(Sung to the Cheers theme): Sometimes you wanna go. . .where everybody swims in soup!

Recently I have had to bid goodbye to the Nankai pool. It served me well for many moons, but no longer. Why, you might ask? It’s pretty simple, really: the water was too cold. And I mean WAY too cold. Now I don’t mind a chilly pool. If you’re going to swim hard, you don’t want the water to be warm because you’ll overheat. But neither do you want the water to feel like glacier run-off. Last week I went to the fifty-meter pool, which typically is bearable, certainly better than the twenty-five meter pool which is, I’m positive, completely unheated. This time, though, when I approached the side of the pool I noticed several penguins huddled together moodily contemplating the water. I began stretching in preparation for my swim and one of them looked up at me.

“You’re not going in there, are you?” he asked incredulously.

“Er, I was planning on it. I usually warm up while I swim.”

“Not in there you won’t,” he retorted, gesturing towards the water with a wing. “We’ve already lost Billy. The rest of us are staying up here.”

“Who’s Billy?”

“Another penguin.” The other penguins lowered their heads sorrowfully. “You can probably see him floating in one of the lanes. Yep, there he is: that frozen black lump over by the Chinese guy swimming like a crippled polar bear.”

“I think that’s called a butterfly stroke.”

“Whatever you say. Where I come from it’s a crippled polar bear. “

“I can see the resemblance.”

“So would a polar bear, if one was foolish enough to swim here, and I don’t that’s likely to happen.”

“But the Chinese don’t seem to mind.”

The penguin looked up at me. “Well we penguins do. I’m the one who’s got to tell Billy’s wife about all this. I’d go fish his body out, but frankly he’ll be better-preserved in this water than in the Arctic anyway. All that to say, you’re on your own.”

I should have known then, of course, but as I established in a previous post, I’m still prone to rookie mistakes, so I slapped on my swim cap, waved to the penguins who were now watching me with unmistakable chagrin, and jumped into the fifty-meter pool. Immediately I felt all the blood draining from my extremities. A few harp seals darted past and shot me sympathetic glances. Billy the dead penguin bobbed past me like a forlorn black buoy. Gasping, flailing, I swam for my life, but my efforts just kept the cold limited to certain parts of my body. There was no question of feeling comfortable, but only of not dying. I swam a full 1000 meters and could still feel the cold in my chest. I mean IN my chest. Yikes. That was it for me.

Three days ago I decided to try a small spa not too far from campus. It’s one of those underground hot-spring affairs with a complex of buildings featuring massages, herbal somethings (I’m afraid the majority of the spa experience is a closed book to me.), and a pool. The swimming pool area features an adjoining hot spring pool, as well as a locker room that’s spacious enough to pretty much guarantee you won’t have to be a circus contortionist to avoid naked bodies in your vicinity. I paid my money, got changed, and walked into the swimming pool area.

And noticed that the water, rather than the standard cobalt blue, looked something French onion soup. I just gaped. I know in China things are never what you expect, but at the very least you’d like to think a nice spa would have a swimming pool whose water wasn’t opaque. I stood there for a few minutes, then walked back into the locker room so I could find my electronic Chinese dictionary and look up the word “chlorine.” I went back and asked the lifeguard if there was any chlorine in the water. He assured me there was, and then, correctly interpreting my concern, said, “The water comes from an underground hot spring, so it looks murky. It’s not dirty, though. Don’t worry.” The thing is, comrade, I’ve been told “don’t worry” about everything from bus trips that were supposed to be quick to pay-checks that were supposed to arrive on time, and predictably the bus trip took longer than the director’s cut of Das Boot, and pay-check arrived a month late and 300 RMB short. Still, though, the rest of the spa complex was pretty swank. What would you have done? I hadn’t worked out in a few days, and I needed the exercise. Plus, I’d already paid, and I hate paying for nothing. So I shrugged, decided to believe the lifeguard, and slid on in.

It was a pleasant swim, though the water was so, er, rich in minerals that at some points it was hard to see. I kept expecting to see a manatee or a catfish swim by (and probably bump into a wall because they couldn’t see, either). Still, the water wasn’t bone-chillingly cold, so I was prepared to suspend my disbelief.

I finished my swim, and went for a dip in the adjoining hot-spring pool which was glorious. By the time I went back to the locker room for a shower I was feeling so relaxed it made me curious. I always feel somewhat relaxed after exercising, but this was different. And then it hit me: no one was talking. The Nankai pool’s more like a big social club than a place to swim. Droves of students thrash about in the shallow section of the fifty-meter pool, shrieking and splashing each other. (And I won’t be a gink about that. How can you get angry about a bunch of students having fun in a pool?) In the deep end, each lane has at least two people hanging onto the side chatting (loudly) about one thing or another. Even the lifeguards are usually hanging out around one of the chairs drinking tea and talking. And of course the locker room has the subdued, placid air of the Tunisian revolution. Again, this is one of those cultural phonemona about which it’s hard to get too angry. Yes, I still get pissed off, but it’s hard to find a good reason. It’s not my country after all. It would be like a Chinese person getting pissed off in a small town in America because there are so few people and nobody talks much in public places. All I’ll say is, after a while the constant noise gets wearing.

But at the spa, people clearly were going simply to swim for a bit, soak, then go on their way. It was rare and wonderful. I wasn’t even accosted by people in the locker room wanting to know where I was from. The two other guys (That’s right: two. Not like the Nankai locker room, where you feel like you’re showering with the complete cast from Spartacus.) glanced my way once, then just went on about their business. Sigh.

The long and the short of it is that I’m going back, French onion soup water notwithstanding. Quiet is worth paying for here. In China we’re never too aware of the effects of the constant, unrelenting noise. Presumably the Chinese have simply learned to deal with it, which is probably why annoying background noise doesn’t seem to phase them. But as a westerner who’s used to a great deal more space, even when I think I’ve adjusted to the everyday bedlam, it only takes a quiet hour or two to remind me that in fact I still crave peace and quiet.

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2 Responses to (Sung to the Cheers theme): Sometimes you wanna go. . .where everybody swims in soup!

  1. JB says:

    Don’t get me started on how someone apparently gets married every other day in my apartment complex, necessitating prolonged use of firecrackers, usually starting at about 6 in the morning. Or how days without firecrackers feature the local handyman walking around loudly advertising his services with a horn. Yes a horn. I sometimes wonder if in his time off he attends civil war reenactments as a cavalry captain.

  2. danzig says:

    One of your better posts. Frickn hilarious.

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