Some of you may have read this story already. But it is a condensed version that got me 3rd place in the WorldTeach journal contest. So…check it out:
“Oh, by the way, the race is tomorrow at three,” explains my teaching liaison, Richard. We are heading out for duck neck, cabbage, small fried fish, rice, and beers with some of our basketball buddies—the perfect pre-race meal. Tomorrow is the “First Annual Teacher’s Race” in celebration of China’s National Day.
Having run cross country and track in university up until a few months earlier, I expect this to be an easy win for me and think very little of the poor nutritional value added by this evening’s forthcoming meal. I eat and drink, but I feel little more than a slight buzz since the alcohol content of beer in China is rarely over 2.5%/volume.
I go to sleep at 10:00 PM and wake up at 8:00AM. I feel well rested, and a sense of nervousness is approaching. The race is a foot race (approximately 6,000 meters) with all the teachers, staff, and school leaders. There will be about 300 people, and although the Chinese very rarely run, or exercise at all for that matter, I fear that there will be that one thirty-year-old who has been secretly training for this specific event. For this reason, I sweat out the four and a half hours leading up to race time.
At 2:30 PM, Richard, some of his friends, and I depart for the race. It is perfect running weather. Approximately sixty degrees Fahrenheit, low wind levels, and cloudy; I couldn’t be happier. A light drizzle ensues, and I think that this couldn’t be setting itself up any more perfectly. Running in the rain is fun; racing in the rain is extraordinarily pleasurable. I have always mused that this is because when it’s raining, the pressure is off—there is always the excuse of running poorly because of the weather. A major cop-out, of course, but still…it has always been a way for me to ease my inevitable race anxiety.
We approach the area of the race start, and I begin to feel foolish for ever having worried. I notice the plethora of sandals, jeans, khakis, button-down shirts, collared shirts, and anything else that the average person would sport to a night out on the town…or to teach, since most of the teachers had just finished their Sunday lessons (yes, they teach on Sundays). I have arrived wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt just to warm-up in, and the second I reveal my Nike running shorts, white racing jersey, and matching white headband, an abundance of “Oooohhsss” and “Aaaahhhhs” meet my ears. I pin my tan canvas racing number onto my singlet and finish doing some strides and other warm-up exercises. Everyone else huddles in lanes separating different ages groups as if they are about to embark on nothing more than a leisurely walk through the park.
Don’t they understand this is a race? Why don’t they want to win? Maybe they just don’t know how to warm-up, I wonder. All eyes are on me as I bounce up and down and shake out my legs. Richard approaches me and says, “The most important thing is just to participate.” That may make sense to them, but in my fifteen years of racing experience, I have learned that racing is about winning!
But this race is designed just to get the teachers to do some physical activity. Each teacher who participates receives 300 Yuan (approximately 44 US dollars) which is a relatively high amount of money. In America, we pay to run races; but here, we get paid? I can get used to that. Usually though, if you win a race in America, you receive a trophy, medal, plaque, money, gift certificate or some sort of prize much more significant than what everyone else gets. But here, the winner would only receive an additional 100 Yuan (approx. 15 dollars)—a very small bonus prize. So yes, the importance was merely on participation.
And that is one of the things that I am coming to understand about China. It is unusual—of course. But, there are some great surprises. Running a race and making money? I like that. Watching everyone cheer for me as if I am an Olympian for running three minutes slower than in one of my average races…well, come on, who wouldn’t want that? Winning by four minutes and fifty-one seconds after enduring pre-race stress…well, that’s just ridiculous.
The bottom line is: China is full of surprises. Life in every country is different. And life in China is…well, it’s China. Never had I imagined running a race next to a person in flip flops. But now, how can I go back to my homeland where paying a registration fee to run a race is the norm? Now, that idea seems pretty foreign to me.