Stupid lǎowài thinks he wants to go dōngyǒng in the Wèijīn Hé!

(This time last winter, when my Chinese was even worse, I wrote about this funny experience with Mr. Lù but for some reason it never got posted. Here it is almost exactly a year later, but still funny. I like it ’cause it shows how these guys are sometimes.)

The first interview I wrote up was on Mr. Lù, the neighbourhood bike repairman, and I’m glad I didn’t delete this sentence: “…and he’s not too stiff to have a little fun at the foreigner‘s expense.” It’s so true, as I am continually finding out.

Old men do polar bear swims here – they call it dōngyǒng (冬泳). It’s a health thing. One day on the way in I noticed that someone had carved a huge rectangle in the ice on the canal (Tianjin’s 卫津河), big enough for three men to tread water in. The ice fishermen usually only make little holes about a foot across. Just for fun I asked Mr. Lù, who was at his corner like usual, who’s been swimming in the canal. He immediately replied with a straight face, “Me.” I was like, “What? Really?” (I’ve come to recognize this immediate, straight-faced reply in other questionable situations involving the canal as well.)

Mr. Lù: “Of course. Me and a couple friends go every morning. Lots of people do this; it’s called dōngyǒng.”

Me:Really?

Mr. Lù: “Sure!”

Me: “When are you going next?”

Mr. Lù: “Tomorrow morning. You can meet us at 7am and have a look.”

I knew for a fact people did this at the Water Park where there’s a lake, but I’d never seen anyone swim in the canal. Still, I was all set to go have a look. I went to do some homework, and by the time I’d returned I’d decided I was going to join them — how could pass up an opportunity like that? Mr. Lù said sure, but tried to dissuade me, “First we exercise, then go in.”

Me: “How long do we swim?”

Mr. Lù: “Half and hour.”

Me: “30 minutes?!”

Mr. Lù: “Of course.”

Me: “I can maybe do half a minute!”

Mr. Lù: “Oh, we swim for half an hour.”

At this point Mr. Sòng, who’d discovered what was going on while I was away doing homework, stepped in. They had a conversation I couldn’t follow, and the end result was that Mr. Lù said Mr. Sòng wouldn’t let him let me swim in the river. I thought it was because they thought I’m a foreigner and I haven’t been working myself up to this all year long like the old guys in the water park lake.

It turns out, we discovered weeks later when we went to Mr. Sòng’s and Mrs. Li’s for lunch, that Mr. Lù was making the whole thing up just to have a little fun with the foreigner! I still don’t know why they bothered to carve such a huge hole in the ice, but it had nothing to do with polar bear swims.

(I got the exact same response from Mr. Lù this winter when I asked him when the ice was safe enough to walk on. He replied immediately, “Right now, let’s go!” just like he had last winter when I asked the same question, only that time I believed him.)

4 thoughts on “Stupid lǎowài thinks he wants to go dōngyǒng in the Wèijīn Hé!”

  1. Yick! No way in hell you’d persuade me to swim in that canal! Unless, of course, it’s a gazillion times cleaner than when I worked in Tianjin. Although I did use that canal to introduce a young Englishman to the dubious pleasure of walking on the ice. He was terrified at first, but I even managed to get on his bike and cycle along the ice. Fun and games, but I’m really glad the ice was thick enough and we didn’t fall in any ice-fishing holes.

  2. Ha, well at first I figured since it’s so cold then maybe it’d be safer… but apparently that’s not a safe assumption. What years were you here? People have said that several years ago the canal was apparently super nasty, and that now it’s much improved.

  3. According to my very dodgy calculations I was in Tianjin in the academic year of 05-06. I was told at the time that the canals used to be much worse. I was even told of people (who I never met) who had seen human bodies floating in the canals. I chose to work with what I had seen and compare it with my experience: Taiyuan was worse, much worse, as in when I was in Taiyuan I actually had to throw a rock onto the lack in Yingze Park to see if it was frozen or not, the water was quite literally that filthy, and I seriously doubted the stories of bodies in the canals of Tianjin. Having said that, I still would not have swum in the canals in Tianjin. See, I was born almost literally within spitting distance of the South Pacific (as was a friend and colleague of mine in Tianjin, ‘cept he was from a valley called Wainuiomata, bit further inland from where I’m from) and spent all but a year of my life before China equally close to said ocean, and so I have known since my youngest days what water is supposed to look like.

    Sorry, mate. I’ve seen parts of coastal China where I’d happily swim- Dalian and Hong Kong’s outer islands- but Tianjin is not one of them.

    I suspect 80% of Tianjin’s problem is that it’s naturally a coastal swamp, and therefore was never a good place for human habitation, let alone swimming.

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