Gym’n It Around the World

What did the gym cultures of the USA, Japan, India, Nepal, and Vietnam say to me?

Somerdale, NJ: This is the basis for my comparison. Beyond the ubiquitous douche bags and baguettes, who are a staple of the American diet, the gyms in the USA are hygienic, high tech, and friendly. You wash your own machine, but many people forget-n- forgiven.  They have advertising, promotions, bring-a-friend policies, and a pro-shop. Some of them even have baby-sitting and juice bars. Water is free and showers come stock. Commercial gyms are the spitting image of American vanity, excess, and efficiency. Frequented by both sexes without much stigma about sex and behavior.

Yonago, Japan | The Japanese gyms, much like Japan itself, are expensive and communal. There are seemingly ludicrous stipulations when signing up for a membership. Membership contracts are dense, uncompromising compacts that commit the participant to the mercy of the business. In your contract you often have to specify the days of the week, time of the day, and area of the gym that you will use. You must meticulously purify your machine after use. The individual equipment is not the main event at a Japanese gym. Rather the group classes are the centerpiece. A devotee of the sacred American ritual of “my workout” might need a bit of converting before they are ready to embrace the spirituality of “our workout”. In all other senses Japanese gyms are excellent.

Bangalore, India| The gyms in Bangalore are a must see. The gyms are authentic or modeled western franchises. The contract can and must be bargained for. Once you have your membership then you can go free range. Unlike America and Japan where you get some sort of fancy beeping ID card to flash at your friends and whisk around when you enter, in Bangalore you just write your name on a piece of paper and you’re in. (as if they check signatures)

Kudumbasree-GymThe first thing that is unique about the Indian gym is that sad, dry-faced, slum dwelling women in tattered saris are paid pennies to wipe the machines after the Nike geared-out middle class gym-goers take a big sweat all over the machines. This is prevalent across all sectors of the service economy. The drinking water is from a purified water cooler, but you use non-disposable cups that the ladies clean. There are power outages throughout the day, which don’t faze anyone. They blare the kind of music that should never leave the strip club, and you’d even feel guilty humming. People are literally stepping over each other to get to the equipment. I remember that while doing crunches a man, holding heavy dumbbells, courteously waited for my back to go down before he quickly stepped over my chest. Contracts are loose, transferable, and easy to impersonate. The place is crowded and pushy.
Women attend, but are not really welcomed into the weights area. They are relegated to the cardio and a few trainers work with them, but their work out space is not always respected…. To be frank, it could be said that there is little concept of “my space” in Indian public life.

197-24-nepal-body-buildersKathmandu, Nepal | The gym doesn’t have much electricity. The equipment is low tech. It is not crowded at all. There is no water or showers. There are few cardio machines and plenty of free weights. Both men and women attend. It is not an overly masculine environment, and women used all parts of the gym. That said I never saw more than six people in there at one time. It was more relaxed and respectful than in Bangalore.The contract was cheap, but had an old world twist. I needed to give them a physical photo of myself. I resisted doing this for a month because I was too lazy. I finally did, when the manager yelled at the staff to hunt me down, which they were too lazy to do too. There are paid showers, however one has to be extremely careful about using water in  Nepal. I used it once, only to wash my face, and I screamed because my face smelled like sewage for five blurry minutes until I could run to work and wash it off in a proper sink.

newworld-gymDistrict One, HCM | The first gym is an elite businessmen’s club. There was far more thought and taste put into designing the sauna than the lay out of the machines. A visit requires a tour where the staff tells you a bunch of useless information, that you can proudly tell your colleagues when you flash your membership card at your next business function. The patrons are there for the informal socializing and exciting classes. Although the equipment is nice, the floor is carpeted, scented, and air-conditioned, it isn’t a place for bodybuilding. The plush pillowed sofas, jazz music, and cocktail bar are the main event.  This gym is attended by professional men and women– it looks completely welcoming, hygienic, and relaxing.  This gym is important because it shows the wealth gap, the introduction of the gym as a social/business center, and the upper class taste for luxury.

It’s pretty important to note that this gym is comfortable and safe for women. The next gym is not so much so. Outside of the OECD, I’m keenly aware of whether or not women attend. Women are an indication of hygiene, comfort, and respectable business. Gyms that don’t have women are completely different social experiences than one’s that do.  The next gym is a ladyless antithesis of the first

gym_in_vietnamDistrict Binh Tan, HCM | My current gym is a three walled cement room lined with mirrors.  No air conditioning and no shirts. That’s right, like an underground gay nightclub the men don’t wear shirts. To be honest, this is every gym goers dream to not wear a shirt, but in the company of others it takes some adjusting. The gym plays 1970’s cowboy broken heart songs– and loud. Its calming to hear “How Deep is Your Love” by the Beegees while you sweat in a room with a bunch of  Vietnamese men. Some of them smoke while working out. Sometimes they sit down and drink coffee and have a cigarette before getting back up to lift a few more weights. They drink fresh squeezed sugar cane juice instead of RedBull or other sub-clinical workout drinks that run under the fitness gray market.

Asian Shirtless BuddiesEveryone tells me that the gyms in Vietnam are a part of the gay sub-culture and that I should be careful. I have a policy not to listen to homophobia or any other form of general blah-blah. That said men at this gym are more friend-forward than in the other countries.  I think they are just curious about me, but I have been touched on the shoulder and hands while they help me “correct my form”. I decided that if it goes too far, I will make my angry face. A face I haven’t made in the last two years. Until now and onward most cultural mismatches are best dealt with by smiling and walking away. I’m not going to let friendliness deter me from attending, but I’m just going to be a bit more territorial.  This is the 2nd gym where I felt a sense of territorialism from the guys (Vietnam and America).  On the sense of territory, a few of the super gym-rat types give me “side-eye / 横目”. A kind of spatial awareness / social measuring. Where you look at someone with the side of your eye to vaguely give them the “ I see you”. Its like the complete oppose of flirting glances. However, I think that partly they are curious why a French guy is in a gym at the edge of the city.

In conclusion, the best gym for me outside of the US was in Nepal. The staff was one lonely high school girl who had the same musical taste as me, the people there spoke English and the policy was really loose about everything. It was not sexist and the people were kind. The played Bollywood music and the staff-girl talked to me a lot. She told me about her husband and how she didn’t want to get married but had to. I always had a great time there.

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