Friday afternoons are my worst. Absolute worst. It’s the end of a 27-class week, and my final two classes irritate me more than the sound the cheap chalk makes against the scratched-up blackboard. I normally manage to fit in an hour-long break back at my apartment, in a quiet section east of downtown, before I head to an intensive Chinese lesson. But last Friday, my routine changed. I went to a Chinese bath house.
Teachers, cafeteria cooks, janitors, and the principal of Jiefang Primary School head to Golden Lily Bath House once a month to cleanse the chalk off their hands and relax together, and they invited me along. I guiltily skipped my Chinese class, something of a necessity for my everyday survival here in Dalian. But last Friday, in such an intimate environment, my learning went beyond the days of the week or the names of exotic East Asian fruits. That evening, I learned the bare necessities of Chinese culture. (Please excuse the pun).
I waited in the English teachers’ office for a few minutes after my day was over for a teacher named Summer, whom I had never met. Another teacher told me that Summer had been put in charge (per the principal’s request) of my well-being. Essentially, she was my babysitter. “She is a woman teacher, so she can help you,” one of the male English teachers named Ben said when Summer walked into the office
I followed Summer down a hill dotted with vendors selling spiraled pineapple wedges and plastic toys and shoes. She immediately locked arms with me and guided me through traffic and peddlers until we reached a taxi stand. Cultural lesson number 1: All females, Chinese or foreign, when walking two-by-two, must lock arms. This is especially true when darting through harrowing traffic. (Crosswalks mean nothing here).
We caught a cab across town, and she began firing the standard questions my way. “Do you have brothers or sisters?” “How long have you been here?” “Do you speak Chinese?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Aren’t you homesick?”
No, I am not homesick.
Summer told me she had studied in Wales for several months and had an English boyfriend in the town of Lincolnshire. Our taxi cab conversation flowed easily. It’s how all first-time meetings go here. There’s never any awkwardness because of all the questions we have about the other person. Cultural lesson number 2: Chinese people tell it like it is, and aren’t afraid to confront such issues as weight, income, love life, or religion within hours of meeting you (if “you” are a foreigner).
After an 8-yuan cab ride (a little more than $1), we arrived at Golden Lily Bath House. Summer guided me to the women’s locker room and gave me a locker key and a pair of blue rubber flip-flops. We bared all and walked toward the first of a series of rooms.
If there’s any place a Westerner in Asia doesn’t want to be stared at, it’s at a bath house. Cultural lesson number 3: As with their candid question-asking, Chinese women will openly point and whisper about you (again, if “you” are a foreigner). But I brushed off such attention and showered off before entering the sauna. I treated my hair to two hot-oil conditioning rinses, mostly because that happened to be the only bottle with some English on it, and I was sure that the staring ladies would guffaw heartily if I tried to put body gel in my hair or lather shampoo on my body. Summer was waiting for me in the sauna, where attention toward me was only slightly dampened. A pleasantly round Chinese woman smiled at me and asked Summer where I was from.
“Oh!” the woman said upon finding out I was American. “My daughter is training to be a translator,” Summer interpreted for me. I asked if her daughter lived in China or an Anglophone country. “China.” I asked (through Summer) if her daughter studied English at college.
“Oh no,” the woman replied. ‘My daughter is 15.”
Cultural lesson number 4: Chinese parents are pushy. I had seen this already through the children I teach. Three-quarters of them have several English and math and Chinese lessons during the weekend, and some say their parents assign them homework on top of what their school and their tutors give them. They all play several instruments and participate in some sort of organized sport. I thought of Bella, the young Chinese girl profiled in National Geographic’s China issue last May. This new generation of Chinese kids is either going to take on the world or crumble in the pressure cooker in which they have been raised.
The cooker in which I had been sitting was making me uncomfortably warm, so Summer and I took a breather. We decided to check out other areas of the four-story Golden Lily, which is also a respected hotel in Dalian. Workers handed us pink and white frocks and socks to cover up, as male company would be swirling. Our next stop was a dry sauna, where we drank flower tea out of tiny porcelain cups and chatted with male teachers and other female teachers, including the principal, whose English name is Lydia.
I’ve gotten very good at smiling and nodding, so much so that some of the teachers think I can understand Chinese. I need to curb that habit and embrace looking hopelessly clueless. Summer translated snatches of the conversation for me. She informed me that the principal would like me to stay at the bath house for dinner. Apparently this was an all-night affair, I thought to myself. Usually, Summer went on, the teachers stay until 10 p.m. when there is a free buffet upstairs. But Lydia was worried about my safety and she wanted me to experience the much better quality food in the main dining room. Cultural lesson number 5: First-time encounters are a big deal here, as I was about to find out.
After a quick shower and dip in the hot tub, Summer and I put our pink and white outfits back on and headed down to the dining area. Pockets of flaky bread stuffed with leeks and eggs, cooked celery, potato and eggplant stir-fry, steamed bread rolls, and bowls of jasmine rice already adorned the table when we arrived. Shortly after I sat down, a large fish doused in sweet and sour sauce was plunked in front of me. Lydia found out (with bewilderment) that I didn’t eat meat, so she ordered me an entire fish. Since I am clumsy with chopsticks, I had to ask for a crash-course on how to devour this fish, preferably while avoiding bones and eye sockets.
My coworker Ben and another English teacher named Leo ordered us a round of beers. I was surprised when the waiter arrived with Budweisers. How dare such an American entity disrupt my first genuine taste of Chinese culture! I told the group that this beer was brewed in a town about four hours from my hometown of Kansas City, which seemed to impress them. “We love Budweiser,” Leo said. “They sponsor boxing.”
Beer bottles are enormous here, so small glasses (about three times the size of a shot glass) come with your beer order. Based on what I managed to piece together through osmosis and broken English translations, you clink glasses every time you fill up the smaller glass. And every time someone takes the initiative to “cheer,” you must chug all that is in your glass. (Gambei, the Chinese equivalent of “cheers,” translates to “clean glass.”). And most importantly, as it was my first time drinking with any of these people, that called for a requisite “gambei” with each person at my table. Cultural lesson number 6: These people can drink me under the table.
After dinner and discussion (about everything from marriage to the economy to Sarah Palin to a very complicated Chinese card game called Drink Blood), Summer and I headed back down to the shower room for one last rinse, brushed our teeth, and cleansed our faces with green-tea-infused soap.
We got dressed, retrieved our shoes, and hailed a cab. Summer lives about 10 minutes away from me, we discovered. I got a mini-tour of parts of Dalian I have yet to explore as the taxi winded and honked and screeched its way to my apartment. “Okay, we say goodbye,” Summer said. I offered to pay, at least half, but she refused. “No no, we are friends now.” Cultural lesson number 7: The Chinese never, ever “go dutch” among friends.
That is how it is. You’re considered a friend after a first meeting. Initial conversation reads like a script for a blind date. You talk about your family, your love life, your ideas on marriage, your future plans, all within an hour of meeting someone. I know it is because I am foreign and possess an exotic Western aura that attracts questions and curiousity. But once we start talking, I find out how very similar we are.
As for the exotic fruits and days of the week, well, there’s always next xing qi wu (Friday).