16May2013

A Swimming Date in China

Swimmer doing butterfly.

The lesser spotted tween, and its larger relative, the greater spotted teen, are elusive creatures in urban China.

You might glimpse one between 6 and 7am, neat in their tracksuits on their way to school, then again between 5.30 and 7pm, returning to their homes.

On Friday nights, you might catch one in a restaurant or, if their parents are indulgent, gaming in an arcade.

Parks? Only for babies.

The Saturday supermarket run? You might see a kindergartener, or possibly an 8-year-old.

At the cinema on Saturdays? Nary a tween in sight.

As Zac will observe in the boys’ section of our local H&M, “I don’t think kids my age actually choose their own clothes.”

All of which is to say that, when we get an invitation for a playdate with a twelve-year-old girl, we jump at it.

I’ll call her Li Jing.

I float a couple of alternatives. How about the cinema? That is, of course, too frivolous for China. How about the science museum? No.

Li Jing goes swimming on Sunday mornings. Would we like to come to the water park?

I float a couple of alternatives. How about the cinema?

That is, of course, too frivolous for China. How about the science museum?

No.

It needs to be swimming, because that is what Li Jing does on Sunday mornings.

And, further, as I suspected, it’s not a water park.

It’s a swimming pool. And, yes, there is snow on the ground.

“Can’t we do something else?” Zac asks. We have been rather spoilt by tropical and Mediterranean waters.

“No,” I say. “I tried. It’s swimming or nothing.”

Young women will wear micro-minis, lacy tights, towering heels and skintight tops on the street, and no one bats an eyelid. When these same fashionistas go to a swimming pool, the closest they’ll come to a bikini is a tankini.

Thank god, I think, as I buy a vile pink swimming hat for me, and a vile baby blue swimming hat for Zac, that we’re British.

For Britons, like the northern Chinese, will traipse to the pool in the depths of winter with nary a quibble. We OWN the word “bracing”.

I only have a bikini, no swim shorts, so I sling a long vest top over it as my best available substitute for a one-piece.

I can’t quite get my head around the northern Chinese attitude to modesty. Young women will wear micro-minis, lacy tights, towering heels and skintight tops on the street, and no one bats an eyelid.

When these same fashionistas go to a swimming pool, the closest they’ll come to a bikini is a tankini, perhaps with a frilly skirt.

The changing rooms? Oh god.

But for the matron, who takes my ticket and exchanges it for a pair of pink plastic shower shoes, everyone is nude. (It says something about the temperature, at least by the door, that she is wearing not only a sweater but her coat, and no doubt thermals too.)

Now, I’m not shy about my body. I have gone sufficiently native that I can pull down my knickers, squat, point my bare backside at a communal longdrop toilet and pee alongside Chinese women without a jot of embarrassment.

I can even, like the Chinese, converse in said position, as I will realise to my horror when I do exactly that to a fellow Brit who walks into a communal hutong loo in Beijing.

But the full nudity is a bit much for me.

“The horror! The horror!” he says, of all those naked male hairy bodies and dangly bits. “CANNOT UNSEE.”

In the communal showers, women stand naked but for the pink plastic sandals.

Women engage in lengthy, solo beauty rituals – I’m guessing they are students, and the showers here are better than those in their dorms. Two girls take it in turns to exfoliate each other’s backs.

Towels are for drying, not for covering, so women walk between the showers and the lockers, fully nude but for Barbie pink sandals, women of all shapes and sizes.

Well, almost all shapes and sizes.

I’m sallow, or, as my landlord put it, inspecting my skin with interest, “You’re yellow too! You’re not white at all!”, so my skin colour does not stand out.

But I’m tallish, with relatively broad shoulders and a bodyshape that could currently be described as athletic but running to seed. It’s not a Chinese body type. And my short hair makes me more unusual.

It’s worse for Zac, who is fairer than I.

That means he’s not only the only laowai but the only child in the changing rooms, and, being far, far paler than any Chinese, a fascinating white ghost into the bargain.

Staring, as in the rest of Asia, is culturally normal, and not rude, whether or not you are naked.

“The horror! The horror!” he says, of all those naked male hairy bodies and dangly bits. “CANNOT UNSEE.”

Zac starts doing the boy thing. AKA bombing, jumping, swan dives. The lifeguard looks surprised, but approving. This doesn’t happen much here.

