Archive for November, 2012

When I first went to study Chinese in Beijing in the summer of 2005, I was a fairly avid triathlete. This posed some serious issues that, at the time, I didn’t really think were going to be issues — actually, that statement alone pretty much summarizes every experience I had that summer, from the miserable home stay experience that abruptly ended, to the realization that learning Chinese was going to be a hell of lot tougher than I imagined.

But I was also a hell of a lot more adventurous back then. I happily (stupidly) borrowed a bike box from a friend and packed up my $1600 USD triathlon bike. After all, I had the duathlon world championships in Australia scheduled for mid-September, and I planned to be in Beijing until late August. I also had a coach who had prepared a hardcore training schedule for me. Before I left the U.S., we agreed that I would “check out” the area in which I was going to live (with the homestay family) and the university facilities, and then go from there with the biking and swim training. Until then I could still do my runs.

It’s hard to adequately describe the old Beijing airport terminal when I arrived. These days, I can say it’s just as chaotic as any of the central 东北 (N China) train stations, but at that time I had never seen anything kind that insane. True, I’d been to China twice before, but it had been in student and tourist groups, with a guide and without overflowing luggage — like a bike case. I grabbed my suitcase off the baggage belt and looked around for the oversized baggage area. In short: there was none – or so it seemed. I did finally locate my bike case, along with other oversized items, strewn across some random baggage area section. No markings for flight number or to whom it belonged; anyone could in theory have taken my bike. Luckily, I was met by the homestay company guy (actually, a shady foreign I shall call “J”) who thankfully had driven to the airport to pick me up. On the way out of the airport we were accosted by several taxi drivers; they suddenly stopped yelling at us and started yelling at each other. I asked “J” about it as walked to the garage: he coolly responded: “they’re fighting over our business…” (Note: the novelty of this quickly wore off as it happened to me numerous times, especially when I had to move the bike from the homestay to my new digs and the taxi driver gave me a “surcharge” for transporting the case.)

Without getting into details, the homestay did not work out too well, but it wasn’t too bad for training. You see, I was staying with a family that lived in some new apartment complex out west of (what I now know is) the fourth ring road. They lived south of the summer palace, so I could run up there for my long runs. Now, in Beijing 2005, this did require some skillful running around since there was construction everywhere, and I tried hard not to disturb the curious migrants sleeping on the unfinished sidewalks outside the building. (They used to huddle around TVs at night, right outside the fancy apartment complex where I stayed.)

The other big perk was that this homestay family, like so many others at the time, lived on the husband’s western salary and thus had a fancy gym membership. The husband, a graduate from some American university’s master’s program (yet barely capable of actually speaking English and entirely incapable of coherent putonghua*), had bought some kind of life-long membership for this new gym. When I mentioned my triathlon training, they gladly offered to take me to the gym whenever I wanted. I still don’t exactly know how it was they did this, but I went to the gym with them every time for free. I couldn’t speak Chinese very well, let alone understand it, but I did learn something about guanxi from the wife. When I asked her how much I should pay and she said nothing, I pressed a little bit and insisted I should pay something. Instead, she firmly told me: “no pay! we already paid them lots of money when we signed up, so you go for free!”

My first adventure at the gym involved the treadmill and a cycling class. I quickly learned a couple of things: women, for some reason, rarely run on treadmills (or as they’re called in Chinese “running machines” – makes a lot more sense when you think about it). The second thing I learned was that it was highly unusual to see any foreigners, let alone a female, at a gym like this. So when I started running, people started staring and asking questions – was I a famous athlete? (Ha, I wish.) Why was I at the gym, who did I know? (My homestay people got a lot of social prestige points…) I also went to the cycling class, which, and I can say this because I’ve also taught indoor cycling classes, was out-of-control and not in a good way. The small room was closed up, air shut off, cramped with too many bikes, and the instructor liked to play bad techno with a fast beat. My first experience of intense screaming in Chinese while standing on a bike. (Note: a year later in Dalian this became normal.)

To this day I have no idea what happened to that gym. Perhaps, like so many others in China, it closed. (Western-style gyms have never really gained the popularity they have elsewhere, but I often think it’s because the time hasn’t yet been ripe: we’re still waiting for the middle-class fitness revolution that other countries have seen.)

