As my second round in rural Anyue is coming to a close one lingering thought gnaws at my brain constantly. Now it could be the moonshine liquor the Lemon Bureau made us drink, or it could be genuine wonder, but the question that has been perplexing me for the better half of this week (coincidentally coinciding with my turn to write a blog…) has been how on earth have I managed to keep my sanity while in an environment and culture completely different than my own? As I was running last night along a moon lit river in northern Chengdu, dodging poodles, small children, and other oblivious critters along the path, it hit me.
Working out has been the one thing that has steadied me throughout all my travels. When everything was beyond my control, I always had command over my workout regimen. After all, it’s often just a simple matter of lacing up your running shoes or finding a pull-up bar. Staying fit and being active is so important to me that I made it a priority and informed my other team members of these needs before the TEM Labs even began – it was my one stipulation for the team contract. As I mentioned, all it takes to keep me happy is a pair of running shoes or some simple apparatus to hang from (small trees or rusty hanging pipes work well), but even then, especially in the Sichuan countryside, there can be complications.
The first challenge is that rural China doesn’t exactly have a culture of running… In fact, the only time I’ve actually seen another human being on the run was when they were being chased, dodging impending traffic, or trying to catch a bus. As such, I often find myself jockeying for position among an overly crowded road infested with cars, trucks, tractors, motorbikes, bikes, three-wheeled taxis, and the occasional mule/water buffalo – often in weather in the high 90’s with 80+ percent humidity.
"Oh hey, didn't see you there"
Fortunately, running in China is easy with a bit of courage and a 6’2 190lb white body frame. I’ve found that the best strategy is to blend in with the local traffic and go. It’s much like swimming with the current of a river… a river of horns, wheels, and asphalt. In Anyue this strategy works even better as most people have never seen a foreigner before, let alone a running one. This causes stares and extra caution, more or less giving me the defacto ‘right of way.’ It has also caused more than one bicyclist to rear end a stopped car.
The second obstacle I encountered arriving in Anyue was finding a local gym. Now I have been to my fair share of Chinese gyms and have found that the gym culture is not quite the same as it is Stateside. No big difference, you know – just little things. For instance, guys in America wear shirts…Chinese men don’t. In the US, men refrain from smoking in the gym. In China, real men finish an entire pack before the end of a workout, and Marlboro Reds no less. It’s really just a matter of expectations, and I expect to see sweaty shirtless dudes flexing, faking deep voices, and smoking up a storm (ladies?).
Clothing and manliness obviously have an inverse relationship.
Well as luck would have it, there was a gym in Anyue and what a gym it was. It had all the necessary equipment and more than my fill of aspiring Diet Coke models! The owner was no joke as well. He and his wife were former body builders and had decked out their place with tons of oiled competition photos and more protein supplements than a South Beach GNC. As the weeks went by I became a regular, and by the end more than a few of the regulars were joking with me and emulating my exercises.
Despite all the challenges of a non-optimal climate, working out and staying fit is completely doable with the right frame of mind and a little bit of flexibility. Often time different cultures engage in activities that seem odd to us but accomplish the same goal. I would see large groups of Chinese women dancing in the parks early in the morning or late at night or couples taking long walks along the river. It’s often just a matter of getting out and moving.
Speaking of which, check out what running in China is all about: Running in Sichuan