Sunday, December 26, 2010

Report #12

I threatened myself a couple months ago that I would find a gym, but the threat level has gone from red to orange to yellow. Maybe it’s the cold or maybe it’s the routine I’m stuck in now. However in my defense, there aren’t a lot of gyms out there screaming at you to join. A fitness center with big glass windows and frantic members running like hamsters staring at you just doesn’t happen here like it does, say in New York. If I lived near one of those 24-hour New York fitness centers, I’m sure I would’ve caved under the pressure of walking past it everyday, and I would be locked into a contract that I’d later regret, and eventually my regret would be replaced by financial motivation to get my money’s worth, and I would become a hamster.

What I do see everyday are the Chinese version of gyms. They’re outside and have a communist flare to them…in that they’re free and open to the public. Chinese gyms are basically playgrounds for adults. To illustrate what a Chinese gym is, here is a set of instructions on how to make one:

1) Imagine all the popular fitness equipment you might find in a Bally’s Total Fitness…
2) Now remove any motors or easily damaged parts like rubber, electronics, cables, etc. and make sure there are no loose pieces like individual weights.
3) Beef up the equipment with thick, round tube-steel.
4) Next, paint the skeleton-like machines with bright yellow and blue paint
5) Mount your machines on a paved surface and bolt each one to the ground
6) Also, add a concrete ping-pong table or two with a concrete net.
7) And also add other fitness-machine-imaginations like large steering wheels mounted to poles. You’re not sure what those do, but you have a feeling they’ll be a huge hit.
8) Wait…

Before long, the gym will be crawling with people…. but not young, healthy Chinese people or even children, your gym will be a senior citizen hot spot. This is true.

On a sunny 30 degree day like today in Beijing, you’ll see dozens of elderly people going hard on what looks like a playground. It’s as if the old people showed up and kicked out the kids. It’s such a strange scene a photograph would do so much, but I haven’t mustered up the gumption to stand before 20-30 senior citizens, moving rhythmically on colorful equipment, staring aimlessly at me, and take a photo. I just watch, and slowly walk past trying to unpack why exactly does the sight seem so wrong. And here are some thoughts.

What we know to be ‘gym’, is a very standardized place with certain types of floor coverings, mirrors, machines, weights, towels, people dressed in gym clothes, etc. We take for granted how all the gym-ness signs amount to an overall image of a fitness center. But when you start removing these signs, taking away the building, the soft and futuristic edges of the fixtures and furnishings, removing the young people and their athletic clothing…you start to get close to what a Chinese gym looks like. I think the real deal-breaker is the outerwear. The senior citizens who are the most devoted patrons aren’t too worried about athletic pants or running shoes, they pretty much just show up in their street clothes, which right now consists of heavy overcoats and puffy looking slacks inflated by thick, long-underwear, and black or brown shoes. In their everyday garb they start making the rounds between different exercise contraptions. Some machines do the same as we’re used to seeing in a proper gym, and some make the body do really strange movements like we’re used to seeing in a proper gym, and others are entirely foreign, like the large steering wheel, which I see people grab onto with their back turned to it and sort of roll and sway with it as if their hands are stuck. Sometimes I see guys spin the wheel really fast, back and forth like they’re on a ship dodging an iceberg. Then there are also the self-administered beatings –these seem to be independent of the exercise equipment. There’s a lot of leg slapping and punching and it reads like “Come on you goddamn hip! Work! Work!” Then more punching…. really anywhere you can land a blow to the body, the back, the hip, the quad, the arm, the other arm, the calf, just not the face.

The American aesthetic of gyms and exercise is explicitly linked with youth, vitality, and sex, not geriatrics. The American gym is so much more about looking good than being healthy. And why shouldn’t it be, I mean just think about the popular exercise equipment we grew up with. We had Suzanne Somers lying on her side, pumping a thighmaster on late night TV, there was the ab-master awkwardly working your core, and Tony Little taking long strides in spandex on his Gazelle…and while not exactly a role model per se, he did seem to have an agressive agenda…

For better or worse, as a young person growing up with tv in America, infomercials somehow became embedded in the collective consciousness. Late nights, boredom, and adolescence I guess. So now imagine this scene…all these old Chinese people 60+ years old, in their street clothes in the middle of winter…and they’re bobbing, swinging, lifting, rotating, pulling, humping, and beating themselves, with calm faces, some even have on big sunglasses and Russian fur hats, and they’re on what looks like children’s playground equipment… and that’s about when the strangeness sets in…

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Report #11

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Report #10

This is what thirty thousand Yuan looks like. It’s the most money I’ve ever held in my hand before….the most, as in physically, because it’s nowhere near thirty thousand dollars. But it is three hundred of one thing--three hundred bills of money--and feels equally provocative. This is how I paid for my apartment; one lump sum for one year’s rent. That’s just how hot the rental market is in Beijing and goes to show how unscathed the Chinese economy is after the financial Crisis.

One of my co-workers, Qing Bo, couldn’t come into work one Saturday a few weeks back because he and his wife had to sell their house. I asked our project manager “So, does he have to go to a closing or something?”
“No…he’s just doing an open house.”
“Oh, I see…”
When Qing Bo came into work on Monday his house was sold. Just one day on the market, and he already bought another, an even bigger one.

