Monday, December 27, 2010

Running With Chihuahuas

Going running for the first time in a new country is always an unpredictable experience. I love heading out the door not knowing where I am going or where I am going to end up, but often a tall Caucasian girl running by herself attracts the wrong kind of attention or invasive curiosity from everyone passing by. Because it is so common for women to run in America, we tend to take the relative anonymity we have while exercising for granted. Despite the obesity problem in America, and the attention that it placed on our expanding girth, many Americans enjoy exercising and playing sports in their free time. There is a growing importance placed on staying fit and eating healthy, and this is reflected in the increasing amount of Americans who are exercising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35% of adults engage regularly in leisure-time physical activity, according to a nationwide survey done in 2009. This statistic was higher than the 2008 estimate of 32%. Yet obesity continues to plague America because exercise can only burn so many calories. Maintaining an all around healthy lifestyle is what Americans need to work on; eating better is crucial. I have always lived in areas in America where I could easily exercise, and in particular run. I took up running regularly because it seemed like the most convenient sport for someone who constantly moves around the world. When the stress of a new environment is wearing me down, I can always lace up my shoes and get lost in the hypnotic rhythm of my sneakers hitting the ground. But often running in a new place isn’t as straight-forward as running along a familiar trail back home.

When I lived in Costa Rica and tried to run along the jungle-enclosed street where my house was, I was stopped by one of the local drug gangs and prohibited from continuing along their road. In Russia I couldn’t stand all of the snide comments and soon resorted to working out in a local gym. In Turkmenistan I ran in a skirt and carried rocks to throw at the overly aggressive dogs in my town. The last three countries in which I lived all offered different challenges when it came to stepping out the door for a run.

In these I received a huge amount of attention from people around me and I tried my best to run in places and at times when I hopefully wouldn’t see anyone. My initial mistakes cautioned me, and taught me what was appropriate in the local culture. I would run in the dark, or run out of town, away from everyone. This didn’t ever completely stop the harassment I received, but it minimized it down to a point when I could get back to focusing on the rhythm of my feet and the sound of my breathing. I believe that the level of harassment I receive while running is in direct correlation to the level of women’s rights in the country. In countries where women are not allowed to exercise in public, or where it is highly frowned upon by the men, I have received the highest level of negative attention. In Turkmenistan there were a few women I saw who defied the social norm and ran in public. This was more common in the city, and in the countryside where I lived, a few women in my town started running in the mornings along the same path I took. When I first saw this young woman out jogging in her pale blue tracksuit, I broke into the biggest smile because I finally had another companion out on the road. Running in Turkmenistan was a lonely business, and when I moved to Taiwan I was excited to lace up my shoes and see what I ran into in Taipei.

If one wakes up early enough in Taiwan one can see groups of people in parks practicing Tai Chi, or speed walking around the local track. As the sun sets, another round of people will go out and exercise at dusk. There are lots of people, young and old, who enjoy walking outside. I see grandparents running up and down the track with toddlers, couples wheeling an elderly grandparent along the bike path, marathoners running in sweat soaked shirts. According to the National Council on Physical Fitness and Sport, “scientific research testifies that proper sport activities are beneficial to physical fitness…and contribute to a higher living standard, social harmony…” and there is a general understanding in Taiwan that physical activity is beneficial to overall health and lifestyle.

In rain or shine people are out and about. When it rains I see people jogging around the track holding an umbrella above them, an answer to my rain predicament question I had not yet considered. When it is sunny I put on less clothing in order to soak up the sun, and the locals wear long sleeve shirts to protect against tanning of any degree.

When I run in Taiwan I still get stared at, but the attention holds much less hostility than in other countries. It is not unheard of to see a woman running, and so I will often receive a glance but not much attention after that. I am and will remain the only Caucasian girl running in the neighborhood where I live, but there are other women who exercise and this is welcome company for me after my negative experience in Turkmenistan. I still feel a little silly in my running outfit and Ipod as I make my way to where I begin running because I stand out so much, but once I get to the running track or the bike path then there seems to be a general understanding of “this space is for exercising, so even that white girl running is normal.”

The bike path runs along the Keelung river embankment as it winds its way from the ocean down toward Taipei. I like to glance down at the water to find the dense schools of fish along the banks, hiding in the deepest parts of the river. There are two cows that are always happily chewing grass along the banks below me, and I occasionally meet the farmer along the bike path as he leads them to graze. Because of being wary of an animal’s reaction to a running human, I tend to slow down around the cows and this always causes the farmer to erupt in laughter and ask me questions I don’t understand.

Sometimes I am more entertained by the parade of dogs, than by the people I see along the way. Taiwanese women are always out walking their miniature dogs. Often the dogs don’t get much of a walk themselves because they are being pushed in a doggie stroller, leaning out the side with their tails wagging and tongues hanging out. I wonder if the women pushing the stroller realize that they have a dog in there and not a child. The other day a woman was weeding some flowers along the path, and her little Chihuahua decided to race over to me and try biting my ankles. I resorted to hopping around in order not to kick the little thing in the face, but the worst part about it was that the dog was wearing a bumblebee costume. And again, the owner responded to my reaction with a shrill of laughter and a slur of Chinese words. The most I could do was shoot the Chihuahua in its bumblebee costume a dirty look, and run away faster than its little legs could carry it.

Now I have a set route that I take when I run, but occasions like the Chihuahua attack still catch me by surprise and prevent my runs from ever being boring. I don’t want to carry around rocks to throw at the dogs like in Turkmenistan, because it is only the tiny ones who consider my ankles nice enough to bite, but I will never again underestimate a four-pound dog in a plush insect costume.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love your entries about running! I ponder these questions a lot and feel so lucky to be in a place where I can exercise in public. And what an indignity- a chihuahua in a bee costume!