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?