Running, Pull-Ups and the Oneness of Humanity

I’ve never been able to endure even the idea of running on a treadmill, and only reluctantly do I join the walkers dutifully circling the track at local Chinese schools and universities. (My mind constantly runs in circles, so I don’t need cardiovascular reenactments.) Even plodding along familiar streets gets me restless, which partly explains why I love to run in new places. On a recent day in Suzhou, when my balky body had granted relatively enthusiastic permission for a run, I soured on what might have been a sweet outing, partly because my responsibilities as a friendly tourist nixed my locomotion. Walking (and stewing and brooding) burned a few calories, but I was glad to get out the next day.

We were, however, most favoured tourists. Our more-than-gracious hosts’ apartment  was across the street from Central Park, quiet and leafy in the modern section of Suzhou, so my live-in travel agent and I laced up and lumbered. Ponds and stone avenues, lawns and impromptu dancersize groups of Chinese women gave way to streetcore tourism as my bride signalled she’d had enough. I went straight down Broadway – actually, it was called Xinggang Lu, which means “Denim is my Destination”* — toward the Pants. More respectfully known as the Gate of the Orient, this huge dual tower looks like a pair of low-rise jeans on a hipless Chinese girl. Central Park punctuates, for a few blocks, Xinggang Lu as its traffic flows toward and away from the TrouserGate, and it was only partly for the sake of avoiding getting lost that I went Pants-ward. Impertinence aside, it’s enormous and visually quite compelling, and I didn’t resist its bowlegged charms.

* It most certainly does not mean that.

The boulevard made for pleasant city running.

This is an earlier stage, as the hips and waistline haven't been added yet, but nearing its final 300+ metres. This is where I was headed.

This is an earlier stage, as the hips and waistline haven’t been added yet, but nearing its final 300+ metres. This is where I was headed.

There was a treed centre walkway, with impressive granite-faced financial and commercial complexes along each side, and it felt a little like Canada: there weren’t many people. As I got closer to the mighty Gate, I could see that these skinny thighs topped thickening calves, which were inserted into enormous square boots. The buildings and streets appeared progressively emptier. For those waiting for the next great global financial collapse – and really, who among us isn’t? – this part of Suzhou looks like a great and glitzy ghost-town in the making. (In fact, there are many areas of super-ambitious building in China that dwarf this place for sheer mania in expansion, for the utter unlikelihood of many people ever living or working there — but at least they built it, folks! They will not always come if you build it, especially if it’s a plaza of greed rather than a field of dreams. (Howdy’s Anti-Corporate Bias: exposed.) However, this particular spot is the planned new centre of a richly historic and important Chinese city, and Starbucks evidently believes in it, though there weren’t many addicts inside.

So I turned around, and by the time I got back to the park, I was ready for warm-down. When we leave China, I’ll miss the readily available parallel (and other) bars for stretching and otherwise pushing muscles without the need for spandex, monthly fees and wall-to-wall mirrors. This combination children’s playground/workout zone was fairly typical: a rubber tiled surface, with colourful (and often puzzling) apparatuses dotted around a perhaps 100 square-metre area. As usual, I stretched as little as I could get away with, did some dips, and was just dropping back to earth after, well, innumerable pull-ups when I noticed the little dude staring at me. I smiled. He turned back to his nainai – it was the usual Chinese skipped-a-generation scene, populated by grandparents and preschoolers – for further encouragement, which she smilingly gave him. I was expecting the usual “HELLO!”

(We pause here for context. I’m a blood uncle to, hmm, 11 back home in Canada, and have numerous friends whose kids honour me with that affectionate name as well. Special students and young friends in China began to call me “J shushu” – I may have encouraged this; I like being an uncle – until finally honesty compelled one to note that “shushu” is for uncles that are about the same age as one’s parents, and (sigh!) that “J bobo” (sounds like bwa bwa) would be more appropriate for my greying temples. And “nainai” above? That’s a guess, as Chinese has specific words for the maternal and paternal grandmothers and grandfathersFamily means the earth to the Chinese, and it’s right at the heart of their languages, just as the Inuit have many words for “snow”. Now that you’ve gotten your breath, we return you to the story.)

