The Chinese Shower MAG

By Unknown, Unknown, Unknown

   Itsmelled of grass and dirt and people and worse - every kind of imaginable filth.Flies swarmed while insect corpses littered the mud-streaked ground and walls.Rusted and corrugated pipes led to old iron faucets. A few feet away lay a smalldrain enshrined in mud with a halo of bugs. The heat was all encompassing, andthere was Katie's grandmother, holding our towels, yelling at us and waving herarms like the symphonic conductor of Hell.

Exactly six months before andhalfway around the world, the only showers I knew were sparkling clean andcomplete with Western niceties. That was all I knew the day I sat in chemistry,listening to Katie complain about having to go to her childhood home in China forthe summer.

"Lucky," I told her. "Wish I couldcome."

"Really?" she asked. "So why don'tyou?"

And, as it grew closer to August, I found myself with a neatpacket of plane tickets, a visa pasted in my passport, a rough introduction toMandarin, a million good-byes, and a small seat with a few square inches oflegroom on a 777 to Beijing.

My first impressions of China came in adrowsy, sleep-deprived haze before I collapsed into a bed at the Western hotelKatie and I stayed at a few blocks from her grandparents' apartment inTianjin.

After spending a lazy day adjusting to the 12-hour time change,we saw everything we could in Tianjin, from the markets to the tourist traps. Weeven took a train, slower than hell and a good deal grimier, to the small ruraltown of Jixian nestled in the mountains south of Tianjin.

Jixian wasbeautiful with its rolling mountains straddled by the Great Wall, its backgroundof trees full of ripe pears, peaches and walnuts, and rolling cornfieldsinterspersed with fields of wildflowers. We visited a thousand-year-old Buddhisttemple and admired its swooping roofs, architecture and neatly tended gardens. Weclimbed the Great Wall, walked in million-year-old caves, snapped pictures andbought cheap souvenirs. And then we went to the hotel.

The hotel was alsoa restaurant, one with dirt-marked chairs and stained bowls, quite a differentbreed from the manicured places we had patronized in Tianjin. We walked to thestairway, Katie and I following her family up the two flights of mud-splatteredtile. With each step the smell grew, an odor I couldn't place then or now, butthat I came to think of as the amalgamation of the lack of Western cleaningproducts with the wear and tear of life in poverty-stricken China.

Therewere two rooms, one for Katie's mother, aunt, cousin, and grandmother, and onefor Katie and me. We trudged into our room, where four beds greeted us. The bedswere plastic mattresses, probably harder than the floor and only marginallycleaner. I winced at the layer of grime and the corpses of insects. Dirtyblankets and pillows lay in rolls at the head of each bed, linens that Katie'smother quickly told us not to use.

Katie's first move, after droppingher bag on a bed, was toward the small fan hanging on the wall by the door. Sheplugged the cord into the socket and pulled the strings hanging down until thefan began its slow, whining hum and proceeded to do little to stir the stagnantair.

"We're gonna have to sleep here," Katie said. It was astatement, not a question, uttered with grim determination. Katie was born andraised in China, but in a clean city apartment with all the trimmings. This washer first visit to the countryside.

I nodded. "Yeah, somehow. Butwow, I'm hot."

"Me, too," she replied, pulling at the neckof her t-shirt.

"I'm still sticky from the Great Wall." My jeansclung to my legs and I could even feel that the small of my back wasdamp.

There was a sharp knock at the door and Katie's mother walked in. Wewere told there was a shower, but our enthusiasm quelled as we approachedit.

Katie and I listened to her mother's directions on how to use thefaucets, but we needed only a quick glance at the formerly white walls and drain,near the faucets and caked in dirt and a whiff of the odor, to make up our mindsand flash each other an agreeing glance. Back in our rooms, we decided, as I putit, that we were dirty as it was, but there was a sizeable risk that aftershowering we'd be even dirtier.

Her grandmother walked into the room 15minutes later in fresh clothes with a wet head. In Chinese, she advised us toshower, saying how cool and clean she was.

Katie's grandmother, who stoodbarely five feet tall with gray hair and a diminishing number of teeth, was manythings, but unobservant wasn't one of them. Katie flashed me a "wild horsescouldn't drag me into that disgusting excuse for a shower" look, and hergrandmother immediately demanded to know why we wouldn't shower.

Katie'sexcuses enraged her grandmother, and within 20 minutes, the small woman hadrailroaded us - now wearing shower shoes and toting fresh clothes, shampoo andsoap - down two flights of stairs, through a small dirt yard, and into thatgodforsaken room.

That was when Katie and I started protesting, me in myrudimentary Mandarin, Katie whining in her native language. "It's sodirty," we complained. "We're going back to Tianjin tomorrow. Pleasedon't make us."

Her grandmother wouldn't have any of it. She orderedus to undress; we were going to wash, and she would stay to watch the door, anold wooden mess lacking a lock.

We began with fresh complaints, and I, myMandarin leaving much to be desired, hadn't fully articulated my point whenKatie's grandmother yelled at us to undress at the threat of hitting us.

We quieted and began to peel off our sticky shirts, not really because of whatshe said but her tone, which was annoyed to the point of fury.

That waswhen she started telling us a story I'd heard before, when Katie and I had idlydiscussed the lives of our relatives during a dull moment in class.

Hergrandmother told us how the Cultural Revolution had forced her and her husband,both doctors, out of their comfortable city home and into the countryside to workon a farm.

Naked, encumbered with awkward modesty, Katie and I listenedsilently as we tried to start the water. Her grandmother went on.

The countryside, she said, was far poorer than this, with no toilets.They showered perhaps once a month in conditions far worse than these. For eightyears they lived in utter destitution with their two daughters, Katie's aunt andmother, before being allowed to return to the city.

Though I had followedthe narrative, I didn't understand one word that was constantlyrepeated.

"What does ku mean?" I asked Katie.

She turnedto look at me. "Hardship."

Her grandmother continued, sayingthey ate only what they grew, or livestock they raised, and were hungry moreoften than not. As doctors, they had to travel over mountains to heal people,while also doing farmwork.

She took our fingers and rubbed them againstthe calloused parts of her inner palms. "Ku," she repeated.

Istared at her, my hand on her palm, speechless.

Finally, we walked intothe stream of water. It was then that I forgot my own nakedness, or maybe I justno longer cared. My mind even strayed from the all-pervasive stench, theonce-white walls, the floor tiles so filthy their initial color was no longerapparent. The shower was still there, in all its rancid glory, but I took my soapand stepped under the water.

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