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.
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…