Chinese Swim Strokes, Saying Stupid Things to Famous People

The Good

1. Autumn
We don’t have autumn in Tianjin, typically. In the four years or so I’ve been here, I’ve never experienced a prolonged (more than two-week) stretch of autumnal weather. The best we get is three or four days at a time, and that’s interspersed with either leftover summer weather or early winter, which means one day you’re out enjoying the beautiful sunshine in a light sweater, and the next you’ve got the air conditioner on, or you’re reaching for your thick coat. It’s annoying. But this year? I’m looking out my window and the sky is blue, the air is chilly but not cold, and by all appearances it’s actually AUTUMN! At my birthday party last Saturday my friend Jessica remarked, with justifiable excitement, that she saw yellow leaves the other day. I’m sure that sounds pedestrian to most of you, but here we rarely get to see nice autumn leaves. They just sort of. . .die. (Shrieking horribly, I expect, but I can’t confirm that.) Not this year. This year they’re allowed to go peacefully.

2. My Advisor
Luo Zhenya’s sort of a mixed bag, actually, but I’m putting him on the Good side anyway, due largely to his writing, which is very complex but well worth the effort. I came to Nankai with the hope of studying contemporary literature, which would be, in the Chinese reckoning, literature from 1976 to the present. The 50’s, 60’s, and most of the 70’s don’t count because everything written then was government propaganda and so bottomlessly awful that you’d get a much deeper understanding of life by reading the nutritional facts on a box of Shredded Wheat. Poor Scott, who is a thorough intellectual, wants to have worked through every decade of Chinese literature before he graduates here, and has spent MONTHS reading through the material in this period. I think he deserves a medal. When Scott and I started at Nankai, we both wanted Dr. Li Xinyu as our advisor. Dr. Li is a highly charismatic lecturer whose beard makes him look like Confucius, and whose perspective on Chinese history and literature is, well, definitely not mainstream. But because Scott and I, on our advisor selection forms, wrote our Chinese names, and because Dr. Li had no idea who Mo Haoran (me) and Wei Yunfeng (Scott) were, he didn’t accept us. My second choice was Dr. Luo Zhenya, and I have to say I’m glad it worked out that way. Very few scholars in China understand contemporary poetry, especially the avant-garde, as well as him. And regardless of the depth of my understanding of the field, or rather lack thereof, it makes me feel super-smart just to say I’m specializing in avant-garde Chinese poetry. Ha! I’m looking forward to discussing it more with him this semester as I prepare to start my thesis.

3. Dorm life
I’m 32 and I’m enjoying dorm life. If that makes me strange, so be it. My room isn’t very big, but it’s clean, comfortable, and has everything I need (i.e. books, a place to read books, and, well, all the other stuff). My classes are a quick walk from here, and the gym, the pool, and the library are literally across the street. Also, my mail gets delivered right downstairs. Now THAT’S nice! When I was living at Tianda, and then Weijin Lu, the post office would deliver a slip saying you had a package, and then you had to go to the post office to pick it up. Now, though, I just go down to the front desk and check. That sounds like a minor thing, but it isn’t in the winter.
Oh, and the room is free. I forgot to mention that.

4. Saying Stupid Things to Famous People
This is part of a much longer story, one that I’ll write up in full form and post on a (hopefully) new blog I’m trying to start. In a nutshell, though, on Wednesday night my friends Xuebin, Zhenyu, and I were asked to read some original poetry at the university’s bi-annual poetry night. The three of us put together a small compilation last year that contained selections from our original works, and Xuebin bound them in a nice little book. Everyone was highly impressed, and of course interested because we were three people from three different cultures (Xuebin from China, Zhenyu from Korea, me from America). They wanted us to read on Wednesday night because three of China’s greatest living poets were going to be in attendance. Gulp. I’ll describe the whole event in greater detail later, including how Xuebin and I were so nervous beforehand we wanted to throw up, but for now I want to share one quick anecdote.
We all fantasize about saying something hip and cool to somebody famous, something so hip and cool that whoever is on the receiving end goes back to his or her famous friends and says, “Wow. We have GOT to have this person in our next movie.” Or album. Or whatever. After the poetry reading was finished, we milled around getting our pictures taken with some of the renowned writers who were there, and eventually got around to meeting Yu Jian, who according to at least the literature students here is perhaps the most influential poet in China. Nice guy. He’s short, stocky, and bald, making him look not unlike a Chinese version of Telly Savalas. He willingly let us take our picture with him, then chatted with us for a bit. I’d sung an original song in addition to reading a poem I’d written (translated into Chinese by a classmate). Yu Jian said to me, “I really enjoyed your song.” I responded, “I enjoyed your song, too,” which was brilliant because he didn’t sing one. Hopefully he didn’t hear me too well. I was mumbling because I was so nervous. If not, he like everyone else probably just chalked up the mistake to my being foreign.