Meanwhile, I started my classes at BLCU (北语) and checked out the on-campus facilities. The gym – Fusion Fitness – was the kind of nightmare I had been happy to avert while at the luxury gym. The equipment looked like it belonged a 1980s gym, and the “locker room” for women – really just a Chinese-style toilet stall and a dangling hose for the shower – looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the 1950s. But, they did offer towel service, and the price was dirt cheap: ~300 RMB for the entire summer.

Luckily, I went downstairs to check out the pool in the same building and discovered what I  would now call representative of the Maoist era: a lovely, mostly empty, 50 meter / 8-lane (i.e. Olympic-sized) swimming pool. (Memory fails me, but I seem to remember it also had its own locker rooms and showers, which were far superior to the poor-excuse-of-a-gym-locker-room upstairs.) I immediately bought a pool pass and within a day went for my first of many swims that hot, muggy summer. Swimming in there was always a pleasure as it was generally quiet and mostly full of old male professors who, if they weren’t spitting too much, just swam laps and ignored me. Occasionally, I ran into other foreign students also looking for respite from the oppressive Beijing summer.

Next to the gym was an outdoor track that remained empty during the day but, as I later found out, filled to the brim with locals from the surrounding community after dinner. I learned fast that running there after dark, which seemed like a good option considering the heat was unbearable during the day, was nearly impossible with the throngs of people walking in endless circles while chatting.

After I left my homestay, I moved closer to the university to be near the on-campus facilities and closer to student life. I missed the fancy gym sometimes, but other times I realized that being able to set my own hours around the pool (it was open late!) and for running made my life easier. I would often attend classes 8am-noon, then either head to work out right away, or grab some lunch and do a tutoring session and do a work out in the later afternoon or before dinner. For example, I might go do intervals on the track or at the gym, and then go straight to the pool and swim (or vice versa). I maintained full contact with my coach and recorded all of my workouts. (I still have these on my computer somewhere, and they’re interesting to re-read for the extra bits of info I popped in there about strange gym experiences!)

Two things made training in Beijing extremely difficult – two things that, had I known about them in advance, I may never have gone to Beijing for the summer. I was very serious about keeping up my biking and running at that time, and I just couldn’t find a group of cyclists to train with. My bike case continued to sit in the corner of my tiny room at the International Student Center, and it remained that way until the day I went home. I had to tell my coach the truth: without a group, I feared for my safety on the roads. I didn’t know any routes outside the city, and I couldn’t speak Chinese well enough in case I got in serious trouble. Nowadays there are expat groups that put together weekly trips, but at the time there was just…. nothing. I pleaded on English-language forums, but no one seemed to be willing to help. I gave up and my coach designed workouts for me on the dreaded stationary bike at the gym. He patiently re-wrote workouts that could be done in intervals and by switching levels back and forth to alleviate boredom (which only mildly worked).

Believe it or not that was not the worst of it. After about three weeks of running outside I came down with an incurable cough. My coach panicked–according to some of his independent research (google and talking to doctor friends), he decided it was no longer safe for me to run in Beijing air. (In at least one respect I think he was probably right: my cough didn’t go away until I returned to the U.S. and took anti-biotics, and I think the polluted summer air in Beijing probably didn’t help what was already a serious sinus infection.) I had to move all my training onto a treadmill… ugh.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: no big deal, just a few weeks left, suck it up and deal with it. And that’s basically what I was thinking. But what I haven’t mentioned yet is that I had also signed up for an October marathon, and not just any marathon but one in which I wanted to qualify for Boston (so I needed a sub 3h40m time). The treadmill very quickly became my dreaded hell–and a source of strange and unpleasant gym experiences. The entire summer the gym itself was kept at a toasty 82F; I soaked through at least two towels whenever I ran on any of the machines. When I did intervals, my speed was faster than the machine could handle. A few times, the machine bounced so much the gym staff became concerned and asked me to turn it down – but more often I just couldn’t take my intervals above the machine’s limit of 12.7 KM/H. But most painful of all was doing the final long runs on that machine. Yep, I ran *two hours* on a treadmill in 82F heat in a gym where the only TV in the room played Chinese soap operas all day long. My iPod more-or-less saved me that summer. I still remember one time when I dropped it 77 minutes into a long run and a gym staff member came to turn off my machine as I stooped down to pick it up. “No!” I snapped, “I’m not done yet (还没完!)” He backed off and let me continue.

