Chinese Bathhouse

I was surrounded by naked Chinese men.

Some were lathered in soap and suds, rubbing crotches and backs and hair. Some were drying off, vigorously and with some relish. Some were striding back to their lockers, their family jewels peering out of thick black bushes. And others were bent over, pulling on pants or shoes.

I was in a Chinese bathhouse – for the first time.

Until now in China, I had been accustomed to wash in a somewhat private bathroom. The door could be locked, the shower curtain could be pulled – in case someone else wished to use the toilet. And if anyone was to share the shower with me, I preferred to offer the invitation myself.

But in the midst of a Beijing winter, the hot water system in our apartment block gave up the ghost. At least two weeks to replace, we were told, especially since ecological concerns were now a priority. Solar panels would replace the old system. More like a month or two, I thought.

We could, we were told, harden our bodies with cold showers. Or we could take ourselves to the bathhouse, a couple of hundred meters up the road.

For me there was no choice.

I gathered up my towel, soap and change of underwear and soon found myself amongst young men and old, all making their way to the bathhouse.

At the desk, I bought a swipe card for repeat visits – should I feel compelled to return. I was also given a locker key on a flexible cord. Not sure quite sure of the purpose of the cord, I let it fangle from my finger for now.

To enter, one walks through a turnstile after swiping the card, much like entering a metro station. Turning the corner, I came across a vista of naked and half-naked men doing their thing at the lockers. Some had already showered and were towelling off, or in the process of donning clothes. Some stood at lockers, stark naked, as they peered and poked inside. And some, like me, were about the begin the process.

If one has been in a gym elsewhere in the world, the scene may not have been out of the ordinary – except that here the lockers and benches were cheek-by-jowl, with men filling every space in between. Think of a Beijing metro in peak hour …. By fate, my locker happened to be other end of the long room, so I found myself having to brush quite a number of cheeks on my way through. There was no other way.

I finally wedged myself into some space near my allocated locker and put on my best I-have-done-this-thousands-of-times-before air as I proceeded to strip down. Naked, I too stood in front of my locker and deposited my clothes, concentrating intensely at the fascinating contents therein. Best not to peer inquisitively around at the others.

The fascination wore off after a few seconds, so I strode into the shower room and was immediately enveloped in endless pairs of buttocks, shoulders, bushy crotches and black heads. They seemed to go on endlessly. I managed to find a free shower head, recently vacated. That it had no rose made no difference to me.

But now I faced a quandary: my usual practice is to piss on my feet, having been told quite some time ago that it is best treatment for tinea. Clearly, this would be seen as particularly uncivilised in a such a place, so I refrained – for the sake of what they call wenming, civilisation and culture.

Another quandary: water was needed, but no tap handles were to be found. What to do? My neighbour kindly stepped over, smiled, and showed me the slot for my swipe card. Ah, it was still in my locker …

With card finally in the slot, the red-letter display told me I had a maximum of 6 minutes to shower. Generous enough, I thought, but not really enough to time to ponder the universe while encased in the solid stream of warm water. I aimed for three minutes, wishing to save some time for the next occasion.

And yet, this brief time was enough for me to gain a number of research findings: 1) Chinese people are very clean, even in parts one would not usually think about cleaning; 2) Chinese men are not afraid of their bodies, no matter what shape or size; 3) Speaking of size, I was head-and-shoulders taller than anyone else in the showers; 4) My body in general is very hairy by comparison. Some Chinese men may have fine hair on their buttocks and legs, but they are not coated in fur. Until now, I had thought I was only lightly covered, but I guess I was comparing myself to the hairier creatures of God found in many parts of the world. They are not to be found here.

Pleased with my research activity and somewhat cleaner, I returned to my small space to dry and dress – somewhat enjoying the process. My slightly anxious, if excited, mood of earlier had dissipated.

Instead, I was taken with the collective nature of our shared ablutions, but also with the way people hereabouts can manage space in the midst of many, many others. There is always space for one more – and it makes no difference if you happen to be a foreigner.

[For the sake of modesty, no photographs are attached to this post]

 

Beijing’s Power

Why is Beijing so appealing?

It took me some years to realise its appeal. Initially, Shanghai felt friendlier and more appealing. It has always been a port city, at the intersections of the world. Foreigners have been in Shanghai for centuries, leaving their mark in the fabric of the city, in its architecture, spatial configurations and even culture. Somehow, a massive city like this seemed to enable one to find a corner in which to be at home.

Beijing, on the other hand, was too vast, too polluted, too constrained, too fast, too foreign, and simply changing too much. In my early years, I had gone a little crazy, preferring to get out of Beijing whenever I could, taking the train to various corners of China while supposedly a resident and working in Beijing.

But gradually it grew on me. More recently, I found myself wanting to pause in Beijing, for a reason that was not entirely clear to me.

