Towel or Blanket?
Towels are a mystery in China. At least, they have been since the first time I was ever here, back in the spring of 2007. I didn’t bring a towel with me in my luggage on that trip. I didn’t even think of it. The en-suite that I had in my (very overpriced) dorm room did not come with any towels. I found that strange,especially considering there was a maid that came into my room daily. Since she never had any supplies to replenish (not even toilet paper!), she only did a cursory sweep and then was gone.
When I went to buy a towel on the second day of my arrival, I anticipated buying a couple of large ones for showering since I figured I wouldn’t need a face cloth or hand towel if it was just me using them. Also, with one towel wet, I knew I’d need to have a dry one as back-up.
The department-store style supermarket only had wee ones or hand towels. When I asked in my faltering Chinese where the big towels were, I was shown a towel that was perhaps 20cm by 40cm. “That’s the biggest,” the saleswoman told me. I had understood her correctly but I still looked at her confused. I had a hard time believing it could be true. I bought it anyway, though, and struggled to dry my butt for several weeks with this postage stamp of terrycloth before I realized my language mistake.
“Towels” 毛巾 are, by definition in Chinese, small. They’re for dabbing at dampness. They’re for drying your hands or feet after washing them. They’re not a “whole body experience.” “Bath Towels” 浴巾,on the other hand (or should I say “backside,” as the word “hand” in this expression would be more fittingly replaced with a larger portion of our post-shower, sopping-wet anatomy here), are large terrycloth items that have only recently become available in Chinese markets. They’re a foreign import and considered luxurious. Most Chinese people don’t use them.
My inlaws don’t use large towels at all, in fact. Every time I shower at their place when we’re visiting, I curse myself for not bringing a large towel with me. I finally just bought a few and left them there. Large towels are just so rarely used that they’re almost a novelty item.
That is, except as blankets.
Fast forward five years. I’m lying in bed with my husband and the weather has turned hot in Beijing. It’s early summer here, for certain, and we are about to go to sleep with the windows open, both stripped to our underwear.
This is the season when any coverings seem redundant, but I’m the type who likes some weight on my skin when I sleep, even in summer. I don’t mind a small draping of a quilt over my midriff or hips. It’s comforting, I find. In the hottest days of summer, I reduce the weight to just a sheet over me, especially if there’s a fan blowing.
Guo Jian says to me, “I’m going to go downstairs and get the 毛巾被 (towel blanket).” He gets up and is back in a few moments with a rough, lightweight terrycloth blanket that is only large enough to fit over one person anyway. He offers me half. “Have I ever slept with a 毛巾被 （towel blanket)?” I ask him, rhetorically. He knows I hate them. They’re rough and uncomfortable on my skin. I mean, they’re effectively towels!
I decide this is as good at time as any to rant about this issue. I point out that there are “towels” (毛巾) and “blankets”（被子）but that I’ll never understand why Chinese people have decided that they should be merged together into one concept. “Why would I want a towel on my skin when I’m dry?” I ask him. “Towels are for showers. Blankets are for sleeping.”
He laughs. “It’s an actual word in Chinese, you know,” he says as a weak defense, and since he’s been sleeping with these thin terrycloth blankets in the summertime his whole life, it doesn’t feel odd to him in the least. He’s amused by my fiery rejection.
“Next time I need a big towel after showering at your parents house, I should ask them for a towel-blanket and see if they let me use one!” I say, deliberately being provocative. He guffaws at this. “My mother would never let you use a towel-blanket. You’d get it wet!” “Of course I’d get it wet, silly! That’s exactly what towels are for!” And we’re both laughing now, imaging my MIL’s face when I ask her, expectantly, to use one of her clean “blankets” to dry my naked butt.
But, we go on to discuss the fact that towels didn’t exist before trade with the West opened up. He confirms that his great grandparents probably didn’t have “towel blankets,” but used thin cloth on hot nights to drape over their bodies, and used absorbent cotton cloths to dry their skin after bathing.
So then the nuggets of a theory start rattling around in my head and I roll over on my back and orate into the angles of the ceiling, “What if towels arrived here in China and Chinese people were perplexed by these large, rough pieces of absorbant cloth? I’ll bet the first few Chinese people who saw them just surmised they were blankets and, presto, they draped them over themselves one night and the rest is history!”
Large towels fit in well with the Chinese habit of sleeping with individual bedding, too. Many couples do not share bedding at night but have their own quilts and blankets tucked possessively around them, almost like homemade sleeping bags. This dissuades any cuddling or spontaneous middle-of-the-night hanky panky, as well. In fact, my MIL used to make up the spare bed in their home for Guo Jian and I this way—separate bedding side-by-side. We would just abandon one folded set of quilts and share the other set until my MIL gathered that she only needed to prepare one set for us. It was just my “weird Western ways” in her eyes, I’m sure.
But here we are, lying on a double bed in the sticky late May of Beijing and we’re draped in separate bedding, just like a “proper” Chinese couple. I’m persisting with the quilt and he’s covered in the scratchy 毛巾被 (towel-blanket).
And then it’s his turn. “Why do you foreigners put sheets over top of your body anyway? They’re for the mattress as coverings. You’re supposed to sleep on top of them, not with them over you!”
“We do both!” I say, defensively, sitting up in bed and ready to defend my Western bedding practices. “You sleep on top of a sheet AND you put a sheet over top of your body. To me, that just feels right! It’s smooth and crisp. It’s so normal!”
“I’ll never feel comfortable with a sheet over me,” he says, both of us knowing that suggesting my “normal” has only one cultural interpretation was a bit over the top. I do this more often than I like to admit here, but it’s because I’m so outnumbered. I claim “normal” in defense of everyone else around me who constantly point out my foreignness in so many contexts, implying my abnormality.
“Well, I’ll never feel comfortable with a towel over me!” I reply.
There will be no cuddling tonight. We have no aversion to each other, just to the other’s choice of bed covering. We’re at a bedding stalemate.
“Besides, when you have a sheet over you, it keeps the blankets clean. Sheets are so much easier to clean than blankets!”
Thinking of the definition of blankets in the West, I feel I’ve won my match point here. I even start to settle back down into the mattress, turning over to one side, sure that I’ve scored the final logical point in the bedding debate. I’m about to abandon this conversation and sleep peacefully knowing that Western culture has, once again, proven to be wiser in some modern circumstances, and that Chinese culture should take heed.
Then he adds the final words: “Easier to clean? What could be easier to clean than a towel-blanket?”
Now it’s my turn to laugh.
He has a point.