it down – but more often I just couldn’t take my intervals above the machine’s limit of 12.7 KM/H. But most painful of all was doing the final long runs on that machine. Yep, I ran *two hours* on a treadmill in 82F heat in a gym where the only TV in the room played Chinese soap operas all day long. My iPod more-or-less saved me that summer. I still remember one time when I dropped it 77 minutes into a long run and a gym staff member came to turn off my machine as I stooped down to pick it up. “No!” I snapped, “I’m not done yet (还没完!)” He backed off and let me continue.
I’m not entirely sure what that gym staff thought of me that summer. Triathlon was still relatively unknown in China; since the Olympics most people now know what it is, even if they don’t actually know anyone who’s ever participated in a triathlon. One time, I remember running on the treadmill in that gym before dinner, when it was nearly empty. I changed the TV channel and it so happened that there was a live broadcast of some triathlon race (ITU) from Canada. I shouted for the bored looking gym staff members to come over quickly — they seemed slightly amused (or confused) as I excitedly pointed at the screen and said in my beginner’s level Chinese, “看! 三项全能动! 铁人! 是我! (look! triathlon! is me!)”
On the bright side, my training paid off in more ways than one: I ran a 3:36 marathon that October, and my Chinese language teacher in the U.S. was so impressed with how much progress I’d made in just 7 weeks – I showed up to the teacher’s office randomly and immediately started a conversation in Chinese on what I’d done that summer – that I was bumped up to a higher level without any further tests.
*I still don’t know if his wife, a born and bred Beijinger, can actually understand most of what he says.