Latest posts by Richard Mezoff (see all)
- A Powerlifter Living Abroad: Workin’ Out in Cambodia - September 8, 2016
- A Powerlifter Living Abroad: Workin’ Out in China Part 2 - August 16, 2016
- A Powerlifter Living Abroad:Workin’ Out in China Part 1 - August 10, 2016
Feeling Out the Local Scene
I arrived in the small-for-China city of Lin Qu, Shandong province (about 1 million people), having accepted the job on short notice, knowing absolutely no one, having next to no knowledge of the language, and even less knowledge of the Chinese alphabet. For the first time in a life dotted with foreign travel, I found myself somewhat afraid. I was domiciled on the campus where I taught, and it took me a while to work up the nerve to go outside the gates of the campus in search of new food experiences and a gym. Sitting down on a bench in a public place, a gracious man of about 40 with a decent command of English came up and spoke to me, became a friend, and introduced me to a gym hidden away on the third floor at the back of a funky old building in a strip mall. The gym had a decent-sized weight area, which it turned out almost nobody used (I was often the only person there lifting weights), with minimal but decent Chinese-made equipment. The main function of the gym was as a tai kwan do training center for children, and on Saturdays, there were an impressive number of children, male and female, that showed up for classes. I was welcomed by the receptionist, the owner and the maestro, but I was pretty much on my own to lift as I pleased. Having come out of jobs that ate most of my time for the last couple of years, I used the initial time here to simply get myself back in decent shape, figuring heavy training like powerlifting would have to come sometime in the future.
The Lin Qu gym was relatively small, in an older building, and there is a frugality found here in businesses of this type, combined with a genuine concern for conservation of energy. As a result, the gym was totally without heat in the winter, with temperatures dropping below freezing. If one worked out, you did so fully clothed.
Finding Fitness in Lin Qu
In China, varying forms of martial arts such as tai chi (called “tai quan” there) and tai kwan do are extremely popular, and training often starts early and continues lifelong. It is a part of the more general pattern in China whereby the mind-body connection has long been a dominant part of the culture. In my opinion, the west has lagged far behind in recognition of the strength and ubiquity of this connection. As a result, it is not uncommon to see older people practicing this discipline in public places. A great consequence is that many people here in their 60s, 70s and 80s display amazing flexibility.
I saw two most impressive examples of older people practicing tai quan. One Sunday morning, while sitting on a bench in a park near the campus where I taught, I saw a man and two women who must have been in their mid-late 80s performing a complex tai quan ritual which lasted at least 15 minutes. I could not find a way to discretely record this photographically, and it was so beautiful that it seemed virtually sacrilegious to me to take a chance of disturbing the dignity of this performance. The second instance occurred early on a winter morning in DaLian. Looking down from my 7th story apartment window into the courtyard, I saw a man of at least 75 performing another complex tai quan ritual with the grace and flexibility of a man one-third his age. I was so awestruck that by the time I thought to run for the camera, he had finished his ritual. Sadly, I never saw him again. It was 19 degrees outside at the time.
The American Attraction
The town of Lin Qu had a foreign population of one, that being yours truly, and so I was pretty much ogled as another roadside attraction wherever I went. Native speaking English teachers in China are generally highly esteemed, and because there were some of my students taking the tai kwan do classes at my gym, soon, the whole class was referring to me and greeting me as “teacher.” Those who arrived early for their class would follow me around the workout floor as I did my lifting until it was time for their class to begin. One day while the class was in progress, I was doing some moderately heavy squats. The workout floor was separated from the tai kwan do studio only by a glass window. At some point, the class came to a complete halt. The maestro left his class, came and asked me if I would mind having my picture taken with the class, as they all wished to have their picture taken with me. I then joined them for a round of pictures, staff members taking turns serving as photographer so that they could each be in one of the pictures. This reminded me of an experience I had had about 20 years prior in Venezuela. I was in a gym where there was an aerobics class going on at one end of the floor, and the lifting area was at the other. I was doing deadlifts, and when I had worked my way up to sets with 405, the class completely stopped and watched me. The owner came over after I had completed my set and apologized to me, saying that his people were not being rude, but they had just never seen anyone lift that much weight before.
I took the job in China on short notice, Colleen remained behind stateside to take care of necessary details. After completing my teaching stint, I moved into a hotel run by a beautiful young woman named Gaoshuang, who had by now become a dear friend. I called this 23 year old my “Chinese mother,” because she was constantly going out of her way to look after me and help me. I moved into her hotel on a Friday. She had given me a substantial discount on the room rate, and made sure to inform me that that rate included breakfast. On Saturdays, the gym opened at 8:30 and since I liked to work out early, I skipped breakfast and headed down to work out first thing in the morning. I arrived at the gym, changed into workout gear, and as I prepared to hit the floor and begin lifting, my cell phone rang. “WHY DIDN’T YOU EAT BREAKFAST?” I heard my friend/mother holler at me.
This is Part 2 of Richard’s series, you can check out Part One here: A Powerlifter Living Abroad: Workin’ Out in China Part 2
Stay tuned as I will talk in much greater detail on other aspects of fitness and gym life in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mexico.