(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.”
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.)