…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
Based on events which occurred in a small town in China in 2005
I first saw the Trainer – and I believe that was his name, as that’s what everyone called him – from a series of oddly-placed photographs on the wall throughout the gym. I say “odd” because here were 8 x 10s of a man in Speedos, naked from the waist up, glistening with oil, ripped (as ripped as a 5’4″ balding Chinese man could be), and doing various bodybuilder type poses. The pictures were encased in a metallic black and purplish frame. This, coupled with the fact that the gym contained exercise equipment you would’ve seen in the 1980s, made the pictures seem like bad gay porn.
Nobody knew what the Trainer’s responsibilities were, but this wasn’t a surprise being China, where hiring people to fill non-positions for 12 hours a day at next to nothing is quite common.
Luckily, I had a very good trainer in Canada who wrote customized exercise programs for me. She was also supportive and pushed me to achieve the next level in my training. From my time with her, I learned that a good trainer should:
1. Develop a training program targeted to meet the goals of the client, while also taking into account their physical restrictions.
2. Provide useful information regarding health, nutrition, and exercise.
3. Track the progress of clients and adjust training programs accordingly.
To the best of my knowledge, this is what the Trainer in our gym did:
1. Plopped a newbie down at a machine, told the bewildered client to use a weight that would give Hulk Hogan a hernia, got distracted by a program on T.V., then chastised the client for not using the equipment properly (ie. Using the leg extension as an arm lift, sitting on the headrest, or passing out).
2. Heckled people who cannot lift a “manly” enough weight. For example, to one guy who resembled Gumby in physique, I overheard the Trainer shouting, MY GOD, MAN! IT’S ONLY 5 KILOS! HIS MOTHER’S ASS! YOU CALL THAT LIFTING WEIGHTS?! HIS MOTHER’S STINKIN’ ASS! I CAN HAVE BING’S POODLE DRAG A HEAVIER LOAD THAN THAT WITH HIS NEUTERED BALLS! HIS MOTHER’S FUCKING ASS!!
3. Watched T.V. or read the newspaper, while people were pinned under 50 kilos of weights. The Trainer also changed the channel to something he liked to watch – usually a cheesy soap opera which allowed him to practice his extensive repertoire of Chinese profanities.
4. Took over a machine and used it for about 10 sets of 20, regardless of who was already using the machine. For example, Gumby would be using the lat pull down machine and the Trainer would cut in and never let Gumby back on the machine, all the while scolding Gumby for not using the machine properly.
5. Confabbed with his exclusive Man Club, whose key members included:
When I first saw Bermuda Shorts he wasn’t wearing Bermuda shorts, but a regular T-shirt emblazoned with either the Smurfs or Che Guevara and regular workout shorts. But when he saw myself and another girl working out, he said to the Trainer, Wow! I didn’t know GIRLS worked out here, too! and switched to pastel plaid Bermuda shorts and freshly-ironed button-down dress shirts with a crease running down he middle.
Expressionless Korean Man:
I’ve never used the term expressionless to describe anyone – absolutely devoid of emotion – whether he was running on the treadmill, sweating profusely, or talking to his buddy, Angry Korean Man, who had a perpetual look of rage and always threw his dumbbells down onto the ground as if they’d just peed on his hands.
The two arrived at the gym together, worked out on the same equipment and smoked at the same time, sometimes even sharing the same cigarette. Once, when both were on the only two stationary bicycles in the gym – one bike had a seat that was loose and kept dropping down the more you sat on it, while the other bike was stuck at the most difficult uphill setting, so that it felt like your thighs would explode after pedaling for about two minutes – Angry Korean Man suddenly got up and kicked his stationary bike so hard that it caused Expressionless Korean Man’s bike seat to immediately drop to its lowest setting. For the next thirty minutes, Expressionless Korean Man continued to pedal with his knees up to his ears, nonchalantly reading a Korean Newspaper and smoking a cigarette.
After their workouts, Angry, Expressionless and Bermuda would drink Chinese rice wine and chain smoke Korean cigarettes with the Trainer, while filling the entire gym with smoke. This – the highlight of the Man Club workouts – would be punctuated by lots of cursing, muscle flexing and one-armed pushups. This was also the only time that I saw Angry Korean Man with something that remotely resembled a smile on his face.
An Exercise in Smoking and Drinking
Smoking and drinking were essential components of the Trainer’s exercise program. Jogging around the gym’s hazy outdoor track, which encircled a putting range, housed a karaoke lounge and was situated next to a soy sauce factory, I wondered whether exercising in China was doing more harm than good. After a few hours of karaoke, men in floppy business suits, reeking of rice wine and cigarettes, would stagger red-faced onto the track, screeching Cantonese love songs like feral cats in heat. Some of the men would try to pick a fight with a rock on the ground that tripped them. They might also argue with each other about which rock it was. This made them perfect candidates for a gym membership they’d never use.
