Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Chinese Democracy in the Weight Room

No, not the long awaited endeavor by Axl Rose, sorry to pique your appetite...

The school weight room used to be an appalling affair. It was covered in green astro turf that was rotted away in places. Then they redesigned it, tore out the floor and put in a new one, tore out a wall of the gymnasium and replaced it with a giant window. Along with the improvements came bureaucracy; after it reopened, a few caretakers appeared to handle things.

One was a tiny bony man, probably in his 30s. The other was probably 50. The older guy had a perfect Friar Tuck haircut, bald on top with a ring around the sides, in a near perfect imitation of Chairman Mao. I called both of these men as they are called commonly in China, laoban, boss, but I always thought of this older guy as The Chairman.

The Chairman and I did not begin our relationship auspiciously. These two guys had -- and have -- a bizarre system for checking into the weight room. You'd give the little guy five kuai, he'd spend an inordinate amount of time writing out a ticket, then you'd take the ticket. The Chairman then would come find you later and collect the ticket. Often this seemed to be in the middle of some exercise or some other critically inopportune moment.

But little irritated me more than The Chairman speaking "idiot Chinese" to me. The kind where you're retarded, and he is annoyed at having to deal with that. The Chairman would come up to me and shout "TICKET" whenever he saw me. "You want to take my ticket?" I'd say in Chinese, trying not to drop a barbell on my chest. "I'm busy right now. Please wait a minute."

The fact that I could string several sentences and obviously knew the language better than he thought I did seemed to make little impression -- at first. Then, as he saw me in there more and more, he started asking a few questions. Apparently my answers passed muster, because at a certain point he started treating me as if I were fluent in the language.

It became evident that the Chairman was obsessed with American politics. The recent primary election contests only heightened this obsession.

"You will return to your America to vote for your president, right?" he would repeatedly ask me.

"Actually, I don't have to go back to vote. I can mail in my choice," I would always say. These conversations would take on a ritualistic nature, question and answer repeated over and over again. Which was fine with me, because I would know what was coming and feel confident in my language skills. The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries threw a monkey wrench into all of this though: I barely understand "caucus" and "primary" in English, let alone Chinese. The Chairman's enthusiasm was boundless though.

"Hilary lost! Hillary lost!" I finally managed to realize he was saying. "The riverman won! The riverman won!"

Who the hell is "the riverman," I thought. The Chairman had one of the many regional accents that are prevalent in China, this one from Jiangxi province. It took me several minutes to figure out what sounded like "heren" to me was actually "heiren", not "riverman" but "black man."

"Oh yeah, the black man. Oh -BA-ma," I mouthed, trying to guess at how these syllables might be contorted to fit into the Chinese syllabic-character system.

He flew into a frenzied monologue on all of this and what it meant. Eventually, I got the gist: It was great that a woman and black man were competing, it would be great if the black man won though -- it would show that the American system were fairer than before.

I liked asking questions I already knew the answer to, but ones that inevitably seemed bound to produce interesting answers depending on who was responding.

"Can you choose the president here in your China?" I asked.

"No!" he practically hollered before I could finish the question. "We can't choose anything here." He then proceeded on another long rant about politics, this time of the Chinese stripe, and how they were completely opaque.

"C'mon," I said. "You can choose something here in China," I said, pausing for dramatic purposes. "Supergirl."

This he found genuinely hysterical. He slapped me on the arm, belly laughing, and said, "Right, Super Girl. But what's the point? She can't make any decisions, and I can't even give her a hug."

What "American Idol" is to the States, "Super Girl" is to China. The winner a few years back had been a young woman who had defied all traditional concepts of feminine beauty: short, short-haired and somewhat possessing of a masculine bearing. I wondered if the "not being able to give her a hug" comment was directed at this young woman's appearance.

We talked a bit more, and then as The Chairman turned to go, I asked a question that I didn't know the answer to, and one that I thought might not get an answer, as it could be potentially embarrassing.

"You're so interested in politics and know so much about it. Why aren't you a professor here? You could discuss these things all the time with the students," I said.

The Chairman had been walking off, but turned around and somewhat conspiratorally leaned in toward me. "If I were a professor here, they would tell me what to write, what to think. If I wrote an article, I'd have to do it how they wanted. Here, nobody pays attention to me. I can think what I want."

And there it was. The subversive in the crowd was not a young idealistic student, but a 50-year old man taking tickets in the gym.


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