5. Chinese swimmers
I’ve decided to move these folks to the Good side because I’ve stopped being annoyed by them and started enjoying their company. In China everyone learns the breast-stroke first (or the frog stroke as it’s called here, and I for one think that’s a far better description; the breast stroke sounds like a very timid aquatic double entendre), and then, as far as I can tell, just improvises the rest of the way. All thought of efficient movement or conservation of energy goes out the window while people create their own strokes. It’s actually highly entertaining to swim laps with people who clearly aren’t swimmers, and not solely because they’re hilarious to watch. There’s something admirable about the aspect of Chinese culture whereby nobody cares what others think. They just dive right in. And so, for example, you get the occasional fatty who strides confidently out to the deep-end in tiny black speedos that have been rendered missing in action by the massive hillock of flesh above them, making their owner look, in the words of Drew Carey, like a Bartlett pear with a rubber band around the middle. But he doesn’t care (the swimmer, not Drew Carey, though I suppose Drew doesn’t care, either). He dives right in. I passed a mountain of a man in the pool the other day and for a few meters it felt like I was swimming laps in the walrus enclosure at Sea World. Did he care? Nope.
Here are my favorite improvised strokes, which I will name and describe for your benefit.

1. The Old Man in the Sea – This isn’t so much a stroke as a perspective. Old men here regularly misunderstand the purpose of swim caps and goggles, and so quite often you’ll see one of them doing the frog-stroke (See? Isn’t that better?) wearing reading glasses and a shower cap. This has never annoyed me. I’ve always loved it.
2. The Butterball – Derived from the Butterfly, which is an awe-inspiring stroke when done correctly and vaguely disturbing when not. The Butterball, unlike the Butterfly, is so-called because it looks like the final death flop of a turkey. The arms are flung forward, and there is a several second delay while the feet slowly, slowly rise from the water, kick feebly down, then the arms are flung wildly forward again as though the swimmer is either trying desperately to catch something just out of reach or is actually a dying farm-bird.
3. The Iceberg – This is where the swimmer has foregone all use of his or her legs and simply paddles slowly with the hands, at a pace that would shame an elderly dog. All you can see of them is a head bobbing up and down in the water, and though you’re mostly sure there’s a body beneath, it’s tempting to think that somebody somewhere is just chucking goggled and swimcapped cadaver heads into the deep end for reasons best left unknown.
4. The Lieutenant Dan – Remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan vaults off of Forrest’s boat and swims slowly, slowly out to sea on his back, his leg stumbs bobbing grotesquely beneath him? (All right, maybe not grotesquely, but at least weirdly.) That’s about the way the backstroke looks here when done by most people. They don’t kick their legs much, if at all, and focus instead on simply windmilling their arms back into the water, then bringing them forward rather than down in a smooth circular motion, making the swimmer look like a person who has survived a boat accident hours earlier and is trying to conserve energy, or like Lieutenant Dan.

I would like to stress here that this is in the Good category for a reason. There are competitive swimmers on occasion, but never when I’m swimming. I for one enjoy that.

The Bad

1. Nutrition
I keep my body guessing in China. Yesterday I had lightly sautéed cauliflower with green onions and lemon zest, with a side of Thai rice. Today I had street food and Skittles. If we think of nutrition as a sport and the digestive system as a player, then yesterday I set up a tee-ball stand and we played a pleasant half hour with much congratulating and wholesome fun. Today my digestive system walked out with a trusting smile, the tee at the ready. I smiled, pulled out the ball, thumped it into my glove a few times, then whipped it out and knocked my digestive system unconscious with a high fastball to the dome. So to speak. See the problem is that in China, if you don’t cook it yourself there’s no way you’re getting a healthy, balanced meal. You can order vegetables, but they’re going to come wok-fried in enough oil to sink a tugboat. I went in search of something healthy a few weeks ago and ended up deciding just to go with what tasted good instead, which in that case was two fried meat pastries and a pair of sandwich things with thin slices of pork and a fried egg in the middle. Healthy? Nope. If I’d eaten a handful of dirt I would have done better. But they sure did taste good.

