Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Rubber duckie not included
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(Note to husband: Sorry dear, no pictures today.)

Ok, so, today I had one of those experiences for which I crossed the ocean: I went to a Chinese bath house.

Several days ago (on Monday, I think), someone from my classes last summer asked me - on a class discussion group set up on QQ, a Chinese chat program (that blows other chats totally out of the water, if you ask me, but I digress) if I wanted to go take a bath on Friday. Now, since [a] people identify themselves on QQ using Chinese characters and not Pinyin, and [b] everybody uses nicknames on these things anyway, I had NO idea who had invited me. I checked this person's profile. It said "Male. Age 32." I figured I was pretty safe, though, because lots of people from the class are on this group, and it isn't like anyone is going to ask me to do anything that the Chinese would consider impolite or untoward . . . even if, to my American mind, it's a little . . odd. So I said yes.

At the same time, I was also chatting with another friend (who has just gone to England), and I mentioned to him that I'd gotten this invitation. He said, "Oh, yes, that's very relaxing! When I was in college, my roommates and I [he had seven roommates, I should point out] would often go to the showers together so we could help each other wash our backs. It's very hard to wash your back by yourself. There will be someone there to help you to wash." I thought, "Holy sh*t, Toto." I said, "I think Chinese think differently about their bodies than Westerners do."

Anyway, on Wednesday I discovered, much to my immense relief, that it had been a woman who extended the invitation. And she assured me that we would be with other women - no men. She told me to bring everything I need for a bath. ("What do I need?" I thought. I am the master (mistress?) of the 30-second shower . . . ) So this afternoon, I packed up a towel, some shampoo, my wonderful Chinese comb, and some body lotion, and off we went.

We walked in the door, and as is the case with most Chinese places that cater to physical luxuries, I think, we entered a room with soft lighting and soothing decor: fish tanks adorned the wall, and we sat on a plush couch where we removed our shoes and put on slippers. We then walked downstairs, past a small fish pond, and into a locker room. We undressed, and went into a shower room that pretty much looked like any shower room from any gym you might have seen, except, again, the lighting was dim and there were two massage beds in the center of the room, each occupied by a woman who was being washed by one of the attendants. We stood in the shower waiting our turns. (I tried not to feel too bad for the woman who would have to lave the foreigner . . . physically, I must seem very strange to these people, even when I'm wearing clothes . . . )

Anyhow, when someone was finished, the attendant would wash the bed with a pail of warm water, then spread a thin plastic sheet over it. (The exteriors of buildings and public places can be very unappealingly filthy, but I've never been in a private space in China that was less than meticulously clean.) It was my turn.

I laid down on the bed, and the attendant put something on her hand that looked like some unholy marriage of oven mitt and scotch-brite pad. She proceeded to scrub behind my ears, down my arms and . . . well, pretty much everywhere else, actually. Often coming perilously close to parts that I really didn't want to have abraded. And I do mean abraded. She approached the task as one might approach a particularly stubborn bathtub ring, or maybe a wood floor that was being sanded prior to refinishing. At one point she told my friend that my skin was very clean, and all I could think was, "Horse puckey." Clean, yeah. Clean like the family silver that hasn't been polished in five decades.

Anyway, when she was done, I was relaxed and . . . astonished at the way my skin looked. I swear, she took fifteen years off my elbows alone. All evening I've been lifting my pants legs so I could look at my knees. I cannot believe the difference.

I'm definitely going to do that again. My friend and I have already made plans to go in a few weeks, this time to a much larger bath house where you can get massages, exercise, play video games, and even have a meal. I can't wait. This is a cultural practice that I cannot imagine being transplanted to North America, so I'm gonna get it while I can . . .

Next week, a facial. Stay tuned.

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