Friday, October 30, 2009

China's Quirky Mornings

I like China most in the early morning. Aside from the occasional official university event, all of which for some reason must begin at 6:00AM with loud speakers, mornings are relatively quiet. Breakfast food stands set up in back alleys selling fresh soy milk, fried dough sticks, and bite sized steamed dumplings to go. Vegetable and fruit markets present the day’s freshest produce to the most eager customers. And, mornings are hands down the best time of the day for people watching in China. It’s the only time/place one can see an old man in full Kung Fu garb after his morning training poking through vegetables at a market with a sword!

Through both direct and indirect comments, I get the feeling that Chinese consider themselves to be a nation of early risers. I also get the feeling that Chinese believe that westerners are late risers, dare I say lazy late risers. My landlord’s pride sneaked through his typically stoic face when he mentioned that he wakes up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning to jog. The early morning hours are a time to be outside pursuing moderate exercise.

Mornings are a time for serious Tai Chi and Kung Fu classes in parks, as well as individual practitioners scattered about apartment complexes and university tracks. For men and women, mornings are also a time for walking; jogging (which is at the same speed as walking but with a jogging fa├žade); waking backwards; leg stretching to lengths that make me cringe; rope jumping; table tennis; various routines of smacking legs, arms, backs, cheeks, and heads; and playing a hacky sack type game with a feathered shuttlecock. For men, mornings are a time for harder running, basketball, and pull-ups. For women, mornings are a time for traditional style dancing with fans and sequenced fabric squares.

While I understand the physical and mental benefits of these activities, there are a few additional exercises that leave me stumped. Many of these exercises overlap with Chinese traditional medical concepts, some of which also still bewilder me. Many exercise regimens involve repetitious patting/hitting, extreme stretching, and even yelling; all purport to maintain good circulation, flexibility, and expelling ‘bad air,’ respectively. Here are a few anecdotes for you to picture and ponder.

Once on a morning run by the ocean in Dalian, above the waves I heard the disturbing sound of people yelling. As I paused to watch, I found no one to be in danger, but rather 25 swim-capped heads bobbing about letting out generic hollow yells. Perplexed and slighted disturbed, I asked my doctor friend about this bizarre habit. He suggested that they were probably trying to force out ‘bad air.’ I guess this is similar to the idea of ‘running out’ a chest cold on the mend?

On a river ferry boat on the Yangtze River, I came up to the deck to greet the day only to see ten men halfway through their personalized morning routines of arm rotations, hip thrusts, and trunk twists. Feeling that my conventional hamstring stretches and jumping-jacks were insufficient for that crowd, I returned to my room.

Early one hot July morning in Beijing, I was jogging around a university track and every time I passed the 100 m mark I could not help but slow to watch an older couple in their creative routine. The women was bumping her back forcefully against a tree trunk and letting out a yell. The man held one end of a large linked chain over his shoulder. At the other end he had tied the chain into a ball about 10 inches across. He was slowly but rhythmically swinging the chain around his body and letting the chain ball hit his back side. I can only guess that the Mrs. had a case of the bad air and the gentleman was worried about circulation. I guess I could have asked, but they seemed occupied.

Other exercise routines are less perplexing to me and more impressive. Each public exercise area always has one or two super fit middle-aged men maxing out on pull-ups and dips. I have also seen men an women well into their 80’s with one leg halfway up a tree! I have seen fewer women demonstrating acts of strength, as I gather such activities are not in keeping with a woman's best health interests or overall image. Yet, I have seen some solid female joggers and jump-ropers.

My first encounters with these strange activities made me smirk with, admittedly, condescension. As an ex-400m runner, I tend to be slightly masochistic when it comes to exercise. What good is a workout if you’re not drenched in sweat, gasping for breath, and cramping by the end? I feel that America has a split personality when it comes to fitness. On one end are the marathoners and gym rats that guzzle Nalgenes of water and drink whey products. At the other are those who have resigned themselves to a life of immobility altogether. In this context, the Chinese seem to have it figured out.

So what if the lady walking backwards hitting his arms repeatedly has a little pot belly? At least she’s moving! And what if the guy jogging is getting lapped by the walkers? He probably won’t need knee surgery! Stretching for a half hour, playing table tennis, and yes even bumping one’s back against a tree, would likely benefit those who (for no other legitimate health reasons) have become immobile.