On my second trip back to Guo Jian’s hometown, the family announced one night that we should all go to the bathhouse. I had experienced a Chinese spa before and so I imagined a similar environment of whirlpools and various scented hot tubs. Basically, a collective bathing experience between men and women—in swimsuits.
When we arrived at the place, there was a chandelier in the hallway the size of my living room, glittering from the 30-foot ceilings. The place looked like a palace and the wait staff greeted us at the doorway and then led us to the counter that was equally glitzy with gold corners and marble tops. They all wore fancy telephone headseats, carried clipboards, and looked as though they’d all stepped out of a beauty salon just before starting their shifts.
This was only my second encounter with his parents and my 山东话 Shandonghua (the dialect of his family’s region) was rusty to say the least. I was starting to catch a few of the phrases and his parents were trying their best to speak to me with an accented Mandarin, but I have to admit that the communication level between me and his parents was still low. It often required a direct translation into Mandarin (or 普通话 Putonghua) by Guo Jian. Let’s just say that some basic conversation took longer than humanly necessary.
So, when we were given locker keys, towels and then whisked on our way, I panicked when I saw Gou Jian and his Father head towards one side of the building and felt his Mother tugging my elbow towards the other. I calmed myself when I assumed that we were just going to change into our swimsuits and then we’d emerge into an inner spa world of hot tubs, reunited.
It never worked that way.
We got into the women’s side and were given lockers. There, we were instructed to remove all of our clothing and jewelry and to change into their plastic flip-flops before entering into the bathing area.
I turned to see an unabashed collection of Chinese women and young female children naked and milling about the lockers in nothing but sky blue plastic shoes. I looked up to see Guo Jian’s mother already fully naked. She was chirping at me to hurry up and get my clothes off. I lifted my swimsuit out of the bag and she waved her hand in that Chinese way that means, “No need for that here!” or simply just “No” but actually looks like someone waving hello in our culture.
I remember glancing behind me and wondering if she had seen someone she knew and was waving to them. When I turned back around I found her reaching for my swimsuit and its bag. She took them out of my hands and placed them in the locker. I was instructed to strip.
I’m fairly modest, I must admit. As much as I support activism for legal toplessness for women, for instance, I’ve never been one to want to bare my breasts in public. I remember being nine years old and freaking out about sharing a bath with my female school friend because I was too shy to show my body to her. I got through that experience and I’ve since grown up and into a comfort with my body that I’m proud of. Still… naked in front of my new boyfriend’s mother?? I wasn’t sure I was ready for this.
Add to this equation that I was the only foreigner in the place. There were about fifty women bathing on that particular evening and my foreignness was a source of great curiosity. The kids especially kept poking their cute little heads around the corners of the walls to see this strange “老外 laowai” who was among them.
淄博 Zibo (his home city) is definitely not Beijing. Foreigners are few and far between.
I decided to just relax and go with it, as I have generally done with everything here in China. As soon as I decided to be okay with the nakedness, too, I really was okay with it. I’m really good at making a decision to be comfortable and just letting the comfort, and the comedy, follow. And it did.
I have a huge back tattoo. It’s invisible when I’m clothed, but when I am naked, it’s there for the world to see. Women don’t often have tattoos in this culture and his mother didn’t know about mine until that day. The entire population of that bathhouse that evening—at least on the women’s side—was tittering about it.
And it wasn’t just the tattoo they were looking at. Like with any culture that is generally racially sheltered, the naked body of someone who is from elsewhere and doesn’t look like the others is an intriguing thing. I’m sure there were faint questions in their minds like “What do white women look like down there?” or “What are white women’s breasts like?” The stares proved it. I felt like I was modeling for a racial profiling x-rated photo shoot; the cameras were the eyes of all those around me.
When his mother called me over to her so that she could wash my back, I knew it was to examine my tattoo. She scrubbed and rubbed and washed fiercely and I joked with her that no amount of scrubbing was going to remove it. She didn’t laugh. She just kept scrubbing and talking about getting rid of the “灰 hui” (which is like the word for dust, ash or the colour grey) and telling me to scrub my front. I did as I was told, but felt a little grossed out to later realize that this is the Chinese way of expressing “dead skin.”
