Hardly a week goes by these days when someone somewhere isn’t handing me a special card – whether it’s a store discount card for the likes of IKEA, Wumart or Ito Yakudo, or a subway metro map courtesy of some health provider, restaurant or manufacturer of women’s sanitary products (do I LOOK as if I need such things, I ask myself when these objects of desire are pushed under my nose?), or even a hospital outpatients card courtesy of my local China-Japan friendship hospital.
To add to my growing collection, I have just acquired two new ones – following my decision about a month ago to pamper the body beautiful and sign up to my local gym.
Now close friends of your favourite blogger know all too well the mental turmoil I must have gone through to sign on the dotted line. It seems only yesterday that one of the defining traumas in my life took place when I was working at Heathrow Airport.
Living as I then did to the south east of London (with Heathrow, of course, firmly to the west) my daily commute around the M25 motorway could easily take up to 3 hours in each direction if the traffic gods decided to have their little bit of fun on the hapless commuters.
Accordingly I hit on the brilliant plan of leaving home at some ridiculously early time, before the sun had even woken up to the possibility that another day might lie ahead, in order to avoid the worst of the traffic congestion. And then to kill time until work started, I would sign up to a gymnasium in a local Heathrow hotel and end up with the perfect body for all and sundry to admire.
Alas, for the best laid plans of mice and men….
Well, you know those machines on which you lie on your back, pushing weights above your head? Yes, you know… you have to push upwards, stretching your arms against the relentless force of gravity … yeah, that one!
OK, so I have just heaved one of the weights onto the bar and am thinking to myself what a he-man I must be in straining with all my muscles Schwarzenegger style, when along comes this petite young thing, throws eight of these weights onto her machine and begins thrusting voopah-voopah-voopah as if it were but child’s play.
I’m not sure my male ego ever got over that little episode. Certainly that was the last time I set foot inside a gym, preferring instead to swim a few lengths in the next door swimming pool before starting a day of gruelling work (taking journalists on joy rides airside around jumbo jets, driving across runways and gawking at Concorde as it roared off just feet away from us, deafening everything in its wake, etc).
Ah, the good old days! But despite the decades that have passed, that trauma in the gym has stayed with me to this very day. Until, that is, a month or so back.
Many of my expatriate colleagues regularly attend a local gym, about 15 minutes walk from the office. But life-trauma is life-trauma, and I was never tempted to sign up. And then someone tells me there is another gym much nearer, if only I can find it, that also has a swimming pool, and that maybe, in the many free hours I enjoy, I might care to fight the ravages of time that will undoubtedly kick in one of these fine days.
I can see the logic in this argument, even though I still feel I’m in the prime of life. So I decide to check it out anyway, and then make up my mind once I have seen it whether to humiliate my lovely carcass one more time.
So one fine morning sees me walking up the road, looking for the sign to the Xiaoguan Subdistrict of Chaoyang District People’s Government. (How could anyone miss such a thing?).
I turn left and look for my next landmark – a sorting office for China Post, which happens to be almost across the road from my local Wumart hypermarket that I go to once or twice a week…
Now I head into a residential area and am glad to see there is a comprehensive map on display near the entrance. The problem is, which of those hieroglyphics represents a gymnasium?
Undaunted, I follow the footpath along in an anti-clockwise direction. My nose picks up the aroma of chlorine. I follow in the direction of my nose and come to a little side street with the catchy name of North Fourth Environment East Road.
And sure enough, as I turn the corner, the whiff of chlorine is ratched up a few notches and I find the building I am looking for.
您好！你会讲英语吗？(Hi – do you speak English?) I call out in my well worn opening gambit to the girl behind the reception desk. There is a half muffled giggle, an embarrassed shake of the head and an internationally accepted mime for please just wait a minute.
I wait two minutes, and a slightly podgy girl – not, one has to admit, a very good advert for a health club – waddles up to me and in broken English asks how she can help me.
I ask if I can be shown around her establishment with a view to becoming a member. What? Can a laowai really be interested in joining this club? Can it be true? She gives once again the internationally accepted mime for please just wait a minute and scurries off to the back room.
This time on her return she is accompanied by a guy sporting rippling muscles who gives me the once over and obviously reckons that if ever a potential new recruit needed some physical exercise, he is staring at him right now.
He prattles away in fast Mandarin, hardly giving Ms Podgy-Chops time to translate for me before launching off into another expose of, well, who knows what? But this time I am bidden to follow Mr Rippling-Muscles down some stairs to a basement laden with every kind of muscle-building machine I have ever seen – and many I have not.
And there before me, by sheer coincidence, I see a face I recognise … the HR guy from my office (the one who has since been terminated, not the new one) who greets me in broken English like a long lost friend and immediately hijacks the conversation.
Here is a room full of cycling machines, he says pointing to a room full of cycling machines, before adding as an afterthought that perhaps I am a bit too old for this kind of exercise? (Funny how you can go off some people really fast!)
Here are some machines to build up your muscles, he says, pointing as he does to that “bête noire” of a machine that has haunted me all these years.
We move quickly on through the entire downstairs floor before he asks me if I could possibly be interested in seeing the swimming pools. I assure him that I could indeed and am invited to follow Mr Rippling-Muscles and Ms Podgy-Chops while Mr Terminated-HR-Man brings up the rear.
Here is where you will learn to swim, I am told as we reach the second floor. But I can swim, I find myself protesting. Mr Rippling-Muscles and Ms Podgy-Chops exchange knowing looks while Mr Terminated-HR-Man thinks he might not have heard correctly. No, no! This is where you can learn how to swim, he says, hoping the extra words might help me to understand him better. Yes, but I can already swim, I reply, hoping the extra words might help him to understand me better.
