China Stories and Tips

Week 08 & 09- 'Horse Pulls Big Tree'

Exploring Benxi Photo, China, Asia

It doesn’t take long to adopt some of the habits exhibited by the local inhabitants. A persistent cough and unhealthy levels of hearty phlegm from the pollution regularly leaves me wanting to cough up my guts all over the city streets like everyone else. With the potential of taking part in such disgusting habits (there’s nothing like seeing a well-dressed, beautiful young lady, launch a mouthful of green mucus towards the gutter), and believing that my shocking levels of fitness might have something to do with it, I’ve decided to take drastic measures.

Eight-plus weeks of non-exercising and over eating Chinese banquet style have most definitely left me heavier than I’ve ever been in my life. While size and appearance may not deter the celebrity-like status granted on the streets of this small Chinese city, looking at my naked torso in the mirror has led to many a deep sigh of disapproval. With this in mind, not only have I signed up for a year gym membership, but I’ll also be running the Great Wall of China Marathon next May.

Originally there wasn’t a word for ‘marathon’ in the Mandarin language. Instead three original words that sounded close enough to the English equivalent were put together, giving the word ‘ma-la-shong.’ While this might sound similar to ’marathon,’ when literally translated it actually means "Horse Pulls Big Tree.’ No wonder the students were giving me funny looks when I was trying my hardest to tell them in Chinese that I like to run marathons. Such translations are common occurrence. A mobile phone in Mandarin is ‘electric speak.’

Normally accessing the joys that a fitness centre beholds is a simple process, but in a country where even sneezing draws untold levels of curiosity, this wasn’t going to be so straightforward. It wasn’t hard to find a free treadmill, and after a few lunges, I was striding away to my hearts content. Considering China has a rich, successful sporting pedigree, even in the art of long distant running, I was slightly taken aback by the number of other gym-goers, staff and random bystanders going about their daily activities who found a running foreigner such a bizarre oddity. Before I knew it a small crowd had formed outside the window of the gym. As they peered in, another group was slowly growing behind me.

Not one to turn down the opportunity for some attention, it wasn’t long before I was running to my full capacity, blowing away the cobwebs of the previous eight weeks. This of course gave me the impression that I hadn’t lost as much fitness as I’d originally expected. With a minute’s running left to go, I upped the speed to a lofty seventeen kilometres an hour, a speed I was able to keep for barely forty seconds, before realising I had pushed the boundaries a little too far.

Instead of turning the speed down though, I thought I would try and show-off to the twenty-something gawping, watching locals. The plan was to coolly slide off the back of the treadmill after pressing the ‘stop’ button, before disappearing off to the changing rooms. As to be expected this didn’t exactly go as I intended. I missed the stop button first time around and grasped at it a second. The second time I forgot to move my legs, a suicidal move when on a treadmill. Within a second, I’d fallen over and was flung a good two metres off the back of the treadmill, skidding to halt in front of those still watching me.

There was no sympathy. There were no soothing words of ‘are you okay.’ In fact there was nothing. Only silence. Looking at their faces for any emotion, all I could see was an impression that seemed to say, "hmmmmm, what’s the foreigner going to do now.’ And what did the foreigner do? With treadmill still running, he retreated to the safety of the changing rooms, ego bruised and embarrassment levels at an all time high.

The Great Wall of China Marathon isn’t so named to evoke timeless visions of one of man’s greatest feat of engineering. Almost a quarter of the 42.195km is run along the wall, where the competitor has to navigate over 5,200 steps. Luckily, living on the thirty-first floor means I have a healthy selection of steps at my disposal. These steps have proved a welcome distraction from visiting the gym again after my little mishap. Up until recently, running, stumbling and dragging myself up and down these thirty-one floors have been a care-free almost enjoyable experience. I rarely look ahead of me when mounting the steps, but on this one occasion, as I hop-scotched over a stream of trickling water I unconsciously looked ahead to see where this was coming from.

Seeing the naked bootie of an elderly lady in mid-flow urination was the last thing I expected to confront my eyes. As we passed on the stairway, neither one of us acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. I have a strange feeling from her calm composure, distant stare and squatting stance, this wasn’t the first time she’d been caught short in the stairways. Why she would need to go there instead of the toilet in her apartment is beyond me.

On the teaching front it’s been pretty quiet on the charging, attacking parents front. Student mispronunciations and double innuendoes has certainly been on the increase though. Here are just a few of my favourites;

1. Peanuts, pronounced ‘penis’ and then used in the sentence, "I like penis." Each to their own!
2. Fork, pronounced ‘f*ck’ and used in the sentence, "Can I have a f*ck please." I politely glazed over this request.
3. Beach, pronounced ’bitch’ and used in the sentence, "I like playing on the bitch." Again, each to their own.

In another class, I was happily teaching the different prepositions of ‘on, in, under, above, etc.’ Upon understanding their meanings and being given the chance to create their own sentences, it wasn’t long before "the teacher is in…………………….," and "the teacher is on……………..,"innuendoes were running thick and fast. I’m not sure if the children realised the full extent of their innocently prepared sentences, but for the parents it took a good two minutes for the giggling to stop.

I think more or less every place I’ve lived, I’ve either had my sexuality questioned or more worryingly, my gender. In China it’s been no different. I’m just surprised it’s taken so long. During one class, one child raised their hand and upon acknowledging they had a query, they politely asked, "teacher, do you like boys or girls." As this question had little to do with the supermarket foods I was teaching, you can imagine my shock. After getting rather defensive, shouting the word ‘women,’ and pulling a photo of my wife out of my wallet to prove the point, my assistant decided it was now an appropriate time to explain the nature of his question. The student was just worried I was asking the girl students more questions than the boys. I immediately regretted my heavy-handed initial response to his question.

Karaoke is a favourite past time for many a Chinese inhabitant. I haven’t sang karaoke in public since starting a bar brawl with my not so angelic voice in the northern regions of Kentucky some four years previous. It was about time to put these ghosts to rest. Karaoke bars in China aren’t exactly the same as other karaoke places I’ve frequented in the past. These places contain numerous private rooms, where the only people you sing to are the friends you arrived with. For those without friends or those who would like some extra vocal female support, young beauties are available for a cost to sing and dance with you. I’d read that other ‘specials’ are also on offer, but thankfully no evidence of this presented itself.

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