The Trainer would approach these men, offer them a cigarette and a drink served by a female server seductively-dressed in the colors of a particular beer brand. As the men smoked, drank and flirted with the beer goddess, the Trainer extolled the virtues of his fine gym – the unpredictable treadmill that would change speeds mid-stride, so one minute you’d be strolling pleasantly along the Bund in Shanghai and the next trying to outrun its cars while crossing the street; the squeaky and rusty weight machines, whose pulleys had been lubricated so much that anyone who used it looked and smelled as if he had just wrestled a greased pig…and lost. However, the biggest incentive to join the gym wasn’t the facilities nor the beer girl, but the discounted all-you-can-eat buffet before 7pm on weekdays. By the end of the night, high on nicotine and drunk on booze, most men would be new inductees into the Trainer’s Man Club.
Even though I’d been working out at the gym for over six months, I only had four interactions with the Trainer:
1. One day, when there was no power to the treadmill I yelled, Hey, Trainer! Is the power turned on to the treadmill? and he waved apologetically and threw on the main power switch.
2. The first time I wore my LAS VEGAS shorts – the ones with LAS VEGAS printed on the butt in oversized block letters – jogging on the treadmill while facing the window. From the reflection, I could see the trainer walking back and forth behind me, squinting at my ass and trying to make out the words. Even when I was on the ground doing push ups, he was hovering behind me, trying to decipher the writing on my butt, while pretending to talk to a buddy on the cell phone.
3. While listening to music on my portable CD player, I was startled by the Trainer trying to open the Velcro on my CD pouch.
TRAINER: What is this thing?
ME: Uhhh… it’s a portable CD player….
TRAINER: Oh! I thought it was a laser disc!
ME: Oh, no, no, it’s a CD player!
4. A few weeks after our third meeting, the Trainer flagged me down at the gym:
TRAINER: Uh, I have this here… (Takes out a disc.) I thought I could listen to it on your player.
ME: Well…uh, okay. Fine. (I remove my CD and replaced it with his.)
TRAINER: (Puts on the earbuds.) Do you listen like this?
ME: Yeah, sure….
Five minutes later, while on the unpredictable treadmill, running as if I were being chased by a family of incensed pandas, the Trainer waved at me and screamed at the top of his lungs, HIS MOTHERS ASS, THERE IS NO FUCKING SOUND! NO SOUND! I CAN’T HEAR ANYTHING!!
I hit the emergency stop on the treadmill, gave the Trainer a dirty look, and checked the CD player. The Trainer had put in a laser disc.
“Trainer, this is a laser disc. I have a CD player and it can only play CDs. ONLY CDS. And your laser disc is…it’s…it’s…his sweet Jesus mother of God and the holy ghost…T-T-Teresa…TERESA TENG! Trainer, you…YOU like…you listen to Teresa…Teng?!”
Teresa Teng was an iconic Chinese singer from the 1970s till her death in the mid-1990s – as sensational as Michael Jackson – well-known even today for her love songs and very accessible, melodic voice. Always a popular karaoke choice. She was especially revered by my parents’ generation. The story of how my dad searched extensively in Taipei for someone to fix his Teresa Teng VHS collection is legendary. He’d watched the tapes so often that they eventually broke and couldn’t be salvaged. After the last store refused to fix the tapes – one of which was still stuck in the VCR – my dad painstakingly opened up every VHS tape (plus the VCR), trying to smooth the tape over and lovingly glue the broken pieces together with Qtip-applied glue paste. He finally emerged from his study hours later, slightly high on glue paste fumes, eyes brimming with tears. t was another two months before he would let my mom throw the tapes away.
Standing in a so-called gym that was above an all-you-can-eat buffet, listening to the distant wailing of some tone-deaf guy massacring Madonna’s Like a Virgin at the karaoke bar, while gaping at the Teresa Teng LD, I’d never seen anyone so naked as the Trainer was then. It was as if I’d just discovered that the Trainer preferred pygmy goats over petite women. But the Trainer just laughed, took back his LD and told me to keep this little thing between us, then went off for a smoke and a game of cards.
Shortly after the Teresa Teng episode, the Trainer was fired for carousing too much with clients and not doing enough training, but he told everyone that he had bigger fish to fry. A brand-new mega gym in Shenzhen needed his expertise. A distributor of bodybuilding supplements wanted him as its spokesperson. He was entering the world bodybuilding competition in LAS VEGAS. Management replaced him with a younger, highly-motivated trainer, who didn’t smoke nor drink and randomly made people go through a series of ridiculously rigorous exercises so he could tell them how unfit they were and how badly they needed to purchase a personal training package. As an incentive, he threw in a free all-you-can-eat buffet dinner.
The last time I saw him, the Trainer was riding a rusty bicycle through rush hour traffic while wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap and a floppy brown suit with the pant cuffs rolled up. At first I wasn’t sure, but after a car nearly hit him and he threw down his bike and started with the profanities, it couldn’t have been anyone else. Afterwards, as the Trainer pedaled away, he started singing while cursing at the random driver who dared invade his space. Although I couldn’t hear what he was singing, from the expression on his face and the way he moved his head, I’m pretty sure the Trainer was channeling his alter ego, Teresa Teng.