Initially, I simply stayed in my apartment, venturing out for food and exercise. But after a week or two, I found myself setting out to the find out a bit more about this constantly changing city.

It helps if you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone … (guanxi). Things happen this way, from getting a phone to finding an apartment. Speaking a bit of the language makes a huge difference, but you will always be a foreigner, even if you were born and bred in Beijing. But if you know someone, then you may as well be a local. No more special prices for foreigners. No more smiling deals where you think you have bested someone in bargaining only to find you have not. Guanxi goes a long, long way.

Initially, I began to think it might be the beautiful days, with clear skies and crisp air. I kid you not, for Beijing has plenty of these (as well as plenty of days where it is better to stay inside). A clear Beijing day calls you outside in a way that you cannot resist.

Or perhaps it was the food. Again and again, I found that a famous chef in charge of a major restaurant had decided to go back to basics and make one dish she or he loved best. It may be a simple noodle dish or dumplings, but all attention would be focused on making sure that every iteration of the dish was as simple and as perfect as it could be. No second best would be allowed.

Perhaps it was the language, which I had been learning slowly but surely, putting it together piece by piece. I am not a natural when it comes to learning language, for I need to work persistently and doggedly until it ever so slowly becomes part of my ways of thinking.

Or perhaps it was the regions of Beijing, from the huangsheng (close to the old imperial centre, within the second ring road) to the jiaoqu or shijiao, the outskirts of the city. Here are the villages being absorbed by the ever-expanding limits of the city. Here are the small plots where one can grow vegetables. And here are the traditional compounds (siheyuan) where one can ‘buy’ (really, a long lease) a place to get away from it all.

Perhaps it was the seriousness with which Beijing takes public transport. For instance, the metro is one of the best in the world. Already, its 550 km take 6 billion passenger rides a year (almost the total of the world’s population). Within ten years the total distance will almost double. You can literally get everywhere in the expanse of Beijing by metro. Why would you drive, as the beautiful people like to do, or indeed take a taxi, as foreigners do?

But I finally realised that Beijing’s appeal is none of these things. Or rather, they might be part of it, but they do not constitute the main reason.

Quite simply, Beijing is the centre of power. Not just any power, but the centre of the most powerful socialist state in world history. To be sure, Beijing has been a capital for a few centuries, but even this makes it a relative latecomer on the scene of political power in in light of China’s long history. But it oozes power. Power is part of Beijing’s fabric. It is not for nothing that the communist party chose it as their capital. Here the communist party continues to wield power, with President Xi Jinping invoking Chairman Mao in a way not seen for quite a while. Here security is a paramount issue, so much so that you know when a major event – the annual parliament, a meeting of the politburo, a congress – is happening due to the security personnel everywhere.

And here Chairman Mao lies in state at the fulcrum of this power, in Tiananmen, the gate of heaven. This is socialism in power, and it fascinates me, draws me in, makes me want to be part of it and understand it.

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Home is Always Elsewhere

What is it like to live in one place for your whole life? I mean not staying in the place of one’s birth, but coming and going as you please. I mean living and staying in the same town, suburb, valley or small region – for your whole life.

I have been one of the few outsiders in a country town (a village really). The telephone system required one to turn a handle, speak with an operator and give a name or simply a single-digit number: ‘2 please’. I was regarded as a ‘blow-in’: the wind had blown me in and would soon blow me away. It would have taken a few generations of intermarriage to be regarded as an insider.

I have spoken with an older woman with whom I was – for some long forgotten reason – talking about travel.

‘I haven’t travelled much’ she said. ‘I once went to Melbourne for the Melbourne Cup’.

That was it, the journey to a foreign place. When I mentioned I was heading to China, she was mesmerised.

As a nomad, I too remain fascinated. What would it be like?

Some years ago on a long ride, I pedalled out of a small country town at the beginning of the next day’s ride (I had been on the road for over a week). A child, who was playing the front garden of a house, stopped and watched me cycle past. Everything else was forgotten as he stared. What was he thinking, I wondered? I imagined he was feeling a longing to be on the road, like me, with the freedom to decide where and when to go. That can be a longing only if you have never left a place, or do not have the freedom to choose so.

I was that child once, living in a remote country town and subject to my parents’ wishes and plans. A moment in the run of everyday life remains etched in my memory. I was standing on a corner, looking out. Two motorcyclists laden with gear pulled up. They removed their helmets and gloves and pulled out a map. Would they take this road or that road? Within a few minutes, they had decided and were off.

I keenly desired to be in their place, to be old enough to have such freedom, to leave the place that was supposed to be home.

Perhaps it is simply a nomad spirit. Being in a place is predicated on the ability to get away regularly. And even if I have lived somewhere for a while, eventually I get itchy feet and look to move on.

Home is always elsewhere, it seems. As I search, I continue to wonder what it would be like to live somewhere for your whole life, with little movement beyond its borders. But perhaps home is a place we have never been, but we will know it is home when we arrive.

Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.

The Crumbling of the USA

Cracks in the ‘pavement’, torn seats, broken arm rests, faded signs, stained carpets, broken taps, and filth in all the many holes and gaps that are increasingly evident. I speak not of eastern Europe, or even of some the poorer countries in Asia, but of the United States of America.

For some reason, I notice them even more now. They had always been there, if one cared to look in the parts visitors are not supposed to see – in the southwest and even centre, of perhaps in no-go zones of the cities where even locals do not dare to tread. But people in these parts have been quite adept at papering them over and presenting to the world – through the extraordinary propaganda system called Hollywood and endless television series – an image of uniform wealth and seamless efficiency.

But now I was in the northeast, which looks with disdain on most of the rest of the United States, quivering with horror at the barbarians within, whether in the rust-belt states, the southern reaches, or the centre-west.

Here too the railing I almost held was bent and loose. The train I caught groaned and clunked and the lights flicked on and off – it had not been upgraded for many a decade. The toilet I used was barely cleaned and the tap spurted uncontrollably. The escalator had ceased functioning some time ago, for dirt had gathered in its corners. And everywhere the footpaths and road edges were crumbling, crumbling.

I am told by good authority that the United States by and large no longer invests in infrastructure. Money is to be made, obscene amounts of money. But people hardly ever get rich these days by gaining lucrative government contracts for, say, a cross-country railway line, or a freeway interstate. Instead, they speculate on the stock market, making money from the misfortunes of others (most spectacularly in the wake of the Great Recession that began in 2008). Ever new and bamboozling ways are found to make money from money – the greatest fetish of all, as Marx already pointed out. So the richest tycoons are those who so speculate, seeking to manipulate international monetary flows for their own advantage.

Meanwhile, the country itself falls to pieces. Those who have lost out – workers of different backgrounds (African-American, Latino, European, and so on) have moved from disillusionment to being openly angry. The cynical political machine threatens to break as people begin to vent their wrath. Killings and regular protests rock the streets, and internal ‘terrorism’ has become a far greater threat. At the same time, those in the northeast and northwest dismiss the disenfranchised as backward, racist and sexist ‘hillbillies’. I have heard a north-easterner opine that those in the centre-west and south should either be relocated, re-educated, die off, or be killed by a foreign power. It is not a country with an existential crisis; it is a country beginning to tear itself apart.

But the cracks have always been here. I have always found negotiating a footpath a tricky business, and if I cared to look I could find plenty of seedy establishments, with infrastructure barely functioning. The reality is that the foundations of this empire have always been shaky indeed, but once upon a time one could easily miss the foundations for the glittering façade built upon them. Yet, even the weakest foundations can bear only so much. Eventually, what is built on them must also begin to crumble.

Crumpled Shirt and Dirty Shoes

Sartorial elegance: the ability to appear stylish and well-groomed without appearing so. Although it applies as much to one’s hair, shaving and smell, its key is the cladding that one wears to cover the body. After all, the word ‘sartorial’ comes from Latin word sartor, tailor.

I had always prided myself on not requiring the usual signals of sartorial elegance. I would wear what I wanted when I wanted, without concern for style or fashion. As long as my single pair of shoes fit the shape of my feet, were comfortable, and could be worn on all occasions – from hiking up mountains to weddings – I was happy. As long as the pants could be worn for a week, be washed overnight and be dry the next morning, I was content. And as long as the shirt was clean and dry, I could not ask for more.

In China, others were not so happy.

For an eternity they tolerated my sartorial preferences. They did so with a glance, a stare, a polite smile. Until at last of them dared to ask.

‘Doesn’t your girlfriend or wife care for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, standing still on the footpath.

‘Well, your shirt is crumpled’, she said. The others in our group murmured agreement.

‘It’s a t-shirt’, I said. ‘Who irons a t-shirt?’

‘And when you signed the new contract last week, you wore a crumpled shirt’, she said. ‘And it was not tucked in. It was hanging outside your pants!’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. ‘I haven’t owned an iron for more than 15 years and I prefer to wear my shirts out’.

‘What about your girlfriend or wife?’ she said.

‘She is even more scruffy than I am,’ I said. ‘Crumpled shirts, old and torn clothes hanging out, hair messy … a grungy look, we call it’.

This was the moment for genuine consternation. How in the world could a woman not be concerned with creases, crumples, and tucked in clothes?

But that was not the real issue.

‘Anyone who looks at you does not think about whether you can take out the creases in your crumpled clothes’, she said. ‘They immediately think your girlfriend must not really care for you. They will think badly of her’.

‘It has got nothing to do with anyone else’, I said. ‘I prefer not to worry about these things’.

‘And your shoes’, she said.

‘What about my shoes?’ I asked.

‘They are muddy’, she said.

‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been hiking a couple of days ago, so they have some mud left on them’.

‘Your girlfriend really doesn’t care about you!’

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On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.