Story Time | Naked Americans, “Treats”, and Acceptance in China

Three years ago around this time, I was living in China and embarked on my first 24 hour train ride with my friend “Sky” to experience an authentic Chinese Spring Festival. It would be safe to say that I did not have the faintest idea of what those weeks would hold! I miss China and my wonderful friends there-how different my life would be if I never had met each of you. So for today, it’s story time. (And yes…this did actually happen).

“Where are we going?” I ask Sky in English, knowing her Aunt couldn’t understand.

“To take a shower.”

“But…” I paused. “Why do we have to walk across town to take one?” I knew she might think I was being difficult, but I felt it was a perfectly normal question. Culturally speaking, I already felt stretched (understatement) after the 23 hour train ride I just endured.

“There is no hot water, so my aunt will treat us to a shower outside.” she replied and hastily took off into the next room to grab her towel.

The word “treat” brought back memories of eating congealed pig’s blood (imagine that coming up in the dictionary) and chicken feet with my friend’s mom at a 5 star hotel. I had become weary of that word. I imagined myself in the town square naked, suds coming off my head, singing while pedestrians sold tickets to watch the ‘showering foreigner’.

We weaved our way around the street vendors, people, and honking taxis following Sky’s aunt and her nine-year old cousin. They made small talk about how big & ugly my shoes were (Uggs anyone?) and how the price of bananas had dropped to an all-time low in Kunming (a city I later discovered had the cheapest bananas in all of China). Who knew?

We arrived at a bathhouse of sorts that appeared relatively clean and no naked people greeted us at the door, which helped me breath. A little. I listened closely to Sky’s aunt as she talked with the girl at the reception desk, but could not discern an answer to my biggest question: would I have undress in front of hundreds of Chinese people who already stare at me when I’m fully clothed? Plus, let’s be honest, I hadn’t shaved my legs in weeks.

Sky kept telling me how nice it was of her aunt to “take us here” and “receive us so well” and what “a treat” it was. I don’t want any treats. The woman behind the reception desk led us down some stairs to a small locker room. Sky’s aunt told us to undress, put our clothes in the locker assigned to us, and go into the shower area.

I took off my thick fleece, and then went for my earrings wishing I wore more jewelry to delay the process. Could I really do this? Please God, if you were ever going to step in-now is the time. The three women stood naked waiting for me. I turned around and took all my clothes off and stuffed them in the locker.

We walked through the glass door into the shower area. No turning back.

It was packed with naked bodies; a group of women huddled in the sauna, some in the hot tub in the middle of the room, and others lathered up near the spigots. And then, they all stopped. And whispered. And stared. And thought about how huge my thighs were (I was sure of it).

God, please turn me into an Asian. You don’t even have to make me smart…promise. I just need the eyes & tiny frame. A hush fell over the room and for a moment I considered breaking into song or dance to ease the tension. We joined several other women in the sauna and discussed life in America and my perspective of China as if we were sitting in a living room drinking tea.

I excused myself and headed to the far wall to escape the eyes glancing in my direction. I started scrubbing my hair with my non-existent shampoo & scanned the room for a clock. How long have I been in here?  Then, a pregnant woman looking like she might have the baby right there on the floor of the shower room, addressed me.

“Ni keyi bang wo xi ma? Wo bu hui,” She said and pointed to her back. She wanted me to scrub her back. I stared at her with a I’m-white-and-don’t-understand-you-look, but she was on to me. She heard me talking to Sky and her aunt the the sauna.  I grabbed the pink wadded up rag and took a deep breath.

I scrubbed her back wishing I had red sparkly heels to tap together. I’d even take a shack in Kansas over standing naked (did I mention I was naked?) in front of all those women! Chinese communalism was great for society, but not when it came to showers. In ‘Merica, we take showers solo.

Slowly-ever so slowly-everyone lost interest & stopped starring. I chit-chatted with my new friend, told her to eat lots of eggs and “walk slowly”.  I reflected.  A Chinese woman addressed me like she would have any Chinese stranger that was standing next to her and asked for help. She didn’t judge me for my different skin, round eyes, and improper tones. And she didn’t seem to care that my thighs were twice the size of hers-she still wanted me to scrub her back.

I was accepted.

Have you ever lived in a culture different from your own? What challenges did you face?

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22 Responses to “Story Time | Naked Americans, “Treats”, and Acceptance in China”
  1. Danelle says:

    oh my, Ruthie. I can’t imagine the degree of uncomfortable-ness you felt scrubbing that pregnant Asian woman’s back. What a unique way of feeling “accepted”. I’m sure you learned so so much living in China and I love to hear your stories! :) P.S. one of my best friends, Jessica Shoe, is a school teacher in Kunming and she has reported eating lots of cheap produce!