The temperature at the pool hovers somewhere between bracing and character-building. Like most Chinese “leisure” facilities, it really exists for athletes and lesser mortals who want to get fit. (Exercise, from communal dance classes to bodyweight machines in the parks, is ingrained in Chinese culture, even in the frozen north.)

It is Olympic-sized. Three lanes.

“Can he swim?” a guy asks me, as Zac ventures beyond the barrier to the deep end.

“Yes,” I say. “He’s swum in lakes, rivers, sea…”

It takes me a while to realise that the guy is the lifeguard, because he’s actually swimming.

Zac starts doing the boy thing. AKA bombing, jumping, swan dives.

The lifeguard looks surprised, but approving.

This doesn’t happen much here.

Li Jing and her mother show up. Thanks to a confusion over times, we have been early, which is fantastic, because it means I haven’t had to make conversation while naked, but also catastrophic, as they’ve been standing outside waiting for us.

I manufacture a need to pee so that I can get back to the changing room and imbibe the blissful warmth of the communal shower, and sneak another trip into that blessed cloud of steam under the pretext of fetching my camera.

A swimming play date, frankly, is intrinsically awkward, and made more so because we do not really understand what swimming means in Harbin.

Adults do lengths. Kids do lengths.

And, lord knows, you need to do lengths to warm up.

In fact, I manufacture a need to pee so that I can get back to the changing room and imbibe the blissful warmth of the communal shower, and sneak another trip into that blessed cloud of steam under the pretext of fetching my camera.

It gradually becomes clear, as Zac grabs floats, and splashes water, and sits in strange positions on his floats, and I set the kids diving for keys, that Li Jing has never played in water.

They are the only two kids in the pool.

Li Jing quite enjoys it. But is also quite bewildered by it.

And it slowly dawns on me that, for the first time in his life, Zac has met a child who doesn’t know how to play in water. He’s not really used to the idea of kids swimming lengths. And, lest we forget, she’s a girl.

“What happens to the kids who can’t do maths? Or…” I explain dyslexia to her. “Do you HAVE that in China?” “Yes,” she says, flatly. “They go to special school.”

We talk, a little, about the differences between school in England and China. “School in England starts at 9 and ends at 3.30,” I say.

Li Jing’s eyes open wide. She would rather be in school in England than in China, she says.

Later, huddled in the shallow end with my arms crossed across my chest, and wondering why Zac’s not shivering when his lips are blue with cold, I talk to Li Jing’s mother, whose English is rather better than my Chinese (not difficult).

“Does everyone have to do that difficult maths?”

They do. Kids who are good at maths do extra classes to get them ahead, on weekends and after school.

“What happens to the kids who can’t do maths? Or…” I explain dyslexia to her. “Do you HAVE that in China?”

“Yes,” she says, flatly. “They go to special school.”

“Li Jing goes to geometry class on Sundays. Because Zhansheng is good at maths, would he like to come? They can go together…”

We are planning to head to the science museum after lunch.

But Li Jing’s mother has a suggestion. “Li Jing goes to geometry class on Sundays. Because Zhansheng is good at maths, would he like to come? They can go together…”

I bluster. I’m not even going to float that one past Zac until we’re out of hearing range. And, looking at the algebra Zac’s doing, I can’t imagine what extra geometry could possiby entail.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “We can’t. We are going to the science museum.”

And then I feel slightly sick.

I have known, of course, intellectually, that almost all urban Chinese tweens have a full schedule of classes every weekend.

But the penny has just dropped that if Zac is going to have a social life with his peers outside the classroom, it’s going to be in the form of classes.

If he wants to play basketball with his friend who likes basketball, he’ll need to go to his basketball class. If he wants to see Li Jing, he’ll do either swimming, or geometry, or her other two classes on Saturdays.

The science museum is excellent: interactive, educational, architecturally impressive, with fantastic hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages.

The oldest child we see there? Eight.


Picture: simplyswim.com.

15 Comments

  1. laurel says:

    I absolutely love reading your words. I came out of that story with such a beautiful picture of what it must be like to be there. I love how the two of you so easily melt into the surrounding culture, though it is equally as fun for us when you don’t :)

  2. Vanessa says:

    Omg, and I thought it couldn’t get much worse than the intense schooling students have here in Korea. Those poor students are being robbed of their childhoods (and creativity?). So glad that Zac has the freedom to choose if he goes to class or not.

