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05 December 2011

爱运动 – Love sports!

It’s tangy and watered down, with a lingering aftertaste reminiscent of burped-up fruit. I stick out my tongue for better ventilation. The label claims “blueberry” but my taste-buds register cheap gin. 爱运动 (ai yundong), Love Sports, my choice of sports drink re-hydration after my late morning run down the Tanglai Canal. A stone’s throw from my apartment, the canal is a great place to be outside, shaded by the many trees that line the water’s murky edge. It also provides protection from the exhaust and clamor seeping from the city streets, which can’t quite penetrate the peaceful corridor.

Casually spinning the bottle in hand, I find a diagram that displays the primary activities that the drink is best suited for: running is first (I chose wisely), followed by yoga, breakdancing, shopping, KTV (karaoke with Chinese characteristics), and using the computer. That KTV is indeed an electrolyte vacuum.
Most striking is how many primary Chinese sports are left out.
The widely popular badminton and ping pong have their standard indoor following, with gyms and sports clubs dedicating large spaces to courts and tables. Some folks take their badminton very seriously here, and they will certainly crush you if you step up to the challenge. In the streets, mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, and school classmates will all take up a racket and shuttlecock to play sans net, batting around the birdie in the open air with glee.
Saggy but savvy old timer. Photo from here.
Parks and public squares often have outdoor ping pong tables that are free to use, just bring your own paddle and ball, and I rarely see them empty. In the new Karate Kid movie young Dre steps up to a pong table with an old-timer wearing a saggy white undershirt. The bespectacled old man begins casually, respecting the youth and inexperience of his opponent. That is, until Dre slams the ball over the net, with attitude, to impress a cute girl watching nearby. The warm-up is over, and the old man proceeds to pummel Dre relentlessly with excellent form and style. That scene captures the essence of the pong and badminton circles, where skill level and competitive ferocity far exceeds initial impressions.
Beyond these traditional games, the recreational Chinese sports scene gets a little more exciting and eclectic. Old men squat on small stools along the sidewalk to xia xiangqi, play Chinese chess. The pieces are blackened with hand oil from countless arthritic fingers and the grid is worn away from the vigorous “eating” of opponent pieces. Slamming an attacking disc upon your adversary’s with stout force is thoroughly encouraged, creating a very satisfying clap of thunder in culmination of your valiant act. And indeed much goes into each move of a street side chess game. A large crowd of variously aged male “experts” gather round the board to freely express their idea of what tactics you should employ. Only after carefully considering each piece of firmly delivered advice can you undertake your next move.
Typical Chinese Chess gathering.
I played once with my students at school during a break between classes. I had to slap their hands to keep them from moving my pieces for me. I would slap one hand and give them an ogre stare, but by the time my glaring eyes returned to the board, the student on my blind side had already moved my piece for me, silently nodding in approval. I don’t see this kind of interference amongst grown men, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
In the evenings, a cacophony fills the public squares. Drums and cymbals pound and clang from one corner, while music blares forth from cheap speakers positioned in the other. These serve the throngs of group dancers, which gather in great numbers in nearly every open space in the city. The majority of the crowds are women over thirty, though there are sometimes giggling little girls who jump in for a few minutes, and the rare, bold male. Most forms of dance have the participants arranged in an evenly spaced grid, going through coordinated steps in unison and moving in a square-like pattern. These styles follow the cheap speaker music. The drum and cymbal dance typically requires brightly colored flags and scarves that the performers wave about them, following the cues of a whistle-blowing conductor.
The dancing is a great social event, with many people milling about the perimeter and chatting, both elderly and young. Children romp about and their parents catch up with friends and gossip. There are also more traditional dancing events where couples spin each other about to music played amidst the summer evening air.
Some fishermen enjoying a summer afternoon.
Chinese city folk are particularly taken by the unique challenges associated with riding bikes. Bikes fill the streets throughout the day, with riders wearing everything from military fatigues to skirts and high-heeled boots. Most are absurdly large or far too small relative to their respective user. Nearly every bike in circulation appears far older than me, and it is the rarely cared for machine that has ever received oil or new brake pads.
Despite the mechanical deterioration and sizing setbacks, a variety of skills are painstakingly pursued. To showcase their brute strength, the local cyclist will often bear one or more people on the rear rack, who in turn may carry a baby or a sack of potatoes. If there is no person to haul, large quantities of fruits and vegetables, bamboo poles, bricks, and dogs will all suffice for the cargo.
In order to display their sixth sense of direction, the typical rider will spend frighteningly long periods of time not looking where they are going. There is always something more interesting than the road in front of them and the locals know this, so they are forever prepared for endurance rubber necking events in which they may keep their eyes entirely askew for a minute or more.