  2. Michael says:

    I love it! One of the hardest parts for me was gettin outside of my comfort zone in speaking and in feeling really really out of place. You make me laugh everyday!

  3. jennyb says:

    Ruthie…I have been reading for a couple of months now & I get a good laugh out of your blogs every time. I am on staff with a missions organization & know full well what it feels like to walk in to random awkward cultural situations…too many to count really. Thanks for sharing, reminding me of some of my own stories from the world & for your openness about your hopes & dreams.

    • Ruthie D. says:

      Hi Jenny! Glad to hear you’re reading. Where are you living? I suggest starting a blog or even a journal, because if you don’t write down your stories-you will forget!

  4. I could just envision this experience and I smiled as you related it quite tactfully. :) What made it more real for me is the fact that my sister shared a similar incident as they traveled to China years ago for their sweet daughters.

    How blessed we are, Ruthie, to have things in this country that so many often take for granted.

    What a wonderful post!

  5. Great story, Ruthie! Many years ago, I spent a summer in Venezuela on a mission trip. (Lots of great stories on the mission field, for sure). The art day I was there, I was robbed at gun point. I can’t explain in words how loved I felt at the police station. Funny how the most awkward or scary situations are the ones that God seems to use the most!

  6. Edward says:

    When I was in Uganda, I literally showered outside whenever it rained hard enough to wash soap suds off. It being a “rain forest,” this usually happens at least once a day. I at least had a modest picket fence enclosure to (sort of) shield me from prying eyes. The kids were ever curious about this yellow “mzungu.”

    • Ruthie D. says:

      I love it! Natalie told me you lived in South Africa when you were younger. I’d love to hear more stories. S. Africa is next on my list of countries to visit!

      • Edward says:

        Niice, Kruger National Park is a must! I loved growing up there as a kid. Next to nothing on TV meant playing outdoors, fishing, and harassing poor lizards with our slingshots for amusement.

  7. Scotty says:

    In Nairobi, most “toilets” are in fact a hole in the ground. Some situations were better than others. One bathroom was famous with our group of interns for being 1) extremely difficult (low to the ground) and 2) putrid, that would be the nice way to say it. We would see the stalls, but the secretary of the building would always quickly rush to hand us the key to the “mzungu” toilet-inclusive bathroom. After eight weeks, the secretary looked at me without moving at all. She had finally forgotten that I was a mzungu, and I got to use the other restroom (and I didn’t even hurt myself!). That’s a rite of passage.

  8. lauragoes says:

    I loved your story. I had a similar experience a few years ago in Japan, although I think your story tops mine, as I didn’t have to scrub any Japanese women’s backs. Oh, the bathhouses in Asia!

    Here is my blog post that I wrote after the experience:

  9. Loved your story, and would love to see many more like that…..Is that just some parts of China that have holes in the ground ? They make most all the toilets for this country,and you mean they don’t use them there ??? Wow ! so hard to believe that people live like that…..

  10. I lived in Mexico and Honduras as a kid, and I spent a summer in China a few years ago. To be honest, as a Third Culture Kid, my biggest cultural challenges have been here in the United States. What do you mean when you say I can flush the paper or drink water from the sink? You mean you don’t go to church and see men and women separated? Why can’t we have fireworks on Christmas Eve, too? It’s not okay to just cross the street wherever you are, dodging cars and donkeys and Mack trucks as you go? :)

    I do remember, though, being in China and desperately wanting to communicate more clearly than my few phrases would allow. So many times, I found myself inadvertently speaking Spanish to the Chinese. Ha!

    I discovered your blog today via Boundless, and I really enjoy it. Thank you for sharing a piece of your time in the Middle Kingdom.

  11. Valerie says:

    Oh, I’m so glad I just discovered this post. Hearing a story about & remembering Sky just brought back such sweet memories. I remember meeting her and spending months trying praying for an opportunity to talk with her… God had the best plan, I think He knew that Sky needed to build on a long friendship first.
    Isn’t that so true of Him? We think we need to rush into everything… and He so lovingly nudges us and reminds us: “I’ve got this, just listen to my Spirit- He’ll guide you. This is my plan, you don’t have to figure anything out, just keep seeking me.” I’m so glad that we serve a Lord who will patiently teach me the lesson again & again when I forget.
    Thanks for the sweet reminder Ruthie! :)

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  1. […] became an “unforgettable foreigner” in more than one situation. I held my breath as I scrubbed a pregnant woman’s back in a public bath house-and there finally felt accepted into the culture. But everything […]

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