|The gym guys look a lot more pleasant in their leaflet.|
No one really joins the gym because the thought of picking up objects and putting them down again sends a tingle down their spine. People join because they kind of hate how they look and want to do something about it.
So all gyms everywhere exude an aura of self-punishment, despite whatever marketing mojo has gone into presenting the place as some kind of utopian crèche for adults. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy working out, it’s OK, really. I just resent having to cause discomfort to myself while some woman cries out, “Ladies, aren’t you loving this!” down the microphone. – as they did in my aerobics class back home.
That’s why I love my local gym. It doesn’t pretend that you’re there to enjoy yourself – it wants you to sort yourself out however much pain and/or humiliation this involves. Brusque and burly gym assistants have a habit of showing up behind you on the weight machines and forcing you into a much more effective (torturous) position. They will stand there until they’ve made sure you’ve completed an adequate (excruciating) number of reps, at which point they’ll pull you out of said machine and shove you into another. And if you’re caught twiddling your thumbs they’ll make you do lunges across the room as their buddies line up to laugh while you sweat. And in the height of summer, when temperatures soar to sweltering 40 degrees, they won’t turn on the fans. Because, you know, air-cons are for sissies.
Even the yoga instructors, who are supposed to be the happy clappy feel-good people, have no qualms about aggressively pushing and pulling you into the appropriate position. One of first things I learnt to say (scream out in anguish) in Chinese was “Body no can do!” And even when the pain stops and its nap time you’ll never even come close to Nirvana what with the Kung Fu boys grunting and throwing chains at each other right outside the room.
Then there’s the motivational factor. Expats, especially women, often complain about the way locals like to point out how big we are compared to the Chinese. Commenting on someone’s spare tire is so ingrained in the Chinese psyche that there are a plethora of Kindergarten songs with the words “She is fat! She is fat!” in the chorus. I always know I’ve skipped one too many aerobics classes when one of my students produces his textbook and points at the phrase “you have a little puppy fat” in it. But of course, those least likely to hold back on matters of body weight are our gym instructors, who have gone so far as to make my colleagues cry.
Ostensibly, calling someone fat here is not supposed to be taken as an insult, but is considered an amusing observation. At my school, there tends to be one slightly overweight child per class who is the subject of endless derision, and, I believe, not so much because they are overweight, but more because they stick out – in the same way that slightly taller students, and students from other provinces have trouble integrating. And while the pressure to conform is rife in schools across the world, crudely pointing out the things that make a person different here is no taboo, so anyone who does stick out will constantly be reminded of this fact.
Obviously I feel for these kids, and while I in no way approve of their treatment, I have also noticed that they tend to be my most remarkable students – the funniest, the most creative and the most willing to try out new things. It’s like they’ve developed such a thick skin that they are impervious to feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
There is something to be said of the abrupt way the Chinese handle things, the fact that they do not expect people to take offence, and by extension, do not really take offence themselves (unless, of course, you say anything mildly disparaging about their glorious and wonderful country). Coming from a country where every sentence is pock-marked with “please”s and “sorry”s and endless meanders around the truth, it can be refreshing to live somewhere where people tell it how it is, and expect you to do the same.
When I first arrived, a woman who’d taken me out to dinner promised she’d find me a rich Chinese man. I spluttered, made polite jokes about it suggesting I wasn’t interested and hoped she’d get the message. A few days later she came up and told me she’d arranged a date with a nice “Judge-man”. The conversion that ensued lasted way longer than it should have done. I spent ages explaining that while the Chinese marry quite early, which is of course, perfectly OK, we married later. Then she intimated that the guy didn’t want to marry me either, and told me that we could just be “special friends”, which was even more awkward because I gathered she had been advertising my wares as a western concubine. In the end, I just spat out “Look, I’m not interested” convinced she’d hate me for the rest of her life, but she just shrugged and nodded. And guess what? We’re still friends.