Boiling Dumplings: 13 Things to know if you are a Foreigner Visiting a Swimming Pool in Shanghai

During the one month trip that I recently took to China, I had the experience of swimming in a public swimming pool in Shanghai. After the birth of my son, swimming was one of the one activities that I could do to get back in shape without putting too much stress on my joints. I asked my husband if there was any way to go for a swim during our trip. He let me know that his mother would be happy to watch Alan for a couple of hours but “Pools in China are different.”

Oh, he was so right. Overall, my experience was pretty enjoyable. This may be simply due to the fact that dates with the husband that don’t include watching sequels of Despicable Me on Netflix don’t happen as often as they used to after a baby. However, below are a list of things that would have been nice to know as a foreigner visiting a swimming pool in China. .

  1. There are many, many people. Boiling dumplings is a phrase commonly used to describe the swimming pool situation in China. Unless you are loaded and are a member of a private health club, you will experience a swimming pool filled with people. At the pool we visited, one man managed to do the breast stroke entirely on his side. Another man found his way around the masses by swimming under the other swimmers.
  2. Lane dividers are not a guarantee. In the pool my husband and I visited, there were no lane dividers. Swimmers did not swim in the counterclockwise pattern in lanes like I was accustomed to in the United States. Despite the lack of lanes, there was a semblance of order. You simply attempted to swim in a straight line backwards and forwards. Everyone generally swam in the same direction (save one older man who completely disregarded convention and swam in a circle around the entire pool).
  3. Almost everyone does the breast stroke. The reason for this is obvious- to avoid a painful collision. The back stroke is a no-no because you can see nothing. The freestyle is o.k. if you are willing to majorly sacrifice form in order to look in front of you. If you attempt to do the butterfly stroke, o.k.- just be prepared for some dirty looks.
  4. You will get hit if you go swimming frequently enough. However, you will get hit less often than you may think. It will also not hurt very much because no one is swimming all that fast
  5. Don’t bring your detailed swim plan with many different drills and timed exercises. Your goal is simply to get in a workout. You will need to stop frequently to make sure you will not hit anyone. You may need to move out of the way mid swim. Be prepared to be flexible.
  6. You must wear a swim cap. This is for hygiene purposes. A bunch of hair in the pool filters is pretty gross. I always wear one anyway to avoid hair getting in my face. I actually think this rule makes sense.
  7. If you forget your goggles, forget about swimming (or buy an expensive pair from the swim shop). These pools are super chlorinated because of all of the people. I remember losing my goggles mid lap and I just treaded water like an idiot for a second because of the stinging in my eyes. Eye drops are often provided at the front counter.
  8. Almost all of the men wear speedos. In fact, I remember my husband being the only man wearing swim trunks. Unlike the swim cap situation, this is a cultural difference I have no explanation for.
  9. More men than women are in the deep end swimming laps. Many Chinese women appear to prefer to stay in the shallow end.
  10. Drop the towel, foreigner- towels, sandals, and any personal items except for swimwear are not allowed and must be left in the locker. You will be given a key that will be worn on a wrist band while you swim. This is to avoid a bunch of clutter in an already crowded pool. If any contraband item makes it into the swimming area, a laser beam light will be pointed at you and you will be told to put your items away. I one time brought my towel and learned this lesson the hard way.
  11. The pool is actually pretty safe. You would think that there is no way that the life guards would not be attentive with all of the people they have to watch over. I did not find this to be the case at all. My contraband towel was noticed within seconds.
  12. You are supposed to take a shower before you swim. I did not find this rule strictly enforced.
  13. People may look at you if you are a foreigner. I find this to be the case anyway when I am out with my Chinese husband in Shanghai. Chinese and American marriages are not an extremely common sight here. The pool is no different. One woman asked if my husband was my swim coach.

Cassie Hua

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