I have been frequenting gyms since I was about 16. For my sport elective one year in high school I chose to go to the local gym and spend an hour a week trying to figure out the machines and pretend to lift weights, mostly to impress the boys... Who were also pretending to lift weights to impress the girls. Now that I am a teacher I can appreciate how hilarious it must have been to watch. Since then I have mastered many of the machines and no longer do I pretend to lift weights... I actually do.
There is a certain etiquette at the gym. The equipment that you use, you put back, if you are using a bench or machine you sling your towel over it so everyone is aware that it is being used and not to commandeer it for themselves. Wipe up your sweat with your towel and leave everything ready, clean and tidy for the next person. It's pretty standard and it is just polite and considerate; until you get to China where those few things don't really exist.
I go to California Fitness here in Shanghai. I chose this gym for many reasons. It is a multi-national brand so it should have a standard to uphold, good facilities, good location and I assumed good staff. It has been rated one of the best gyms in the city and upon first impressions it was pretty good.
I walk in each day and hand my card to a guy who looks at me like I am a complete stranger, he swipes it, reads the info on the screen like he has never seen it before and nods his head for me to enter. I head up to get my towels. There is a nice kid behind the counter to hand me my beautifully wrapped large and small perfectly white fluffy towels. This kid manages to smile at me through his permanently fixed facial expression. He is not the best looking chap I've ever seen, he is small and skinny and under his California Fitness uniform he wears a very old and ragged pair of knock off New Balance shoes. He probably earns no more than a couple of hundred RMB per week so they are the best that he can do and he, along with the cleaners are the only ones who actually do any work in the gym. His permanent expression is one of boredom and contempt. All he does all day is fold towels and hand them to rude, elitist people who believe he is beneath them. Every day I walk in I hope that he has been promoted to the front desk. Sadly, I doubt this will happen as he is not built enough to be a poster boy for the gym.
My first 20 minutes is spent foam rolling my hip and back in the warm up/ down area. That is if I can find the foam roller. It is usually littered around the gym somewhere and it is like a game to see how fast I can find it. I get to witness some pretty terrifying and downright amusing acts of what can only be described as pseudo fitness in this area. The trainers take it upon themselves to stretch, push, pull and contort their clients in all kinds of ways. Ways that would have them sued elsewhere in the world. The trainers also get their clients to stretch on their own whilst they consult their phones and send WeChat messages back and forth. I've never seen such disinterest by a trainer. Last week one trainer was eating McDonalds whilst his client rolled around on the floor stretching in what she believed was a safe and appropriate way to warm up. So much for being a pillar of good health and a good role model for your less athletic, middle aged female client with one too many dumplings under her belt.
The weights room is where I spend the majority of my time. I am usually the only female in there and therefor I am subject to discrimination on two levels. Being female in what the Chinese men inwardly believe is a male area and because I am a LaWei (foreigner). Often when I walk in I can only describe it as a child's playroom. There are weights and plates strewn all over the floor, the racks are almost totally empty, bars are missing and benches have been pushed all over the place in an attempt to get the best or second or third best spot in front of the mirrors. I spend about 5-10 minutes just collecting up the equipment I need and hoard it by the bench I have my towel over. The men strut in with their pancake flat asses and weedy arms and proceed to snort and huff and moan their way through their sets. At times you think you are walking into a brothel with all of the sounds emerging from this area. I put my headphones in and block it all out for the sake of my sanity. One of my favourite things to do is pick a bench right next to a guy who is huffing and puffing through a set of say over head press, and ever so quietly lift a heavier weight for more reps with no noise emerging from my vocal chords. The other thing I love to do is the same thing but as the person is taking a selfie in the mirror. So there I would be in the background of their photo with heavier weights. Winning! It is not long after I start my second set that they usually leave, having dumped their Dumbbells on the floor. Didn't you know it is beneath them to put their equipment back?
Last week I was using a bar for some dead lifts and in between each set I went to the side to skip rope. When I returned from skipping my bar was gone. I looked around and a trainer had taken it for his client. He asked if he could borrow it once I caught his eye and I graciously agreed. So I sat on my bench and waited for them to finish so I could continue. Out of the corner of my eye I caught him waving at me as he turned on his heel and walked off. My bar was across the other side of the room on the floor. Not even the courtesy to return to where he took it from. I was just a wee bit annoyed to say the least. Did I mention the attitude of 'beneath them'?
Today however, I think was my most amusing experience. One of the trainers had a new toy. He had a very large thick rope. The ones that many boot camps and cross fit gyms use for their clients to lift/ shake up and down for shoulder strength. Except this trainer had no idea what to do with it. He shook it really quickly but soon tired of that, then he shook it side to side, nope that wasn't working either. Then he was jumping up and down to try and move it... "Yeahhhhhh not quite there buddy! Keep trying." I thought. I was being well amused whilst I was doing my leg press. Then one of the other LaWei walked past. He is pretty huge and clearly knows his way around a gym and stopped and showed the trainer what to do with his new toy. The American LaWei shook this rope up and down creating perfect waves along the brand new toy. Many of the Chinese stopped and stared, I just felt like clapping and the trainer looked on in amazement and then had a go... Let's just say it wasn't as fluid as the Americans shakes and he has a bit of work to do to master it.
For part of the time I am trying to get a session in I am frustrated and annoyed but I am not the only one. Pretty much all of us 'LaWaei' are frustrated and annoyed at the Chinese way but there are times when the most ridiculous or unsafe exercises are being executed and we all look around and catch each other's eye with raised eyebrows and laugh. It makes the frustration worthwhile and the addiction of going to the gym just a little bit stronger.