China’s cold-weather swimmers are suffering here in Chengdu.
All winter, they’ve been enjoying frigid water temperatures of 40 to 55 degrees Farenhieght. Every day, from October to April, I’ve watched these winter swimming friends of mine in the outdoor, unheated 50-meter pool at Meng Zhui Wan Park. While I headed for the comfortable indoor natatorium, they bravely persevered in their Alaskan wilderness. Our unusually cold temperatures had snow falling as they jogged around the deck. They bared to the elements all but what their thin, lycra suits covered. Hitting the water, they’d let out a sharp, triumphant “Ho!” before wildly swinging their arms for that first lap warm-up.
I was asked again and again to join them but cold is definitely not my thing.
Then May 1st came.
The 3 outdoor 50 meter pools at Meng Zhui Wan Park officially opened to the public. Temperatures rose to the high 50s, then 60s, 70s and now today’s sizzling 93. The indoor pool is practically deserted, the outdoor pools crowded with young adults trying to cool off in this heat. Meanwhile, the winter swimming club members have disbanded, forced out of their wintry home by the coming of summer.
Schools have not yet dismissed in China so come mid-July, I expect Meng Zhui Wan will be filled with kids either taking group swimming lessons in the morning or playing about in the afternoon. Yet another month-and-a-half to go is not dampening their water spirits. With this heatwave, they’re now spending their 2 ½ hour noontime siesta (China’s xiuxi) not at home, napping or finishing up homework for afternoon classes, but at the pool.
Today, their moms and dads brought them over for a quick 12:30 to 2 p.m. dip before hustling them off by 2:30 to school again.
While the kids frolicked, the parents sat on the deck under umbrella-sheltered tables, drank tea and chatted After seeing the pools empty and forlorn for so long, watching our xiao pengyou (little friends) playing about so joyfully brought a smile to all of us passing by.
I’ve been using the outdoor pool now for about a month without any difficulty in completing a full 2-hour work-out, but today was impossible. People were everywhere: floating in their tubes, splashing their neighbors, racing against their friends. I had to call it quits within an hour.
“You have to come earlier,” the women’s locker room attendants told me.
“Jiushi (Yes)!” I agreed in Sichuan dialect.
“10 to 11 a.m. is a good time. No one’s here but the serious swimmers.”
I really have sympathy for these four ladies. They’re in the locker room every day, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., taking care of people’s things and cleaning. For 7 days a week, 12 hours each day, they work for a measly 35 yuan ($5) a day or 1,050 yuan a month ($150). A lot of the time, there’s nothing much for the four of them to do so they sleep on the hard wooden benches that line the walls.
Not a great job, but if you only have a junior high or high school education, as is theirs, they are fairly lucky to have a steady income at all. At least the environment is clean, the work not taxing and the company pleasant. As far as jobs go in China, they could have done much worse.
Although I go to Meng Zhui Wan Park to swim, there are plenty of others who don’t. The park itself is composed of two parts: One is an amusement park full of carnival rides; the other is the swimming pool area with shaded benches, a little tea house, a veranda for club meetings and tiled open spaces for performing exercises. Early morning, there are groups of elderly doing their slow-movement taiqi, some martial arts individuals and other seniors doing stretching exercises. There are fan dancing and drumming clubs, accordion gatherers, choirs singing under the veranda, and even a few players of the erhu (the two-stringed Chinese fiddle). On the weekends, I’ve also seen children practicing their recorders or traditional Chinese flutes while their parents looked on.
Now that our warm weather has arrived, I am able to sit outside of the pool after swimming and enjoy the park’s pleasant surroundings. Today, I sat under the veranda and enjoyed a 3 yuan (40 cent) glass of tea. I talked to some of the retired ladies who were about to begin their Chinese dance practice. I met a singer whose choir was rehearsing “We Are Chinese” for their upcoming concert.
This is why many overseas’ visitors enjoy China so much. There’s a lot going on, no matter where you might be — a temple, a mahjong parlor, a roadside tea house, a bustling restaurant, a crammed night market or, as in my case, the Meng Zhui Wan swimming pool.
From Chengdu, wishing you all a cool, breezy day and “Ping An” (peace)