solitary solidarity


This may come as a surprise, but about three times a week I go to work out at a gym. Now, I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this the same Jon that used to throw down cheese doodlez by the bag, the one who would get primed up for his high school basketball games by playing Ready2Rumble on Dreamcast for 3 hours, the same Jon who gained 25 pounds his freshman year of college, not because of booze, but because of, specifically, sour cream n’ onion Lays potato chips? And if I’m not out of shape and overweight, the pendulum swings the other way completely. Those that met me at the Dulles airport last June remember a sickly, lanky, pale Jon (the mothers present immediately wanted to feed me). “Figured as much,” you probably said to yourselves as you hugged me and wondered how long I had left. This year, however, I’m hoping to bound through that security gate a healthy, fit, pale Jon. But working out can be boring, if it’s done alone. Just ask the group of Chinese bros that busted into our gym two weeks ago. Four guys walked in and, without a word, each found his own machine and pounded it. Now, if they had done this alone, who would have been there to witness the measurement of their biceps following the work-out? That’s right: after finishing, they huddled together in the corner, pulled out the tape measurer and actually measured their biceps together. I imagine the measuring tape they used had three measurements on it: puny, useless, and massive. You could see the sinister grins on their faces as their biceps were, in fact, massive.

I usually go with Ryan, Tim, and Cameron. None of us are professionals, exhibited by our first destination upon arriving at the gym this afternoon: the trampoline. We burned calories by trying to “bounce” each other as high as we could. After that and a spry run on the treadmills, we pumped several irons, if you will; then we hit the locker room. Locker rooms always precipitate conversation, for better or for worse, and ours today was about Ryan’s “70 yuan challenge.” Ryan loves solidarity, even more than I do. He has bared with us through seasons 5 and 6 of Lost, even though it was never his idea and he probably wouldn’t really care if we dropped the show, even this close to its end. Last year it was Battlestar Galactica, which is not anywhere near his interests. He told me he once he fashioned his own lightsaber in Middle School, but, after knowing Ryan at age 25, it’s hard to believe he was ever into science fiction (maybe Star Wars is so widely loved, it doesn’t even count as sci-fi). He does these things just to be with us; it’s one of the things I love about Ryan. Just two weeks ago, Ryan convinced me join the girls in a class at the gym called “Body Pump.” This is an ability and desire I might not be blessed with. As Bethany pointed out a few days ago: “Jon, you don’t like doing something you’re not interested in, do you?” Astute, Bethany.

Over the last year and a half, Ryan has been struck by his students’ ability to live on such a tight budget. We estimated that each student probably lives on about 10 yuan each day ($1.50). That includes all three meals. Ryan has decided to give himself this challenge: spend no more than 70 yuan in one week. His purpose is be better stated on his blog, but Ryan essentially intends to build solidarity with his students. He wants to know what it’s like to live like them. Of course, as always, I had my reservations. So, I questioned him in the locker room.

“Have you told any students about this?” I asked Ryan.


“We usually pay for students when we eat with them,” I said, “Are we allowed to treat you to a meal?”

“I thought about that. I don’t know,” Ryan replied.

“I’ll tell you what’s difficult about this experiment,” I said, “you are living the life of a foreigner on a students’ budget. We have team dinner together at restaurants. You just came to work out at the gym, the membership for which you already paid for; something a student couldn’t afford to do.”

“Yeah, I’ve thought about all this earlier today when I was blogging about it. I’m not sure.”

Just like that, without answering all the hypothetical questions and without even telling those he intends to have solidarity with, he started his challenge. While I’m stuck asking too many questions, Ryan tends to shoot first. Today, he bought one bottle of water to drink in the gym (1 yuan), and then we all went to lunch together. Ryan was going to just buy a couple pork burgers on the street for a few Yuan, but Cameron, Tim, and I chose a cheap lunch for all of us: dumplings. We ordered 3 plates of jiao zi (dumplings) with 3 different fillings, each plate containing 20 dumplings. We shared 60 authentic dumplings jam-packed with flavor for 28 Yuan. Split between four people, that’s $1.00 each. I’m still in awe of this, even after a year and a half. But the awesome nature of the price dwindled once we realized how much Ryan had to pay: 7 Yuan. That leaves him with 2 Yuan for dinner.


“没事 (mei shi/no problem), I’ll just have to get creative,” he told us. In the school cafeteria, 2 Yuan can can probably buy Ryan a bowl of rice porridge and a piece of fried bread, but that’s it. One of our students who excells at living a bargain lifestyle is our friend, Vince (pictured left). His stomach is a bottomless pit, yet he finds ways to fill it, usually by finishing the entire table’s leftovers (and by sweating as he does it. Guaranteed: a meal with Vince is a meal with a sweaty Vince). It’s common to let him finish your rice, or even your Coke.

“You should tell Vince about this,” I told Ryan, “he would love to give you advice on how to do this.”

I didn’t finish my 20 oz. Coke during our meal; so, after lunch I left it at the table. As we were leaving, Ryan made a quick cut and ran back inside. He came out with my unfinished Coke in his hand.

“Vince strikes again!” he said, smiling.

It’ll be interesting to see how this challenge affects Ryan, and what he learns about his students as he attempts to increase his solidarity with our Chinese friends, even in such a small way. Certainly, it will be tough. But not as tough as running on treadmills. Sure, it’s easy while you’re coasting, but try recovering from a dropped towel. It immediately turns into a light-speed banana peel you have to dodge under your fight. And one foul step on that thing, just one, and you’re a goner.

4 thoughts on “solitary solidarity

  1. Hope I recognize your new buff self at the airport in June! And now you’ve made me hungry for jiao zi. I miss you; you’re never on skype these days…but I’m glad you’re keeping your blog up so well. Love you!!

  2. I need to confess to your blog and all of its fans that the 70-yuan challenge failed about 4 days in because we had visitors come stay with us for the weekend, which grossly threw off the budget plans–asking people to eat cheaply when they visit seemed like a losing proposition for me. So, in all, I learned taht I don’t live the same life that my students live; but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk together through said life! Jon, nice pecs in the lifting picture–you on ‘roids?

  3. Your head was in the right place, from start to finish.Don’t need the ‘roids… when you can just post pictures of other people with huge muscles and act like you own those muscles.

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