I suppose when making large transactions most people get cashier checks or something equivalent, but I had to pull money out of ATM machines from several of my US bank accounts to pay a year’s rent. In the end I racked up hefty fees from the servicing bank, the kind that don’t show up right away. I had half a dozen $15 dollar fees from the Chinese bank. I guess they don’t like TCF back home, but I had no way of knowing at the time. It’s not like the $2.00 fee you agree to upfront. In hindsight I should have consolidated funds between my US accounts and made a single wire transfer to my Chinese bank account, but at the time speed was all that mattered.

Logistics aside, what I want to focus on is the rawness of this stack. The weight of it in the folded envelope I used to cart it around. The secret I was carrying as I passed any number of potential thieves that could smell giant stacks of money like wolves smell blood. At the lease signing I wasn’t sure when to pull out the fat envelope as it would somehow prove I was vulnerable in the deal, no room to negotiate any last hiccups, I had the money, I was all in.

A big stack of money is dirty. Counting and handling it makes your hands a little grimmey. My landlady is an amazing counter of money. She used a technique where she held the folded wad with both hands and meticulously pulled each bill off the stack with her pinky and ring finger while keeping everything perfectly aligned with her thumbs and fingers. It was like watching a fiddler crab eat a piece of meat.

My counting technique was awkward and sloppy, monopoly-style. I made little stacks in equal amounts so that when I screwed up I didn’t have to start all over. As careful as I tried to be I still messed up by giving her 100 Yuan too much, which she was nice enough to pull out. I left that day feeling a little nervous at what, if any influence I had with my landlord if something were to go wrong with the apartment. I mean…. I couldn’t exactly stop paying rent. I also wondered what she was going to do with that chunk of money. Would it go to pay off something? Or would she stuff it in a shoebox under a mattress?

Handing over the money seemed like something far more criminal was happening than a simple rental agreement; the Chinese contract that was illegible to me, the two apartment broker girls standing there in black suits looking bored, the landlady and her husband who wandered around the apartment as if it was the first time he had seen it. For a moment I wondered if I was living out the email scam that you’re not supposed to reply to. Having Ying, the office secretary, there made things seem safer. My tensions of future apartment problems eased when my landlady fixed a leak and some cracked plaster on my porch and bought me two space heaters within the first week. And every so often she text messages Ying to ask if I need anything. Now, two months into it I couldn’t be happier with this little home, the thing that thirty thousand other things was traded for.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Report #9

Dear Chinese Cleaning Lady,

Hey, it’s me the American. You know, the one that showed up too early on the first day and you had to unlock the door after hearing the doorbell ring repeatedly? You were pretty confused, especially when I tried to tell you that I just started working here. We didn’t understand one another, so I just sat at the table and read a book while I waited for other people to show up. Anyway, that was two months ago and I’ve had time to get to know you a bit better. I know we haven’t really talked much, except for the occasional “Ni hao” exchange, but I’ve done some reflecting on your services.

First off, I must say that I’m a little uncomfortable having a cleaning lady, like when I tried to wash my own mug and you took it out of my hands. Hey, you wanted that mug and I backed off. Don’t worry, I wasn’t trying to make you irrelevant, I just thought I’d give it a pre-rinse to make things easier for you. I’ve since moved beyond my initial sheepishness of your services, and now I marvel at the fact that I can create dirty dishes and just leave them in the sink for you. This makes me feel wealthy. In fact, I’m so comfortable with your services that I inquired about hiring you to clean my own apartment. I mean, two-dollars an hour! That’s a deal! My place would be a cakewalk for you it’s so small. But apparently you’re too busy with other clients for the next two months. No need to worry, put me on the waiting list. I do however have a few tips and suggestions.

I’ve noticed that you continue to use the same kitchen towels for most tasks around the office. I realize that we don’t have a washing machine, but it’s a good practice to change these towels once and awhile. It’s been two months since I arrived, and I’m pretty sure that white dish-towel hasn’t been washed once…and it shows. I even feel a little queasy just thinking about the few times early on I used it to dry off the rim of my glass. And that brings up another issue, all the hand washing you do. The large serving plate that you use to dry the glasses upside down inevitably creates a small pond. This prevents the cup from drying on the inside and taints the rim of the glass…hence my propensity to seek a drying cloth. Maybe that’s just what you’re used to but our kitchen has a dishwasher, however you seem to use the dishwasher to store wet plates and bowls. I realize the dishwasher may look like the perfect place to store wet dishes, but this is quite backwards. When I open the dishwasher to fetch a plate or bowl it smells damp like a moldy cellar because you continue to populate it with wet things and proceed to close the airtight door. This is bad. Please run it once in awhile, and it will even dry everything inside so you can put bowls and plates in the cabinets where they belong.

While on the subject of misused storage spaces, I must inform you that the shower is not a closet. Yes, it does share the same shape as one, but unlike a typical closet, which is used to hide unsightly things, our shower has glass walls. I’m sure we can relocate your brooms and mops to a more appropriate storage area, like the closet. Don’t worry, I’m not angry with you, I just think there is some room for improvement. I still want to be put on the waiting list, if you even have one.

I do have some positive feedback to give you as well. Thank you for the fresh fruit you bring each morning. I certainly eat my fair share of clementines. One time I ate so many when I looked at my tongue in the mirror it was orange. Weird, I know. I also appreciate how each morning you try to straighten the things on my desk so everything is perpendicular to each other. But please stop returning the books I’ve taken out from the office library. These I have on my desk because I’m reading them, they’re not misplaced. Oops, here I go complaining again. Let’s just leave things on a positive note. Chinese Cleaning Lady, you’re worth every penny!


The American