Raw China

When I first moved into the neighborhood I took a walk with my friend who's an old China hand and helped me find an apartment.

May 2 2008, 12:00am

Photo by Getty

When I first moved into the neighborhood I took a walk with my friend who’s an old China hand and helped me find an apartment. We checked out the surrounding area and she pointed out some local features, the Italian restaurant, a laundry, a western supermarket. As we walked by a nondescript four-story building she said “Oh, that place is great, it’s a bathhouse, you pay like 100 yuan and you can spend all day in there, lounging, getting massages—it’s really cool.” I filed that away for future reference and a month later when my friend Carol came to visit during the nadir of the frigid winter I hatched a plan to take her to the bathhouse. She’s a bathhouse regular in Los Angeles so it seemed like a good excursion that would provide a relaxing and interesting experience for both of us as well as a respite from the pervasive outdoor (and indoor) cold.

For my part I’ve never been too much of a fan of bathhouses because they present so many confusing issues of protocol and etiquette that can induce a certain amount of confusion and anxiety. All these qualms about when you should and shouldn’t be naked, whether it’s time to be wearing a towel or take the towel off, what’s up with the brusque masseurs, do you pay extra for this or that, and all the other steamy ambiguities of how it works and what’s appropriate behavior. If you’re a local it can be pleasurable and soothing because you know the rules but at a new spot it often turns into a disorienting misadventure full of murky uncertainties about what to do and how to act. And that’s when you can speak the language. There promised to be a whole new set of unknowns thanks to the communication barrier in Beijing, but I was sure we’d figure it out and have a nice time. I mean, how wrong can things really go at a bathhouse?

Up the marble steps on the red carpet we went, into a lobby where three female workers stood at attention behind a high desk. In every restaurant and store in Beijing there’s always an overwhelming surplus of workers and their sheer plentitude can be somewhat daunting. Then again since there’s a surplus of people in the country it follows that they have to do something. It was immediately evident that none of them spoke any English, but we smiled and pointed and said “Bathhouse, uhm, spa, this is a bathhouse?” in that ridiculous you-don’t understand- a word-I’m-saying- but-I’m-going-to-keep- talking-anyway approach you’re invariably forced to resort to under the circumstances. All three of them had alarmed looks on their faces, like they didn’t know what to do with us. But then two male attendants rushed out with an officious “Follow us, sirs” manner and ushered us into a coatroom. Divested of our coats we smiled and said “Well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” and then were led down a hallway until I got whisked into one door and Carol into another. It was very abrupt. As she disappeared I heard her plaintively call my name with a falling into a well forlornness. Then she was gone.

Upon entering a luxe brown-hued changing room, two more attendants materialized. So suddenly I was surrounded by four small men wearing what looked like waiter’s uniforms crossed with wine-colored tuxedo jackets. Three of them hovered while the one who seemed to be in charge and spoke a few words of English opened a locker and said “You ….take…. clothes…. off?” Later I found out he was the only person in the whole establishment who spoke any English. Even though we could only communicate in an extremely curtailed fashion he became my primary helpmate, and also a tormentor of sorts. But right then I wasn’t that worried, because it was just the start and I was sure somebody else who spoke English would come along. I started undressing and handing him my clothes, which he very carefully and individually put onto hangers and into a locker. Even my socks got their own hanger. As I got down to my pants he stood there expectantly with another hanger at the ready as the other three watched intently forming a semi-circle around my person. Though they collectively had an obsequiously “helpful” mien they weren’t helping or doing anything. They were just staring. It was a bit oppressive. They were two feet away and inspecting me like I was an exotic animal in the zoo. When I play-acted unhooking my belt, they just kept smiling and talking in Chinese without nodding their heads or getting across a universal “Ok, take your pants off” message. I took a breath, looked from one to the other to the other, wondered for a moment why I couldn’t I do this on my own, or at least without four men watching, and then took my pants off. After that I stood there naked for thirty seconds while my pants were meticulously folded and put into the locker. That was a long half-minute. The three attendant attendants boldly examined me until one of them finally gave me a pair of sandals, but oddly, no towel.

