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In a foreign country, with a tour group full of people you don’t know, sometimes the best thing you can do is go to the gym.
I need to pause for a disclaimer: If I am a rat of any kind, it is not a gym rat. I’m a road rat, a trail rat, a barre rat – but I don’t like the machines, the musk, the towels, the TVs or any of the complimentary ambience that comes along with a trip to the gym. I can’t stand the sound of the treadmill, the way my face looks in the mirror while I run or the useless, tiny cups of water.
I enjoy running when I have a canyon to overlook and a staircase of igneous rocks to wobble up. I like sudden breezes and trying to smile at passers-by near the breathless midpoint of mile six. I need that literal movement through space: I start in one place and after maybe a hamstring stretch or something, I leave that place behind me. It doesn’t make sense to me to stand on a belt the whole time, caught between the same unspectacular walls.
I have many prejudices against the gym, but I left them in the States when I went to China.
First of all, my dysfunctional inner clock had me rising at 5 a.m. my first morning in the Far East. In Beijing, as in Los Alamos, there is nothing to do at 5 a.m., especially since I didn’t want to wake Michael, who adjusts to new time zones with the speed and ease of a cell phone. I adjust more like a landline.
Anyhow, stuck in China with a sleeping fiancé, I had only one option. I knew the hotel gym opened at 6 a.m. and I planned to go. I had to go. I stared at the curtains until 5:45 a.m., and then changed into my running clothes.
When I arrived a few minutes after six, I saw only one other person, other than the attendant, who greeted me in Mandarin. I didn’t know my fellow early riser’s name but I recognized him from my tour group as the guy Michael had told me was a doctor. I felt extremely healthy, knowing I would soon engage in the same activity as a doctor. Maybe I could like the gym.
We nodded hello and he watched TV while running in place. I fiddled with my iPod, finally settling on my Beastie Boys playlist. It seemed important to choose the right music; it would be the first music I listened to in China. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” was it.
I made it about 10 minutes before growing incredibly bored with the treadmill. I decided I needed to go faster. That would help. I pushed the up-arrow button to increase the speed and the treadmill stopped immediately, offering only its weak error message in explanation.
By this point, there were a couple of other people in the room. I didn’t recognize them, but one of them said hi to the doctor. All four of us in the room were American, which I might not have noticed in a Los Alamos gym but here looked weird.
I didn’t want to, but I felt a guilty kind of relief standing there on my broken treadmill, which beeped every few seconds: We all spoke English. We were all outsiders. I imagined everyone at the gym felt as insecure as I did, bombarded by an entire culture of which I knew pitifully little.
I moved onto the elliptical machine and pretended I had never run on a treadmill in my life, certainly not in China. I entered my weight as 100-and-some-odd kilograms on accident. I began the horrible striding, fighting, with the Beastie Boys, for my right to parrrrrr-ty.
It must have been around 6:20 a.m. when the room really began to fill up. People were milling around, fighting very passively – OK, chitchatting – for their right to run in place. Someone convinced my former treadmill to work again. I spoke with a woman I remembered from the plane, someone from my tour group. We had one of those micro-conversations people have while doing cardio exercises at the gym, which lasted exactly as long as she could stand my panting.
I don’t know if the elliptical machine level was set too high or if it was the jet-lag, but I only made it about six minutes. I sagged over to the water cooler, and gratefully drank from a tiny, very American-looking paper cup.
At the orientation breakfast later than morning, I glanced around the table and recognized so many faces. It turned out everyone I had seen in the gym was in my group. A few of the women told me they, too, had woken up ridiculously early and gone just for something to do. We laughed as we ate novel fruits.
And thanks to the gym, I had my first sense of belonging since I arrived in Asia.