I’m not entirely sure what that gym staff thought of me that summer. Triathlon was still relatively unknown in China; since the Olympics most people now know what it is, even if they don’t actually know anyone who’s ever participated in a triathlon. One time, I remember running on the treadmill in that gym before dinner, when it was nearly empty. I changed the TV channel and it so happened that there was a live broadcast of some triathlon race (ITU) from Canada. I shouted for the bored looking gym staff members to come over quickly — they seemed slightly amused (or confused) as I excitedly pointed at the screen and said in my beginner’s level Chinese, “看! 三项全能动! 铁人! 是我! (look! triathlon! is me!)”


*I still don’t know if his wife, a born and bred Beijinger, can actually understand most of what he says.


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In the decade between roughly 1956-1966 over a dozen feature films were produced in China that focused exclusively on some form of tiyu (sport and physical culture). Like newsreels at the time, these films (part of a genre known in Chinese as 体育片 tiyu pian) included elite competitive sport and athletes, and other times focused more on the participation of ordinary people in ordinary settings, such as schoolboys forming soccer teams and factory workers enthusiastically participating in daily exercise routines. By the end of this decade and following the increased militarization of society, there was even a film about women who excitedly joined a spare-time sports school for parachuting (a common “national defense” tiyu activity).

Perhaps the most popular movie is Girl Basketball Player no. 5 (女篮五号) [1957, Shanghai, director: Xie Jin 谢晋] which is widely known among even today’s adult population in China, perhaps due to its “comeback” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film gained reputation for its solid direction and for being the first tiyu feature film in color. The basic storyline follows a young athlete who enters a Shanghai basketball school against her mother’s wishes and to the delight of her new coach. As the audience soon finds out, her mother not only used to be a basketball star in the Republican period (“old society”) but, in a twist of fate, her daughter’s new coach is also her previous love interest. The film follows the young athlete’s trials and tribulations – what is more important, studying for school exams (individual, selfish, familial) or frequently practicing and competing with teammates (collective, for the greater national good and socialist construction)? – but I would argue the movie probably became popular for reasons other than this. For one, few feature films existed in color at the time, let alone one that covered a non-historical, non-military, non-revolution topic (or at least films that were not as explicit in covering these subjects). Additionally, the film seems to have also been one of the few films from the period that explores love – a theme that less than a decade later became absolutely impossible to discuss publicly. Girl Basketball Player no. 5 did not escaped criticism during the Cultural Revolution, and this second story-line most definitely was the reason for it.

I also believe that this love storyline is probably one of the main reasons why other tiyu films were just simply not as popular – for example Ice Sisters (冰上姐妹) [1959, Changchun] and Two Generations of Swimmers (水上春秋) [1959, Beijing]. Both films were also in color, but while the direction of these films is certainly not as good, I believe it’s the plots that left something to be desired. In both films, the stories revolve around characters who prosper in the new society through collective efforts and at times struggle with their own arrogance, which they must overcome in order to be ultimately successful. In Two Generations of Swimmers, the “old” versus “new” society highlights the exploitation of a peasant-farmer who swims very well and is discovered by a money-gambling elite, who then signs the peasant-farmer up for competitions in order to win bets. In other words – both of these films are highly predictable given the propaganda of the day. (There are other severe deficiencies such as lack of character development, but I think that may have been less of an issue.) In contrast, Girl Basketball Player no. 5 offers a narrative plot that includes a love story with an unpredictable ending. Will the basketball player’s mother end up meeting the coach again? Will they get back together?

Finally, the most interesting thing to me about all of these films is not their content – which is rather mundane and repetitive, much like the boilerplate offering in official documents from the time period – but rather their popularity. I might have mentioned this previously, but many people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s remember many of these films, and they remember having watched them numerous times with friends or family. The positive response I get when I bring up any of these films tells me at the very least that watching tiyu feature films was a welcomed activity (propaganda or not) at the time, as well as a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I’d venture to say people perceived tiyu films – despite anything I’ve said above and how I would label them – to be less directly political than other films. (Hence adding to the reasons I believe that tiyu popular culture somewhat covertly contributed to peoples’ understandings of socialist subjecthood.) Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the popularity of the non-tiyu-specific story in the most popular film of them all.