2. Lectures
Xuebin asked me the other day what I thought of the lectures this semester. I have two classes, one on the writer Zhou Zuoren, and the other on modern poetry theory and research. In both cases the professors are tops in their field, and have written thought-provoking books and numerous articles. . .but their lectures leave something to be desired. I told Xuebin that and he just smiled ruefully. “They’re all like that,” he said. So far at Nankai I’ve only experienced two kinds of lectures. When they’re good, the professors are challenging, passionate, willing to invest their material with an element of moral urgency you wouldn’t find in the West. They want the students to get riled up, to get angry even, but in any case to dive in and get their hands dirty When they’re bad, the professors sound like they’re trying to sell furniture. In an average lecture of this sort, the professor runs through a kind of laundry list of a given writer’s best works and describes them briefly, commenting on which ones are worth reading and which ones not. “Lu Xun’s early essays are very important, and you should all read them, and if you do, then for the low, low price of $19.95 I’ll throw in this handsome velvet ottoman!” Something like that.
Not only that, but lectures here are typically around 3 hours long. That’s right: three hours. That’s long, campers. Really long. The kind of long that makes Strom Thurmond’s famous 19__ marathon filibuster feel like a Chevrolet commercial. I usually hang in there pretty well for the first half, provided the professor isn’t trying to sell me a new intable to go with my couch, and then my mind just starts to wander. My notes do, too. On the page they take on the appearance of a tub of quickly-draining bathwater. In the beginning the page is full of thoughts and observations that stretch from one side to the other, then gradually everything begins to narrow down to a tight spiral as my attention span gets sucked down the drain. By the end I’m writing things like, “ ’99. Some dude.” (An actual line from one of my notebooks) The last few entries on my page are a few article titles, the contents of which I neither know nor care to know. They could be advocating the forced extinction of owls and I’d just shrug and move on.

3. The new hotel façade
This is what they spent the summer on. They brought in teams of construction workers and all the belt-sanders in northern China. The result is a façade that looks exactly like the old one, but with one change: now the sign has a cool neon glow behind it. That’s it. We were woken up at ungodly hours, had to endure marathon bouts of industrial noise pollution, all so the hotel sign can be illuminated with the same kind of vague bluish glow common to seedy pool halls and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

4. The pool before the pool
Before you get to the Nankai pool from the locker room, you have to sploosh through a small ankle-deep trough of water. The idea, I think, is to wash off whatever gunk might have accumulated on your sandals or feet. (Sandals. If you walk around a Chinese locker room in your bare feet, you deserve whatever hideous science-fiction class bacteria results) Except when you have dozens of people every few hours trooping back and forth through it, it’s more like a big petri dish than a particularly hygienic step in the swimming process. And it’s cold. Of course the main pool is cold, too. In all seriousness, pool maintenance people of Nankai University, you don’t need to kick on the heating jets, but could you at least not make the water COLDER? I’m not joking, either. It’s colder now than it was this summer. I used to swim a few meters and be comfortable. Now I’m still breathing shakily at the fifty-meter mark. Maybe I need to find a fatty and swim in his wake.

5. Weirdness in buildings
I really don’t know what people think when they plan construction here. Are there actual plans? Blueprints? Or do they just wing it? It seems no matter where I go, I always stumble across some bizarre incongruity. For example, the door to my bathroom opens out. The door to my dorm room, which is not even a foot away, and to the side, opens in. That means if the bathroom door is slightly ajar, when you come home the front door slams into the bathroom door. It also means that when a person needs to repair something in the bathroom, he has to leave both doors open. Then there’s the bathroom situation in classroom buildings. Everywhere I go, and I do mean everywhere, the men’s room urinals are set along a wall that is in direct view a bank of windows, and also of the door, which is kept open at all times. Because of this, nobody uses them. My favorite, though, is not so much a problem with planning as with purpose. In every major building on campus, and for that matter off campus as well, there are multiple sets of double doors in the front and back, and several on the sides. All of these, with the exception of a single pair, are bike-locked shut at all times, thereby guaranteeing that if there’s a fire at least 90% of the people in the building will either die in the inferno or be trampled to death in the bottleneck. Sigh. I don’t understand, and I suspect no one else does, either.

The Ugly
Actually, I don’t have any entries this time around. There are some of the usual suspects, of course. The mullet is still hanging tough here, and the beehive is a perplexing commonality, but in general cold weather is kind to fashion, since the name of the game is layers. Cover everything up.

And that’s that for now. Enjoy the autumn weather, those of you who are living in Tianjin. Everyone else. . .since you probably have autumn every year, I don’t care what you do. Enjoy yourselves.

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1 Responses to Chinese Swim Strokes, Saying Stupid Things to Famous People

  1. Amelie says:

    I appreciate you sharing this blog. Great.

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