My preferred exercise is running. I usually try to run about three times a week, but I must admit that I’m usually satisfied with twice a week coupled with lots of walking. When I get a bike, I’m sure that cycling will replace a lot of the walking that I’ve been doing. Still, I admit to craving the open country roads and woodland paths for running that I’m so lucky to have at home in Canada.
Here at the Beijing Language and Culture University, there is a huge fitness center equipped with a mondo track, swimming pool, weight facilities, and much more. There is also an outdoor workout area, which is like a public gym that is permanently fastened to the cement. There are stairmasters and rowing machines and various other gadgets available for public use.
In response to the National Physical Fitness Program established in 1995, these parks were put in place to provide more people access to public health-building facilities. Did you know that Chinese people live longer on average than North Americans and currently the oldest living person resides in China? Well, there’s some impetus if you’re looking for fitness motivation! (By the way, she’s reportedly been a vegetarian her whole life.)
Well, whatever their original motivation, I think the parks are fantastic and I took a tour of one yesterday and tried all the machines like a giggling kid. It was a like a fun-park for adults with no ticket price and I loved how brightly coloured everything was. Maybe to make working out a more sunny experience? Whatever gets the public to move, I suppose.
The university also has courts for every kind of team sport including (but not limited to) badminton, racket ball, volleyball and basketball. “Western” sports are extremely popular in China and I can see the proof of that every day.
My building sits right next to the basketball courts. There are seven full basketball courts all stretching horizontally in a row just outside my window. That makes fourteen basketball nets, or fourteen possible simultaneous half-court games at any given time. Every day, the courts are packed starting from six in the morning until past midnight, even without any lighting after dusk! Those who play into the night do so by the secondhand light from the adjacent pathway, which amounts to barely any light at all. I’m always amazed by the diehards who play in the near dark. Now that’s dedication.
I’ve had to become quite familiar with the bounce, bounce, bounce sound of basketballs in motion. In fact, I can finally sleep through it and this is a huge accomplishment after two weeks! Someone asked me why, as a musician, I would have trouble with the sound. They said, “Isn’t it like a drum?”
Uhm, quick answer? No.
Unless, of course, the drummer has no sense of timing and rhythm! It’s more like the sound of. . . basketballs.
Oh well, at least it keeps me inspired to stay in shape! The drone of sports being enjoyed just outside my window definitely prompts my own activity. And, it’s hard to begrudge a sound for being a sound. Sound is my business, after all.
So, I’ve been using the track a few times a week. Every morning from about 5:30am onwards, the walkway between the basketball courts and the track is filled with scattered elderly folks doing Tai Chi.
I walk first between basketball games and then through the graceful movements of the Tai Chi practitioners, all the while trying to see through my morning fog. When I arrive at the track (three minutes from my door), I deposit my water bottle on the side and then take my place among the spinning humans who look like dice of varying speeds on a giant roulette wheel.
At 6:15am, the track is filled with people running or walking, always counter-clockwise. Some are even walking or running backwards (why?) and most are wearing jeans and not workout clothes. Very few wear proper running shoes and I find myself worrying about their feet and the impact on their knees.
The center of the track, which is also the soccer field, is filled first by the university guards, two of whom I recognize as those who helped me carry my stuff the first day. The full battalion (what are they called in a group anyway?) are in full uniform while thick in a game of soccer for about twenty minutes as their mandatory daily exercise. Then, the soccer field is usually taken over by another group exercise. On this day, it was a group of women who were working on keeping what looked like a tennis ball balanced on some sort of paddle. I have no idea what sport this is for. Do you?
All in all, I only do ten laps, which is about a twenty-five minute run (4km) for me, and I am by far the longest distance runner I have yet to encounter. Everyone else works out for half the time and I wonder if they know something I don’t related to air quality and/or blood flow as per Chinese herbal medicine or something?!
And speaking of flow, I really believe in changing directions, too, when running on a track. Too much time spent counter-clockwise puts an imbalanced strain on your limbs and muscles. (Thanks to April Boultbee, my marathon running friend and Few’ll Ignite Sound‘s savior, for this bit of info!)
Today, I finally decide that I am going to take the plunge and just run on the far outside lane in a clockwise direction to avoid the oncoming human dice. I get so many strange looks that I nearly re-join the counter-clockwise current out of embarrassment. Still, I talk myself into pushing on and doing half of my run against the flow. Afterwards, I feel better in my body, despite feeling shy and all-the-more foreign than I already am.
Being a non-Chinese person here gives me some leeway to be “weird” and I’ve generally been open to that flexibility!
After my run, I weave my way back through the Tai Chi and the basketball games to my building and my shower. It’s a great way to start the day and even though I miss my quiet, solitary, countryside running, I feel like I’m part of some sort of Chinese fitness movement here; a movement of movement.
Sign me up.