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Repressed memories?

I’ve really been enjoying reading Yu Hu’as China in Ten Words the last few days. I think it’s because he does a fabulous job of combining personal life anecdotes with astute observations of the way things in China today are related to or differ from the Cultural Revolution period. One of the things he discusses frequently are basically (somewhat) repressed memories that sort of come to him at later stages in his life — such as helping his buddies beat up a coupon-re-selling peasant and then turn the peasant into the police for his “nefarious behavior.” This is despite the fact that the peasant apparently collected oil coupons over a period of many months and from several people so that he could pay for his marriage. In the end, the peasant gets beat up, coupons seized by the local government, and the peasant booted back to his village penniless. In another story, Yu seems thankful that the family’s danwei was a hospital as he relates a macabre experience in which, during the long hot summers in his town (near Hangzhou), he relished sleeping on the stone cold slab in the hospital’s morgue.

Anyhow, what the book also got me thinking about was my own repressed memories. I mean, mine are pretty mundane compared to his – I didn’t live through public executions during the Cultural Revolution, nor would I have wanted to – but sometimes they come suddenly, and they are not always things that happened as a child, but rather (mostly traumatizing) experiences I have subconsciously chosen to not think about and hopefully forget. Most of the time I don’t remember these until, inevitably, something happens and then it all comes back to me.

A simple example would be earlier today when I was reminded of a 5K race I helped organize years back in the DC area that was almost a total disaster because the race director was completely inept when it came to races. He was the classic case of someone who had a really terrific idea for raising money for a children’s charity – run a 5k – to the point where he neglected the actual race. His obsessive focus on the charity had also forced him to raise the registration price to $25 per person from what the rest of us had proposed should be no more than $20. And then, after all that and despite initially offering us a say in charity, he went out and chose the charity all on his own. At that point I was already too far into the process and could not back out, but I so wish I had…

For the race, I mostly handled the registration (online and in-person) and made sure we had essentials like water and food at the end. Another volunteer did all of the fundraising and prize donation – such as getting volunteers Starbucks coffee and bagels for *free*, as well as having several local shoe shops and restaurants provide gift certificates in small amounts to the winners (note: in the U.S. many shops can write this off on taxes as donations to 501c charitable cause). All of that went smoothly. The race director, on the other hand, had just one task: the race course. Set it up, mark the course, make sure you pay attention to the winners for prize purposes. In the end, everything went perfectly except for one thing — the front pack runners only ran about 4K and finished in under 14 minutes (a normal time for a fast male in a local 5K would be more like 17-18 minutes). Turns out, he didn’t properly station volunteers and mark the course at one of the splits in the trail. He shrugged it off very nonchalantly because, after all, it was the charity he cared about. Myself and the other volunteers (there were only about four of us, mind you, who did most of the work) were pretty upset, however. It not only displayed a level of un-professional behavior on his part but it was very selfish – people had paid to run an official 5k and not just a “fun” run—at least, it had been publicized as such. I was so ashamed about this race disorganization that I was simply glad to not have known most of the participants. Funnily, this director had the nerve to ask me to volunteer to do registration for the next race he wanted to put together. I firmly told him “no” and to not contact me until he had more experience putting races together. (Note: as far as I can tell from a quick google search, the organization no longer exists. Not surprised at all.) The truth of the matter is that I was ashamed to have been a part of something that denigrated these types of local 5Ks. They are and should be about local communities, but they should also be at least somewhat professional and promise people something – especially if you’re asking them for money for a charity they likely knew nothing about (the cause was a good one, but it was not a well known charity and he did nothing in any of the publicity that would have helped registrants know more about it).

So, how repressed of a memory is this? I can’t remember the guy’s name, or any of the other volunteers who helped. I think I’ve probably deleted most the e-mails, or they may have gotten lost in the shuffle between computers over the last decade. Either way, I haven’t thought about it much until now, but I do know what triggered it: about 20 minutes ago I saw a photograph of my father wearing one of the freebie t-shirts given out at the race. Suddenly all (well, almost all) was clear about that whole experience.