Children on lunch break from school raid a 24 Hour Fitness.
Bravery is also a coveted trait. Trials testing the fortitude of one’s will include running red lights, cutting across all lanes of traffic without looking, darting in front of large trucks, and slalom cycling on the sidewalks. Without a helmet.
Bike handling is a skill the local rider takes very seriously. To be able to best perform the above-stated maneuvers with appropriate efficacy, one must train rigorously. Skill specific workout sessions may utilize riding with one hand, the other engaged in smoking a cigarette, holding an umbrella, or talking on the phone. Graduating to the next level, one will incorporate one or more of the above mentioned acts into a single workout. Fortunately for the novice, the average speed of transit is at a near-walking pace and therefore crashes do not carry such severe repercussions. Unless of course you are run over by one of the larger and less proficiently operated vehicles on the street.
A mid-summer favorite of older gentleman is a noon-time breast stroke across the brisk Tanglai Canal, funneling water from the Yellow River through the city. Swim-capped heads bob up and down across the turbid, stool-brown, silt-laden water, as the current pushes them downstream and downtown. After their crossing they will drip dry on their walk back, speedos offering them maximum ventilation during the stroll.
A wonderfully unique staple on city streets here is what I call 24 Hour Fitnesses. They are basically playgrounds for adults, with a large variety of well-maintained exercise equipment for moderate stretching and strengthening. Elliptical machines, swinging leg stretching devices, pull up bars, parallel bars, shoulder motion wheels, butterfly presses; all free of charge and well-used. Throughout the day, it is rare to see an empty 24 Hour Fitness anywhere in the city.
Morning fan taiji from my kitchen window.
Morning taiji must also be mentioned, though the numbers pale in comparison to the other represented sports. Regardless how crisp the morning air, elderly practitioners will gather out of doors to execute slow, calculated, graceful movements through a series of postures and forms, sometimes wielding a sword or fan to enhance their practice.
High intensity, low duration workouts are all the rage in Western endurance sports preparation. Well, China has long known about the benefits of this kind of training. I have always wondered how the people here age so gracefully, and I have witnessed their secret. All-out sprints of grandparents chasing naked babies through the streets. And to really maximize anaerobic and lactate threshold development, both parties will laugh uproariously to limit their O2 intake. Quite ingenious.
My standard running and cycling get-up.
And in this way the people here stay quite fit to a ripe old age. The group dancing, taiji, chess, fitness centers, and ping pong tables keep the populace outdoors and socializing. Engaging friends mentally and physically in these activities keeps the mind and body healthy. I think our culture could learn quite a bit from this model as we age and become more reclusive, spending more time on the couch with a remote control than in the sun with a good friend.
The sun reflects off the last of my爱运动, reminding me of the final effort of my day’s workout. I grimace and swallow the last drops of the reputedly rejuvenating fluid. Though running is about as common as seeing a foreigner in these parts, (not common), I feel grateful to be partaking in the wonderful, widespread love of sports. Sharing yet another human love that needs no language to communicate is worth every drop of vomit-flavored sports drink in order to be able to do it again the next day.

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