There is a barely disguised shrug of the shoulders, as if to say let’s humour this laowai, and once again we mount more stairs up to the top floor of the building where there is another, no-nonsense swimming pool for the big boys. Perfect, I tell them, and after returning to ground level once more we get down to the nitty gritty of some tough negotiations.
How much is your membership, I ask them. How much you want to pay, comes the reposte.
I try a new tack. How much does it cost to use your gym and swimming pools, I ask. 2000 kwai, says Mr Rippling-Muscles, not waiting for an official translation.
Ah, sorry, too much, I answer.
Oh, wait, for you special guest just 1,500.
For how long?
Sorry, too much.
But you like here very much, he insists with a look of chagrin written all over his rippling face. Ah. To you just 1,000.
I do some rapid mental arithmetic. The Americans who signed up to the other gym paid 1,200 and they don’t even have access to a swimming pool. 1,000 kwai is around £100 which surely isn’t bad for six months membership.
OK, I say, I am going on holiday in two weeks time, so I will join on my return.
No worry, counters Mr Rippling-Muscles, not bothering to disguise the fact he has understood everything I have said. You join now and we give you seven months for 1,000 kwai!
I am beginning to suspect that he served his apprenticeship at Yashow Market where horse-trading has been refined down to a fine art.
OK. 1,000 for seven months. I will bring the money around tomorrow.
Oh, (a crestfallen look on his face) you no have it with you?
No, I insist, but I will bring it with me tomorrow morning around 10.30.
Í am asked for my full name and phone number. And sure enough at 10.32 the next morning as I am rounding the corner next to the China Post sorting office, my phone goes off. Where you are Meester Brian? I assure Mr R-M that I will be with him very shortly and sure enough, a couple of minutes later he is at the door waiting to greet me.
I hand over the wad of cash I have brought for him and sign a pile of papers, not knowing what the hell I am actually signing.
Next I am invited to buy a padlock (naturally I will need to lock my things away in a locker) – special price for me of 35 kwai. Kerching!
Next I am invited to buy a swimming cap (I have never worn a swimming cap in my life before). Tsk tsk, obviously I cannot be a serious swimmer if I have never worn one of these things. But rules are rules and must be followed at all times and I am rapidly relieved of yet another 35 kwai. Kerching! Perhaps I would like to buy some goggles too? A mere 50 kwai. I decide to draw the line here and graciously decline the offer.
I would like to swim now? My membership card will be ready when I leave. I am shown to the men’s changing room, shown how to use the afore-purchased padlock, and given a shower-card that I leave in the locker as I have no idea what it is for.
I tramp up to the top floor in my swimming gear, nod hello to the pool attendant and am invited to slip into the beginners’ lane. (All the lanes are clearly marked - in Chinese: beginners, card-certified swimmers, slow swimming swimmers, fast-swimming swimmers.)
I thrash up and down a couple of lengths and the pool attendant comes over. He speaks near-flawless English. Ah you can swim. So good Meester. Maybe you like to go into other lanes? I readily acquiesce leaving the first lane for others to thrash about in.
The Chinese obviously take their health seriously here. Everywhere are notices stuck up around the pool of who is NOT allowed in to swim. Heart problems? Skin diseases? Sorry, but you can’t come in!
And lest anyone should even think for just one moment of having a little fun while thrashing up and down this pool, then they should definitely think again!
I have written before of how the Chinese as a race just love to spit at every available opportunity, and I discover that the swimming pool is no exception. Where else in the world, I wonder, are you likely to come across a swimming pool with spittoons at the end of each and every lane?
They all do it. Thrash thrash thrash through the water, reach the end, heave themselves up and gob in the direction of a plastic-bag-protected-bin before turning around and heading for the other one at the opposite end. Oh Yuk!
Half an hour later, having gently worked up 20 lengths (and avoided the urge to spit), I climb up the ladder, pick up my towel and head for the stairs. Meester, you need sit down I think, calls Mr Pool-Attendant. No need, I reply. But you must not over-tire yourself, I am advised. I gratefully decline his invitation and head for the changing rooms.
It is now that I discover what the extra card I have been given is for. The canny Chinese know that some people just love to stand under a hot shower for hours on end and gossip away the day. Well, there’s none of that here. To get the shower working you have to stick your card into a slot and a measured amount of water squirts out of the shower head while a count-down timer tells you how much time you have left.
I should add at this point that there is no place to hang a towel in the shower room, so everyone just pads in as naked as the day they were born and stands under one of the eight showers until the water runs out, before making way for someone else.
And it’s now that I finally get to understand the rumours, tales and innuendos that I have heard since time immemorial. Yes, I can finally reveal that it is true what they say about Chinese men! Not to put too fine a point on it, their appendages are TINY. I don’t mean small, I mean MINISCULE! Pussy fur they have a-plenty (maybe that’s why they all have smooth hairless chests … the fur all ends up between their legs)! Some guys even have so much pussy that it completely envelopes their family jewels.
I turn around in my shower cubicle and witness the ongoing battle as eight pairs of eyes are desperately forced away from staring at Junior. Can it be true? Can it really be that a laowai is so well endowed?
I mean, you know me… I don’t like to boast, but… eight pairs of eyes follow me out of the shower room as I go back to the changing room, where a few more pairs of eyes look on in envy as I open up my locker.
Forget about adverts from sex companies for penis enlargement … if a westerner is at all worried about his tackle, I can strongly recommend he takes his next holiday in China and visits a swimming pool every day. Such an act would surely put a number of those companies straight out of business.
There are some nationalities, I guess, that I would not choose to be. I have just added another to my list.