Like most things in China, the gym comes with varying degrees of nonsense. The gym we have joined in our small rural town of Wanzai is no exception. This small and humble location, which we have nicknamed “The Rocky Gym”, has a group of regulars who are surprisingly in the know about fitness- unlike other gyms I’ve attended.
The Rocky Gym has the basics: punching bag, pool table, six treadmills and some weights. Its “locker room” consists of people hanging their belongings up on a rail in the bathroom, an old wooden bench, a squat toilet and a shower (which doesn’t look or smell too different from the toilet). If you think you’ve problems remembering your locker number at the gym, try locating your belongings amongst this collection.
In comparison to the West, where the average Joe has at least an idea of their arse from their elbow when it comes to gym basics, the same cannot be said for the average gym goer in China. It’s not unusual to see any of the following: women in stilettos on the treadmill, people letting their young children play on the treadmill with or without their supervision, people working
out in get ups such as jeans, suits, underwear, and, something I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing once, and I deeply regret not photographing, a man working out in a life jacket (in a gym with no pool, I might add).
In addition to the intriguing get up of some of my fellow gym goers, some other things that make our Chinese gym more amusing (if not slightly irritating) are the recreational activities which take place there, such as dancing, ping pong and pool. The pool table, which is in the middle of the gym, is often surrounded by topless middle-aged men with cigarettes hanging precariously from their mouths while they try to make that all important shot. There’s nothing like hopping off the treadmill to breath in a nice cloud of smoke. These activities are all carried out to one of two soundtracks: the lament of a grieving lover-the Chinese ballad playlist or the 240 BPM with little to no words playlist. Neither a treat for the ears.
While breathing in big gulps of smoke during my work out, my health and safety brain is also perturbed by the way the weights find themselves in all sorts of weird locations. I’m not just talking about not finding their way back to the rack, but being loaded onto other machines. One such example is my beloved leg press, for which there are plenty of weights available. Rather than safely loading it up with the correct weights designed for such a purpose, some gym goers think it more sensible to use all the dumbbells in the Rocky Gym to make it heavier instead. There is no way for me to speak of this is in a calm, non-cranky manner, as this mess is left behind for the next life jacket or G-String wearing weight lifter to shift.
Of course there are all the obvious encounters which occur at the gym as a Foreign person in China. These include anything from friendly chit-chat (i.e. enquiries into your nationality, purpose for being in China, salary and location of residence) to paparazzi type photos which are taken while you’re awkwardly sweating it out. Usually people are quite stealthy with their photo taking, although I’ve learned to read the signs.
Recently whilst on the treadmill, I glanced at the woman beside, who me saw me and immediately took out her phone. I continued peripherally eyeballing her as she put the selfie camera on and began sneakily tilting the phone in my direction as I was running. As soon as it became unmistakable that she was in fact photographing me, I protested loudly in Chinese- which sufficiently startled the treadmill creeper, who denied the accusation.
I haven’t been so lucky to catch all my gym stalkers, and often spot the photo of me red faced, sweating and bossing my male counterpart around the weights after it has been posted to social media.
I can’t decide if such treadmill creepers are more or less annoying than another gym regular who insists on running on the treadmill next to me, intermittently clapping his hands with gusto and shouting “Jiāyóu!” in Chinese, which literally means “Add gas”, and is used as words of encouragement in sporting or other such events. He becomes particularly interested when I’m doing interval runs and I whack the treadmill speed up to a sprint. Neither my unwavering straight ahead gaze or the fact that I have headphones in both ears and have not acknowledged his chants once are enough of a hint to stop this man becoming involved in what I’m doing and as I turn the speed up he shouts with a heart thumbs up, “Wa! Lìhài!”, “Wow, awesome!”.
He may be trying to be friendly and encouraging, but as a runner who appreciates my music and the all important internal dialogue of a run, I find myself wishing the most gentle of running injuries on this jibber-jabberer, or at the very least some sort of ill-fate on the machine he’s using- although he has proven on more than one occasion that his proximity to me doesn’t impede his incessant noise, and from three treadmills away he proved himself to be quite the runner, as he balanced his breathing with regular shouts in my direction.