If I get the courage I’ll write about another less-repressed memory I have wanted to write about for a while but don’t know where to start or how to write about appropriately. It’s definitely one of those things I wish had never ever happened, and for which I’ll never forget. I try to not think about it too much because it’s not a light subject like the above tale. In fact I can’t even type out a sentence describing “the event” at the moment. Perhaps next time.

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Or so that’s my goal with this blog, which I’ve so far failed at achieving. Anyways…. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that my academic writing generally sucks. I’ve never been terrible with more journalistic writing, and I excel at technical writing (go figure), but academic writing is a whole other ball game. And to be frank, I find myself wondering why the hell I’m bothering with it most days. Most people don’t want to read that kind of prose, and I’m not sure I want to become an academic. If I decide to go to work full-time in an alt-ac career (such as the digital humanities or schoolteacher) or leave it all for an NGO or similar job (another likely option if the former doesn’t work out) then a high level of academic humanities-style writing will be basically useless for my future. It’s somewhat frustrating to realize in the middle of writing a dissertation that I probably would have made a better scientist – that is, social scientist – or non-university educator than an academic historian. I’ve also known for a while that I’m sub-par in this field and I’m OK with that, but these days I really wonder if I’m doing the right thing or if I should just go do something more worthy and beneficial for my future. I’m having a hard time justifying to myself that this PhD will pay off in the long run (pay off in the figurative sense of course, I fully realize there’s no real money in it).

And related to that, I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t write that article I mentioned in the previous post, or some shorter articles for other blogs, or… something. I’m unhappy with my research and writing at the moment and need to make myself excited about my topic again. If not, I fear I’m going to put this PhD thing on hold and do something else.

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Writer’s block

Recently I’ve been having a lot of trouble coming up with good sentences, which I attribute to writer’s block following a few weeks in which all I did was write grant applications and go through article manuscript revisions of something I wrote forever ago. I’m not exactly sure how to get back in the rhythm again… always nice that this happens during a week when I’m supposed to give my advisor something to read. Le sigh. I’ve done a lot of reading in the meantime, some of it related to the dissertation and some of it related to a book review I said I’d write and is overdue. And some of the reading has been more like Chinese fluff fiction/journalistic non-fiction (in English, not in Chinese) just to give my mind a break from hours spent digging into Chinese sources, combing through 新体育 and CAJ articles, and trying to structure chapter 2 of the dissertation. Although I presented some initial findings at a conference in early September, it only dawned on me late last week that I need a solid organizational structure before I sit down to write this chapter. I don’t know why I didn’t figure that out earlier. I think part of it was my decision to jump straight to Word and start typing (mistake #1). Then I incorporated notes – handwritten and from DT database – into the unstructured mess that was forming in Word (mistake #2). I was having major issues jumping around the document, repeating myself, etc – until I finally decided over the weekend to just ditch the damned thing for a bit and write a map on a blank sheet of white paper. (If anyone know good mind mapping software, I’d love to hear about it, but sorry I think Scrivener sucks for this kind of task. It’s fine once you actually have the outline and basic flow–not when you have chunks of information and ideas floating around in your head.) Then, I drew some arrows on the mind map, and typed up an outline using it. I don’t know if it will work or not, but today is the first day I sat down and tried to actually incorporate what I wrote and so far so good. I seem to be a lot less confused, and I feel like a complete idiot since I always tell my students to start with a solid outlined structure before writing (and usually start that way myself) but for some reason did not make that my first step this time around.

And on that note, I’ll mention that I also had an idea for a short article I promised I would write for a friend a long time ago but never got around to – something that should be broadly accessible to a general audience of people interested in China and remain at ~1,000 words or less. (It would also be related to this chapter topic and thus force me to be able to explain the topic to a layperson.) Maybe I’ll even use the blog to write about it first, just as way to snap me out of this horrible writer’s block where everything I write–if I can write anything at all–just sucks. If so, the next entry will be me trying to connect the current laments about physical education in China to physical education in China in the 1950s, and specifically legacies and disappearances of certain aspects of the 1950s programs. (There have also been some attempts to bring back some of the things that had disappeared in the last few decades the free market system, namely 广播体操, or radio broadcast calisthenics.)

And if you don’t see a next entry, well, it’s either because I still have awful writer’s block or (hopefully) I have figured out how to write that chapter!

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