While we were there—me sitting on a shower stool and his mother leaning over me to scrub me down in an open shower—a mother and her daughters came over to do their own washing and they began to speak about me as though I weren’t there. They remarked on the whiteness of my skin, the largeness of my eyes, etc. (Thankfully they refrained from commenting on my nether regions!) My partner’s Mother inserted her own commentaries about me and they soon struck up a conversation about this naked foreigner between them, exposed for all to see.
My (now) MIL explained that I was her son’s girlfriend and she reported on her son’s age and profession and that he lived in Beijing and had met me there. When the woman asked my age, she responded that it was “pretty much the same as [her] son’s.” This is very funny because I am seven years older than her son and she knows this fact very well. Later, and privately, I asked her directly why she didn’t share my real age with them and she evaded the question. I didn’t push it but Guo Jian eventually explained that there’s still a stigma about men being with older women, especially in his mother’s generation.
As I left the showers to rinse off in the bath tubs, again by express direction by the matriarch whose command I had chosen to follow that evening (despite believing that the rinsing off should happen in the shower after bathing and not the other way around－hhm?), I turned to one of the kids who was hanging around and said loud enough for everyone to hear that the showers were so nice and wasn’t it fun to be here? (洗澡太舒服了，这里不是很好玩吗？）She stared at me with huge eyes as though I was some sort of talking elephant. Her Mother gasped that I spoke the language and the tittering resumed with a higher pitch about me being “so smart” and “not like other foreigners” (etc.) I slipped away and into one of the baths at the far end of the room that was mercifully out of earshot.
Ten minutes later, Guo Jian’s mother was waving a towel in my direction and urging me to get moving. I rose out of the water (snuck a rinse in again at the showers) and then joined her to dry off. Two hours had gone by in this naked display without my partner, struggling with the accented Chinese and different dialect. I was absolutely exhausted, mentally and physically, and just wanted to go.
Then, the staff gave us disposal toothbrushes and toothpaste packages. I initially refused one with a smile. I mean, I brush my teeth regularly and don’t need to waste a disposable set just because it’s standard to brush your teeth in the bathhouse! My refusal was interpreted as a language misunderstanding and Guo Jian’s mother stepped in and accepted the package on my behalf. I had no energy left to fight. I obediently brushed my teeth with the others and then held onto the toothbrush. I couldn’t bear to chuck it into the trash. No one contested my “souvenir.”
Just as we returned to the lockers, his mother marched me onto the scale. Now, in my culture, weight is a personal thing, but there she was, at my elbow in her typical, urging way, and suddenly I was standing on the scale in my nakedness and she was peering around my shoulder at the weight being displayed. She was pleased. She told me that my weight was “很好，很好 very good, very good” and I fumbled my feet off the scale and focused my flight on the lockers, feeling slightly violated and woozy from the humidity of the room.
Maybe I was a talking animal after all! Being stripped, cleaned, weighed and appraised truly gave me the feeling that being a prized potential daughter-in-law was not unlike being a piece of livestock paraded at the fair.
My clothes never felt better.
When we emerged into the chandelier-guarded entrance way, Guo Jian and his Dad were already there, sitting on one of the leather couches that lined the walls, waiting for us. I practically rushed over to him like he was a long-lost lover. He greeted me with a smile and then dumped his freshly washed dreadlocks into my face so that I could smell how clean they were. He had no idea how relieved I was to see him and he’ll never understand why even if I explained. What’s more, even if I tried, it will forever be something normal for him and he can never relate to the culture shock of it all. This is the crux of the cross-cultural disconnect–its constant confounding reality: the brunt of the assimilation lies with the one choosing to live in the foreign land. I understand that and I’ve learned to just move on. I playfully took a whiff of the dreadlocks and then made him smell my hair too. When he hugged me, I got what I needed.
We walked back to their house with me feeling like I had inadvertently passed a test or completed a rite of passage. Getting naked with your future mother-in-law has to be some sort of trial that most people don’t have to go through, don’t you think?
I only wish I had been properly warned.
At least no one could say I wasn’t willing to be seen… exactly as I am!