At the threshold to the baths proper, a towel was provided and I surveyed the scene—a white-tiled room with three shallow “pools.” One was about 20 feet by 10, and then two others, the smallest of which was filled with brackish water that made it look like a dirty pond. The room had a decidedly clinical quality at odds with the old-world Oriental steaminess you associate with Turkish or Russian bathhouses. Across from the pools were four wooden tubs, some showers, a sauna, and in one corner a massage table where a prone figure was getting whacked and scrubbed by a middle-aged brute wearing a blue t-shirt and really saggy white briefs. Besides those two the only other person there sat in the big pool smoking a cigarette, intently watching a Chinese soap opera on a large plasma TV set into the wall. I decided to join him and stepped into the water to find it the temperature of a semi-warm bath. Though not exactly unpleasant it wasn’t really that nice either. Settling in and watching the incomprehensible soap opera I noticed the smoker had the fairly unusual affectation here of tattoos on his arms and back that gave him the air of a member of the Mafia or a Triad or whatever they’re called in these parts. The C.P.C. is one moniker that might work, and his presence seemed eminently appropriate seeing as organized crime figures and bathhouses always go hand and hand.

After he was done with his victim the masseur and exfoliator came over, grunted, and gruffly motioned me over to his table. It was more of an order than an invitation, but I waved him off with a gesture meant to convey “In a little bit.” He seemed disgruntled, and then commenced indulging in the disconcerting action of walking around slapping his own ass really hard. He paced, then slapped, then paced and slapped some more. As he was doing that my English speaking friend came back and said, “Do you want to wash your body?” That particular phrase would get repeated a lot during the next half hour, and even if I didn’t know what he meant exactly I decided why not “wash my body.” Over at one of the wooden tubs he turned the faucet on and after it was half full directed me to get in. As soon as I settled down the other three rushed in making excited “no” motions like I was doing something wrong. Hastily I got out as they laboriously installed a big plastic sheet in an adjacent tub. Guess I’d been getting the tub dirty with my filthy unwashed body. After the plastic-lined tub was filled I made the transfer as friend No. 1 reappeared and poured out some flower petals and unidentifiable herbs from a plastic bag into the water then said, “Now, you can wash your body. ” Putting his hand in the water, he splashed some at me to demonstrate.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was more than that. Like maybe he was going to wash my body. Hell, I’m game, but all that happened was he came back and splashed me again to show I hadn’t followed directions and said, “Wash your body.” Without any soap and just the flower petals I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Looking down at me he added, “Your friend, he… is… washing… his… body.” Chinese people often have a real problem with “he” and “she” because in Chinese there is only one pronoun for both gender. Even people who speak English fairly well make this mistake all the time and it can be a bit disconcerting. I imagined Carol was faring all right in a flower petal-strewn lukewarm wooden tub and we’d be able to meet up soon and have a nice time together in a co-ed section of the place where maybe there was a real pool. Homey left, again, and returned with a menu in Chinese and asked if I wanted something. Since he knew I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese it was a bit strange that he handed me a menu in Chinese. I just said “Tsing Tao.” That’s easy.

As I sipped my tepid beer and bummed a cigarette from the tattooed Mafioso I wondered: Is this it? Because so far it had just been kind of weird. Not very enjoyable, and that masseur kept walking around slapping his ass. But what do you know, my guy was back, and leaned down and said, “Your friend is washing his body.” Got it. Then he leaned in close, somewhat conspiratorially, and asked, “How do you say… How do you say… ‘’ in English?” “Uhm, I don’t know. I don’t speak Chinese.” He asked again, and I shrugged. As that totally mystifying exchange transpired a fat older man in a bathrobe with really crooked teeth appeared, looked down at me, pointed his finger and shouted “YOU—FOREIGNER!” Then he laughed like it was the funniest thing ever. He was practically holding his sides. Then he turned and left, chuckling merrily.

