A neighboring university offers a 15 Yuan ticket (10 if I fib and say I’m from said University and then act really confused and pretend that I cannot speak Chinese when they ask for my ID card) for unlimited time in their swimming pool. I go once a week for a dose of Chinese culture and some exercise on the side.
After misunderstanding the complex directions of the locker room rules, and having every inch of my white skin inspected by the other women as I change, I make my way to the Olympic style swimming pool. I must be glowing as every goggle wearing swim cap covered head (that is not face down in the water) turns to look at me. I scramble to disappear into the water. There is a play area where adults and children alike use floaties and flail about. Next there are two slowish lanes with older men and women wallowing through the breast stroke. Finally the inside two lanes are for those a bit more athletic. I pick the slow lane. After a couple of laps, I’m hanging out by the spittoon located at either end of the pool (yes gross but not as gross as if all those coal dust loogies were going into the pool) and a pink swim capped lady with enduring pink lipstick is staring. Here it comes, “Where from?” “Meiguo (America)” “[in Chinese] Ohhh your Chinese is SO good.” And I smile and return to the crawl thinking, “remember pink cap, remember pink cap”. On the way I’m interrupted by some unapologetic cross traffic from two high school aged boys. I rest at the other end because I’m not a good swimmer. A blue capped, heavy middle-aged man emerges from the water and greets me with a strong hot misty exhale reeking of his garlicy lunch, his most recent cigarette, and the consistent sort of moldering smell that never really gets brushed away here. I turn my head to the spittoon, and nearly gag. Off I go, “remember blue cap, remember pink cap.” At the other end, I pause too long. A university student is there also resting. He is extra skinny and his Speedo makes him even skinnier. Confident from his last oral English class, he asks, “Where are you from?” “America,” I say. Next question: “Have you a telephone number? I want to practice my oral English.” I’m thinking, not only would I never give my number to a guy in a Speedo after 15 seconds of conversation (30 if you count the awkward staring before) but I don’t know where he would put it even if I wrote it down! “Umm, I have to keep exercising.” And I’m back to the crawl thinking, “This lane is on to me.” At the end, I duck under the lane line and switch lanes. This group will take a few more laps before I can no longer keep all the swim caps straight, which buys me at least 10 more minutes of blending in as just another color of swimming cap.
After a couple more strategic lane swaps, its back to the showers where even through the steam I can watch women watching me. I know they think it is strange that I wash my hair with my head thrown back because I think it’s strange that they wash their hair bent over forward. Either way, while I’m looking up and they’re looking down, that is a couple more moments of being unnoticed.