Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Just Add Oil

Words: James Kramer
Tuesday 22 May 2018
reading time: min, words

Here at LeftLion, we believe that the ultimate summer body should refer to anything that is capable of efficiently devouring ice cream down Skeggy Beach. However, if you're looking to whip your bod into shape, look no further than our man in Beijing James Kramer, who has a load of advice to get yourself fit and healthy in time for your jolly holidays. 


Last week, while laboriously trying to shoo a family of pigeons from out of the building site in which I live (this is not recreational, my landlord is cutting me a slice off the rent to keep the squatting birds from getting in, though I’ve yet been able to defeat their feathery cunning) I felt my back ache and my knees buckle, the bird’s beady eyes and mocking coos letting me know that they’d already won. So it was that I came to reflect on how a man of my age found himself involved in this questionable activity.

While resting on the step for a minute, concocting all sorts of Rube Goldberg solutions that I’ll ultimately be too lazy/incapable to compile, I thought of all the ways back in Beijing that I tried to stay healthy, against the overwhelming odds of toxic smog, recycled gutter oil and strong alcohol. On top of this, in my first year I once or twice took to the detrimentally stupid decision of exercising outside (mask tightly on of course) at five o’clock in the glorious a.m. Even then, there would always be at least one octogenarian male, stripped down to a lonely white vest, running track backwards (more on that later) while pumping out from his lungs the latest in 1960’s Shanghai show tunes. Pops was tough. If ever in doubt, one just had to stick around to watch the same frail old grandpa rotating the gymnastic bars like gravity just didn’t faze him. So it would seem, that we here in a country that still leads the way in Europe (until said departure where the EU’s alcoholism, obesity and teen pregnancy statistics will all take a fairly substantial enema) for all manner of self-destructive vices, could learn a little before this bright blue skies heatwave of a summer, on how to look good, stray trim and feel healthy. Now begin by stretching.

Gym etiquette in Beijing was often a little more lax than other places that I’ve lived in. That said, because I am both cheap and anti-social, I took the most run down, beaten up gym I could find rather than splash out on anything that had windows, or machinery that didn’t seem inclined to want to kill you. The gym was located underground in what had previous been an air raid shelter. In any of Beijing’s large tower block communities you’ll find these. Usually the rooms have since been converted into some of the most depressing domiciles the city has to offer. Essentially, they are little more than windowless, concrete boxes, the hallways having been made that little bit more festive by the addition of some plastic vine leaves thrown over fluorescent strip lighting. It was in these sub-level bunkers that you could purchase your internet subscription, order drinkable water to be delivered (schlepped on the shoulders of some poor 20-something, running block to block with gallon jugs) or any other various substance of questionable legality that one might be so inclined to find. And in one of these labyrinths, lay my gym. In place of windows were (mostly broken) mirrored glass, which during the summer would fog up from the unbreathable quantities of humidity, sweat and body heat and lack of any real air circulation. The trainers and patrons alike took to this situation, by disrobing, and making topless “sweat angels” against the glass. Festive.

There were frequent shirts and shoes discarded in favour of running more as nature intended. Spitting was a must (I once saw a jogger spit onto his own treadmill, then seemingly appear shocked when a minute later his globular friend came back round under foot to meet him…) all of which was cleaned up with a mop more fungal tentacles than cloth. Again I must stress, there were nicer places out there. Later on I would frequent a gym that sold me on sight with its multiple air filters, freely dispensed jasmine tea and a dedicated cleaning staff of seven. However, back then I was still stuck straining my pencil-like arms, watching as a trainer scanning Wechat on his phone walked past a kid choking under a bench press. As he wasn’t paying for the private service, he didn’t matter all that much. It was a loving place really.

Many of the younger, male types in the gym would frequently pause mid-set to have their friends take pictures of them in pose and recline. Homoeroticism aside, the interesting thing about this was that these small, skinny armed Chinese kids would almost be guaranteed to have a washboard ripped six-pack, underneath a T-shirt that reads “Rock and Roll makes me Salivate” (Real shirt). Not sure why, but every guy there had rock hard stomach muscles perfectly formed, it was just something that they quietly dedicated themselves to.

The expression one should use, if we’re hitting that pain threshold China-style, should be 加油 (Jia you) or “add oil.” This is shouted amidst grunts and excessive shouting, because yeah, that’s a done thing too. But if the gym’s not your style then there are other ways to burn off that belly prior to summertime. Have you tried just relentlessly slapping the shit out of it? Literally beat the blub out of you. A common practice for all ages is to pound lightly with a fist your chubby little thighs in the hope that this will somehow tighten up your voluptuous love jelly. I don’t know if this works, or in fact does anything, but I will admit that I still do it. It’s kind of a halfway house between a self-administered massage and a little one sided masochism, both of which I’m totally up for. I whole heartedly recommend it. Next time you’re out, just start slapping away at that chicken wing. You’ll feel much better, I guarantee it.

Other techniques include stretching those calf muscles by walking backwards. On a daily commute you’ll be able to see a dozen or so pensioners calming retreating through the streets as if extras in some terribly cheap B-movie horror: “Tales of the Reversed Sexagenarians!” The other form of exercise one is likely to see is the mandatory routines performed by almost every company staff. Before the morning shift can start, managers will haul out all their employees into chorus lines before the storefront, and run them through some of the most lacklustre and laborious dance moves you’ve ever seen. Just think of it like a group of bored, sleep deprived back-up dancers performing the Macarena, having just ingested a serious dose of ketamine and you’re about there. Alongside these are the school’s weekly outside exercise routines, often accompanied by the speedier and adrenaline heavy bass drums of quirky 1980’s Eurodance. There is nothing better than to watch 300 uniformed students lined in unison  practising shadow boxing and militarised star jumps to Cartouche’s “Feel the Grove” to shake off those morning blues.

Once you’re through burning off them calories from summer Baijiu and Chuar barbeque, you’re in need of some authentic body pampering. You could make use of one of the many massage venues of the capital most of which, despite reputation, are actually above board and not what you think (though if you’re ever offered to take a trip on a big airplane, I’d politely refuse if I were you). The vast majority of masseurs in China are blind. Seen as the perfect occupation for those who are sight impaired, there are schools and institutions set up across the country. It’s seen as a way to provide a living, a sense of filial duty and personal achievement, as well as a means of support (it’s also the name of a great film by Lou Ye, one of the best contemporary filmmakers in China, check it out).  However, if you’re like me and hate the idea of another human being having to touch you, then why not try “cupping” as an alternative to getting rid of some of that 60-hour-a-week (no joke) stress.

Cupping involves paraffin filled glass bowls being lit and then stuck onto your back and occasionally chest. The air inside is consumed and a vacuum created, leaving your shoulders, waist and neck resembling that of a suckled mother cow. After a while the cups are removed and for a pleasant week following you resemble a sort of flattened one-sided dice, but it does really feel much better. However, for the more hirsute amongst us; beware. I once tried to take a friend along to join me in this monthly practice, only to have the masseuse tell me that “He is too hairy. He is like a monkey.” Sadly my friend couldn’t join me, as I was not about to shave his back for him. Perhaps a better friend might have offered, but I have only shaved one man’s chest in my lifetime (I left him with furry nipples sculpted into the shape of a heart) and I want to keep that moment special. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling all nostalgic for those China days of health and vitality, so I’m off to do squat thrusts in the car park, singing Communist era anthems synched up to Ace of Base.

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