When my guy came back in and said, “Your friend, he washes his body, and he wants to talk to you” I replied good, I want to talk to HER, now. Half an hour had gone by and it was time to move on and reunite with the person I ‘d come with. Walking into the dressing room I was stopped by the other three attendants making frantic gestures and pointing at a pair of sandals on the floor. “It’s dangerous,” my guy said. Rather huffily I put them on, because honestly all the rigmarole, indirect resistance, and over attentiveness had begun to wear thin. Picking up the phone on the wall Carol’s voice came through and she sounded really distressed. “Where are you?” “Um, I’m in dressing room, are you OK?” “You have to come out now.” She didn’t sound fine at all. “I’ll be right out.” I hung up the phone and then got asked, “Did you talk… to… your friend?” An odd question, since I’d just been on the phone with her. “Yes, I want to see her now.” As I moved toward my locker right away there was more “It’s dangerous” and as I tried to get my clothes I was intercepted by two of the attendants holding different multi-colored sets of silk pajamas. “You put these on.” One guy held up a yellow silk pair and cooed “Only 400 yuan.” What? So you have to buy ridiculously overpriced pajamas too? They were blocking the door, hovering around, bringing out a veritable Winter line of pajamas. “Only 300 yuan.” “Only 200 yuan.” Finally I relented and picked a white cotton pair with a dragon design that were “only 100 yuan.” The whole thing was so farcical—trapped in the locker room until I bought a pair of their damn pajamas. But whatever, OK, I’ll put them on. Even if the coercive tactics rankled and really I just wanted to leave. But they didn’t want to let me leave.

Under intense scrutiny I pulled on the pajamas and with the four of them trailing managed to get out into the hallway and up the stairs where Carol was standing on the landing. You’d think we hadn’t seen each other in a year instead of 30 minutes, and some truly trying times had gone down in the interval. She looked like she was about to cry. “What happened?” “I was in this bathtub and this really mean dykey lady kept saying you were ‘washing your body’ and throwing flower petals at me and burping. It was really gross and I kept asking to see you or talk to you but she wouldn’t let me.” Kind of a Caged Heat scenario. I told her I’d been in a wooden tub filled with flower petals. “I was too, but she kept telling me you were ‘washing your body’ and I didn’t know what they meant. I just wanted to get out of there.” She also reported that my guy had asked her the same “How do you say… ‘’ in English?” question, and followed that up by saying something she thought sounded like “You… ah… ah… Kama Sutra?” That really got her mind racing, imagining me amid a wild orgy on the other side of the building while a mean dyke who wouldn’t let her out of the tub was abusing her with flowers. I tried to console her, but it was hard to have a personal moment with the four of them standing around beckoning us to follow them upstairs. I wanted to say, dude—well, dudes—give us a moment, but of course I didn’t know how to say that. So said to Carol let’s see what’s upstairs, maybe it will be better and we can turn this whole thing around, OK? She smiled wanly, and then I noticed she was wearing some new pajamas too.

Now “he” had his hand on my arm, not so subtlety guiding me up the stairs. This is what happens when “niceness” and “hospitality” get inverted into insistent passive aggressive pushiness. When two people are so obviously distressed and confused as we were it should transcend the language barrier, but in this case there was a lack of basic human understanding that didn’t have anything to do with us not speaking Chinese.
At the top of the stairs we were shown a room that evoked one of those motel rooms that can be rented by the hour, at the door of which he said “Massage, and sleep” while putting his hands to his head like a pillow. “Only 100 yuan.” Now at that point the last thing either one of us wanted to do was spend an hour in a dingy love hotel room and we both shook our heads and said, no, no thank you, making “no” gestures, but he was very persistent. Back and forth we went on the topic, until he gave up and brought us to a larger “living room” where a few middle-aged guys in their underwear were lying around on sofas, smoking cigarettes and watching a big TV. “This room is free.” Well, that looked like fun. We exchanged glances and both knew we wanted out at all costs. “No, that’s OK, we’ll come back some other time.” We backed down the hallway repeating “No, no thank you, next time” while the men in their underwear craned their necks to see what the commotion was about. “Sleep, massage, OK?” No, not ok. Not ok at all. He kept putting his hand on my arm, trying to hold me back, and then I broke away and we ran down the stairs whispering to each other “All right, you get dressed, I’ll get dressed, let’s get out of here.” It was so uncomfortable and needlessly confusing. If only I spoke Chinese, though maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference in the face of such unrelenting, grating servility. I dressed as quickly as humanly possible and emerged into the lobby where I was presented with a bill for 420 yuan. After laughing ruefully and paying, we walked out into the freedom of the night with the lobby girls and my guy and his guys shaking their heads and looking at us as if we were crazy. And, in their eyes, I guess we were.


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