    • Theodora says:

      There are two Koreans in the school, interestingly, one in Zac’s class, and all the adult students in Zac’s CFL are Korean — we’re close to the border here, and there’s a native Korean community big enough to support its own school. Zac *thinks* the Korean is excused maths as he never writes anything down. What are school hours in Korea, btw? Here they’re 7.25 to 5.40/7.30-5.30 at middle school age, 8-5 for primary and upper kindy. Plus weekends when there’s a holiday midweek…

  3. Sarita says:

    I agree, Vanessa, and I think the idea is that they do not grow up to be creative as that is not “productive” enough and would make them question things. How sad…

  4. Heather says:

    I never really gave it much thought until you mentioned it, but I almost never see kids older than 8 out doing anything fun. When I do see them, they are in their uniforms, traveling in a pack to or from school. The joy is being completely sucked out of their lives!

    • Theodora says:

      Do keep an eye out for them, Heather. I’ll see them on Friday evenings. And… there was one playing badminton in the street the other day. I’ve just realised that, even on Qing Ming, flying kites by the river, it was pretty much all under-8s. They should all be out in force for Children’s Day, on 1st June.

  5. Nonplussed says:

    I’m sorry, I’m still sat here contemplating communal long drops. Nothing you wrote after that registered.

    • Theodora says:

      At Ephesus, marble latrine benches were preserved for posterity, where folk would sit side by side. I thought of that as I approached what was, against CONSIDERABLE competition, including but not limited to rural Egyptian “facilities” and ice rinks of frozen urine on the Everest Base Camp trail, the single most unnerving bathroom experience yet. Not least because it wasn’t a very long long drop and the pit was open to the elements and so visible on approach.

      FWIW, I understand Mongolia is worse. May try and emulate my spawn, who can switch everything off, apparently at will, until he reaches somewhere where he’s happy to spend time in the bathroom.

      • Nonplussed says:

        Ah well, sitting side by side in a cosy toga with only a little flank flashing I could live with happily. I had envisaged a line of people squatting over a line of small holes with foot plates either side all in ceramic, not an alfresco pit of sludge, it’s the social aspect while squatting which concerns, that and what to do with the clothes. I suppose one just nods and comments on the weather. I have two notables in the memorable bog front; the charming windblown “snowfall” at Amboseli campsite (it had perfectly sanitary long-drops which no one would use because they were clean yet a tad whiffy, so they all went behind bushes), which consisted of finely shredded used toilet paper which never decayed in the dry environment. I think I learned to breathe through my pores. That and the Ethiopian Creme Brulee’ so widely and evenly spread I only saw it when I’d stood in it. Oddly, petrol stations worldwide tend to be immaculate.

        • Theodora says:

          I may have to edit the “Ethiopian crème brulée” out of your comment as I am currently trying to persuade the boy that Ethiopia is a great idea, whereas his line is “I’ve already been dehydrated in Egypt, thank you very much, I don’t need the same in Ethiopia”.

          Ah, the snowfall. That was a particular charm of remote Greek beaches frequented by Italian families on childhood holidays. At least, my parents always blamed the Italians. Bushes festooned with streamers. Unexpected serpents in the waves. I wonder if they have mastered the sand wipe in the Gobi as they have in the Sinai?

          • Nonplussed says:

            The creme brulee was the exception if memorable. When I’m not in Ethiopia, I’m thinking about being in Ethiopia. It’s a completely potty country unlike any other place on earth but it’s doable. He’ll enjoy the Hyaenas of Harar, you’ll enjoy the cuisine. It’s infinitely nicer than Egypt.

  6. Nonplussed says:

    Mongolia; but a small trowel and a bic lighter to burn the toilet paper.

  7. How crazy!! This is insane… what kind of life do these kids have?? Wow! How lucky are our kids… I seriously feel sorry for those poor kids… Is Zac feeling lonely?

    • Theodora says:

      Not lonely, because he does get the social interaction of playtime and school, although there’s less playtime and social stuff than there would be in other countries. But he does wish there were a social side outside of school, as we both do — one very strong reason why we’re not continuing this experiment.

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