The Gym at Tsinghua

Last Saturday I had one of the strangest and possibly my most awkward moment in Beijing, which serves as a perfect example of when the attention arising from being a 外国人 turns from mildly amusing to noticeably uncomfortable.  Unsurprisingly, this happened at the small, dark room that some people at Tsinghua humorously call a gym.  Starting from the opening hours of 5 pm, the gym is packed with shirtless Chinese students, each competing to find spots in the mirror to flex while staring intently.
tsinghuagymBefore beginning the story, this gym deserves, possibly even demands, a further description.  From the first time I walked in, I realized that this was a habitat that 外国人 did not frequently permeate.  My first sight was a room completely filled with shirtless students working out; compared to my experiences at the William and Mary school gym, I was honestly shell-shocked.  The cultural discontinuity was emphasized by the lack of any other foreigners.  I quickly realized the negative elements to being the only 外国人; from the moment I walked in the vast majority of eyes continuously glanced in my direction.  The awkward staring was accompanied by the blasting beat of Katy Perry’s “Firework”, the first of many American pop songs played.  The degree of awkwardness only increased during my workout when I noticed several people taking pictures of me.

This backdrop comprises the setting for easily the most culturally aberrant moment I have experienced in Beijing.  Last weekend I went to the gym to work out; I did not notice any undue attention, though I’m increasingly unsure that is because it does not occur anymore or I am simply used to it.  While I was working out, a few Chinese students actually stood up, clapped, and walked over.  One of they gave me a thumbs up and told me “你很厉害”.  It was one of the most uncomfortable moments that I had on this trip.

While this anecdote makes the gym sound completely off-putting, in reality most of the students are very friendly- even to the point of apologizing for the actions of others.  Making friends there was very easy; in fact, after I noticed people taking pictures one student came up to me and talked to me about it.  Through fairly good English on his part, he apologized for the reactions of the some of the other Chinese students.  He said that he starting workout out when studying abroad in America, and continued after coming back.  He told me that several of the kids in the gym had studied abroad and had brought back the (apparently) Western cultural aspect of lifting.  The popularity of working out recently has branched out and permeated other groups within Chinese culture, meaning the people in the gym are no longer exclusively people with Western influences.  Therefore, some of the students have not been significantly exposed to 外国人 and therefore act in ways that can be uncomfortable to a Westerner.

My experiences in the gym left me with several thoughts about Chinese culture.  First, the influence of Western culture has carried over into more mainstream elements of Chinese life.  If working out stemmed mainly from interaction with the West, then the increased popularity of lifting in Chinese youth represents a trickle down effect.  A second realization, and one possibly more useful to daily life in China, was that people usually don’t mean any harm by their own actions, which means if someone is violating your boundaries you only have to ask them to stop.  Once I realized that some of the awkward moments came from unfamiliarity with Westerners (meaning both ignorance of culture and fascination with the unknown), I understood that being friendly and straightforward was the best way of handling these situations.  For example, when several students pulled out their smartphones at the gym, I told them I was uncomfortable with them taking pictures.  Instead of being angry, they were very apologetic and extremely friendly about it.