Daily Anecdote: Those Chinese Quads

If it could be said that every people, every culture, has its own distinctive physical posture then the squat would be the Chinese stance. Over my summer travels I observed three cultures closely – French, American, and Chinese – and came to generalize that that the Chinese squat, the French lie, and the Americans walk, or, rather, the Americans run.

In the early summer, all around France I saw the “national posture” – the lounge, or the laying about. Wherever I looked there were insouciant French people lying on their many grassy lawns partaking in their endless picnics. Or they were prostrate on any permitting architecture – under an impressive arch, beside a refreshing fountain, atop an ancient slab of stone, reading, smoking, or, quite often, making out. Even the legions of white-collar office workers seemed to find time to lounge around during their lunch hour when they would grab a gourmet sandwich at Paul, walk to the Tuileries or Luxembourg gardens, and pull up a green lounge chair provided for by their magnificent Socialist state.

By late summer I was in the US and was constantly reminded of the favored American stance – the brisk walk or the full on run. New Yorkers bumped me left and right as I tried to cross intersections at the leisurely gait I had acquired in France. Busy people pounding the pavement with their purposeful steps bustled everywhere. Even in their free time the Americans like to step it up – the preferred leisure activity seems to be a jog through the neighborhood. Outside of New York, in retirement towns on the Northeast, I saw much of the same, albeit at a more moderate pace. It may be true that in the sedentary South or in the Midwest people are more likely to be driving than to be running anywhere, but even so I think a generally upright posture is the norm.

Fall rolled around and I was back in China, peering out of taxi windows at groups of men squatting on the sidewalks, stepping around hoards of squatters at the train stations, and navigating the occasional squat-style toilet. None of this would’ve raised my eyebrows before, but this time I had my husband with me and he was continuously remarking on what strong quadriceps the Chinese must have to be able to squat all day long.

I thought about it and realized that there was some truth to what he said. Whether we Chinese are born with stronger, more squat-friendly quads or if we simply build them up from squatting at an early age (the more likely explanation) it did seem that foreigners don’t manage this posture as well as the locals. Many times my husband has tried my national posture in his joking effort to become a “good Chinese man,” but he either tips over from not balancing his weight evenly or his squat just looks somehow WRONG.

I also remember an instance ten years ago when a friend brought his study abroad host mother from San Diego to Beijing on holiday and we had to drive home every time the old lady needed to use the toilet. She couldn’t squat for peanuts. One time, we were out at lunch far from home and the only way she could use the restaurant toilet was if my friend and I each held one of her hands and lowered her into a tentative squat, pulling all the while so she wouldn’t tip over into a pile of unpleasantness behind her. That was quite an experience and I’m glad to report that in the intervening decade most public establishments in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai have converted their toilets to the Western commode.

Just how did the squat become the favorable idle stance for Chinese then? A social anthropologist might have a good answer, but I’ll add my two cents here. It may have something to do with our more recent agrarian past and the generally confined spaces we face. Take an example here, an American farmer is out on his field and wants to spend some time surveying his kingdom and see that nothing is amiss. He can stand around and when he gets tired he’s going to sit down on the wide variety of sitting implements available to him — his tractor, his chairs, or even the tops of nicely packaged sacks of industrial farming supplies. Now, if a Chinese farmer wants to do the same thing he’s strapped for options out on the field. Is he going to sit on his manual hoe and plow? On the dirt? Or maybe on some fresh fertilizer? Note quite. He’s probably going to squat as a way of resting his feet (once you get used to squatting it actually IS less tiring than standing) and keeping most of his clothing.

While a large proportion of Chinese still farm, not ALL of us do it. So how do we explain the popularity of the squat elsewhere? Well, a lack of clean sitting spaces seems to be a pervasive problem in a generally poor country. An average American kitchen has a relative abundance of counter space, professional stoves, and various sitting devices. But a regular Chinese mom cooks in a cramped space tucked into the corner of her abode. Never have I seen a chair in a Chinese kitchen and not infrequently do people cook off makeshift gas or coal burners set on the floor. Here, the squat is actually a comfortable position of a suitable height as you stir your fry.

I have creative license here on my blog and it’s possible that I just dreamed up a far-fetched socioeconomic explanation for a “national posture.” It would be interesting to see in another fifty years when China’s GDP is hopefully much higher than it is today whether people will have forgotten how to use their quads.

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