The little guy looked at me, paused, then shouted, “Ye ye!” Life is full of passages, and with a couple of 30-something children in Canada, you’d think I’d have been ready; heck, I’d just run 38 whole minutes, and some upper-body muscle fibres had just responded to my call. I was feeling friskyShushu to bobo was one thing, though, and a fairly recent bite of humble middle-aged pie, but yeye means “grandpa”! I hid my surprise well, nodded warmly to the two of them and gave a friendly zaijian as I jogged back to my friends’ place to shower. And before I’d left the park, I started grinning again, forgetting about my little ego spasm at a sudden realization: that grandmother hadn’t referred to me, as many or perhaps most Chinese would, as a wai guo ren (foreign-country person) or as lao wai (something like “old outsider”, but generally meant in a benignly friendly way). She’d referred to me, this sweaty white stranger in a public park, as family, and there’s not a more meaningful thing a Chinese person could say to a youngster to affirm, without any great show, that people are people, wherever they might come from. In China, a place so long isolated, where so many are deeply convinced that they and their country are “so different” than somebody like me from a place like Canada, it was a small and meaningful moment. One earth country, humanity its citizens? I believed in it, just a little better, thanks to that small sweetie’s sweet nainai.

The vibe wasn’t quite so gentle a few nights later in Beijing. It was a different sort of run, another kind of pull-up, but also a taste of global goodness, this time in a hastily wrapped box of basketball. Jon had invited me, for a second time, to “the best run in Beijing”, a precious full-court pickup basketball game, with hardwood and glass boards and pros, OH MY! Nobody called me yeye, though they might have been thinking gramps or papi or qui est ce vieillard?* Jon wasn’t there, and I didn’t remember anybody except Nick and AV, and they were on the opposite side. New dude in the gym. What’s up with that?

* (Who’s the old guy?)

So yeah: not too many passes came my way, and there wasn’t much patience with my shaky ballhandling at the beginning, but I’d accidentally chosen my teammates well. I gradually convinced them, via clued-in defending, a couple of steals and yes, even a pull-up jumpshot or two, that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t get in the way much, and my team kept winning and winning, so while my hands weren’t too trustworthy, my legs kept me going far longer than was absolutely wise or necessary. As for the global family, well, there were a few Canucks at the Canadian International School’s gym that night, and Americans, bien sur, but also represented were Angola, Congo, Jamaica, and Spain, at least. Heck, Eddie might’ve even been from a Chinese background, as Nick’s pretty young girlfriend surely was. The world was there, again.

Final score: I made as many threes as airballs (one), stole the ball nearly as often

Mike Kennedy, the "Ballfather of Beijing", was one guy I played with (and looked way up to). He's nearly my age, but is here with young Canuck guns Tristan and Myck. (photo from

Mike Kennedy, the “Ballfather of Beijing”, was one ex-pro I played with (and looked way up to). He’s nearly my age, but in this 2011 photo had just run with NBA forward Tristan Thompson (left) and Myck Kabongo in Toronto. So fit, still skilled. Fun to run the same wood. (photo from

as I coughed it up, and even pulled from the athletic archives one double-clutch, left-hand-to-right-hand, old-school playground move that fooled a tallish 20-something and got me a few oohhhs of appreciation. (This is not easy to do when hang-time is measured in milliseconds, but it happened, and the shot actually went in, and you can’t prove it didn’t.) Most important stats: zero ankle sprains, no regrets, one too-long but absurdly pleasing run, two pull-up Js, a few friendly handshakes, and another narrow glimpse of what a united world might look like. Scoreboard! Howdy wins! We all need more victories like this.

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