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 dangle 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]