When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.
While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.
While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:
Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.
I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.
Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian
Social taboos restrict essential elements of healthcare. Sex education, contraception, and abortion are not available from official institutions like schools and hospitals. Most families are unable to discuss such things, assuming such knowledge is unnecessary until learnt within a marriage. Young people must teach themselves about sex, turning to simple pamphlets for education and unofficial clinics for healthcare. Misconceptions about contraception and diseases prevail, and young women lie to doctors about medical issues resulting from botched back-street abortions. This is sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) from May Thant’s perspective.
Is sex education available before marriage?
Yes. Not at school but outside, from medical centres. Some girls don’t know about sex exactly, and some girls read a lot and they know about it. These girls find the information in books we have about it in our language [Burmese], published by medical centres. We can buy them easily, at the bookshop. But most Myanmar girls are too shy to talk about sex.
Do parents talk about sex with their daughters or sons?
Here that would be very strange. That’s like an open type of relationship between parents and their children. But most Myanmar children don’t talk about this with their parents. They would never ask them about it. The thing is [there is no need to learn about sex before marriage because] we will know after we are married.
Is there pressure to get married?
Here, people usually get married under thirty. Some girls over thirty don’t get married, they just live with their parents and they don’t get married. There are women who never get married, who never know about sex, never have children.
They will live with their parents or family until old age.
In other countries, you can live alone when you are over 18. But here, we cannot live alone before we are married. After we are married, it is okay if we live by ourselves. But if we never get married, we have to live with our parents.
It is the same for boys and girls. Right now, I live with my aunt. My parents are in my hometown. If I didn’t have any family in Yangon I would have to live in a hostel, or rent an apartment with friends. Many people rent an apartment with friends, but only if there is no family to stay with.
What kind of relationships do people have before marriage?
Right now, the cities have many [young] couples, and many couples have sex before they are married. We are facing a problem because young adults don’t know how to use condoms, so they don’t use [protection] and the girls get pregnant. They [usually] don’t want to have children before they are married.
For example, in our society, if I got pregnant [or had] children before I got married, then I would get shame. How can I say it? I would get shame, and my parents wouldn’t call me their daughter. I would be cut off from everyone, everything, and it could affect my job too. Maybe I would get fired from my job. But most of the girls [in this situation] don’t want to have the baby, so they have an abortion.
Is it easy to get an abortion?
Yes, very easy. You don’t have to go to the hospital for it. In most of the hospitals here, they don’t perform abortions. At the hospital you have to register and things like that. But there are some places you don’t have to register and it is easy to have an abortion. Some [of these] places are not safe for your health.
The places are not like clinics. It is just… how can I say? Just a house, just a nurse doing abortions for money. [They go to] a nurse’s house, with a nurse who is not working anymore – like a retired nurse, or the nurse’s daughter [who] the nurse is teaching how to make an abortion. Something like this. They don’t always know what they’re doing.
But girls get an abortion from [these places] outside, and if it is not good for their health, like there is too much bleeding, and they go to the hospital. The doctors will scold them and ask: “why did you do this?” but they don’t perform abortions [at the hospital].
The patient won’t tell the doctor she had an abortion. The patient will just say, “I have this problem.”
Do women tell anyone if they have an abortion?
They don’t find out. She doesn’t tell anyone. It can be very dangerous. But mostly, her mother will know. [Young women] are scared of their father, and they talk about everything with their mother. Most girls talk to their mother every day; they talk about everything together. Some mothers help their daughters to have an abortion because it affects your reputation [if people find out about the pregnancy or abortion] and the mother worries that the daughter could be poor if it affects her reputation.
Women can talk about an abortion with their mother, but they won’t talk about sex.
When do married couples usually have children?
They don’t have to. [Usually] they don’t want children for one or two years after marriage. After two years, they start to have babies. Some marriages [happen] to have a baby. For example, if a girl had sex with her boyfriend and got pregnant, then her house[hold] know she got pregnant, and they talk to her boyfriend’s house[hold] or mother, like this. They get married so they [can] have the baby after the marriage. About thirty to forty percent of marriages start like this in our country.
[May laughs when I explain the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’.]
Is contraception available for couples who don’t want to have a baby?
Condoms and pills are easy to buy and easy to get. But I think some boys don’t like to use condoms, and some girls won’t take the pills after sex, because they forget or they don’t want to.
Traditionally, the wife’s role is to make the husband’s life easy. Is that true?
Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. Women think they cannot find money for their family, and they obey their husband like a king for finding money to support the family.
Men always want to be higher than their wives or their children. But women are more intelligent than men or boys. Women always treat their husband like a king, and men are proud to be themselves.
For example, my grandmother treated my grandfather like a king. For breakfast, she will ask what time he wants it, and she will make sure it is ready for him when he wants. At lunchtime, it will be ready for him when he asked for it. It is the same for many other things. They make sure everything is ready for the man.
Now, some educated women don’t think like this. They can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.
Some men will not allow their wives to use contraception because they believe contraceptives have dangerous side effects.
Yes. In our country we don’t have enough knowledge about sex. Here we’re a cultural country. Many religious people don’t know about [contraception]. Some educated people will give them knowledge of sex, but they won’t accept it. They say, “it’s a very personal problem and you don’t need to talk about it in public.” Even now, it is like this.
But times are changing. In a big town like Yangon, Mandalay, and places like this, most teenagers have enough knowledge of sex and they can accept [education]. But in a small place they don’t have enough knowledge of sex. There they look down on people who have HIV and AIDS, and [doctors] will not treat these patients. They don’t have enough knowledge of the disease to know it can be contracted by other’s blood. Most people think it is only about sex, so they look down upon it.
“Don’t tell me that all Chinese guys like skinny girls, that’s just not true!” Yuan Xiaodan’s experience tells otherwise: her high school nickname, ‘Princess of Peace’ has another meaning. In this short film, Xiaodan tells us a heartwarming story about bullying, family relationships, and lasting friendships.
Princess of Peace is the second Narrate China film, created by China Narrative Collective who aim to vividly share stories of real life experiences in China and make intimate perspectives accessible online.
There is a phenomenon quietly sweeping through China, aptly named ‘xiàoyuán dài’ or ‘campus loans’, through which university students are falling rapidly into debt with little way out. Young people on university campuses are being targeted by online finance companies who give out loans or brand new iPhones, with no down payment required.
Most of China’s vast student population are supported by their proud parents, and don’t need to worry about tuition fees or spending money. With accommodation fees as low as 600 yuan (£70 or $87) per year, and meals for as little as 5 yuan (58p or 72¢) students can hardly plead the exorbitant costs of life on campus.
That pocket money sent from home, however, is unlikely to cover much beyond the basics. Leaving campus was once an unusual undertaking, a journey of necessity rather than desire or curiosity but these days students are less satisfied with staying put. Wander around the student districts, like Wudaokou in Beijing, and you’ll see streets lined with foreign shops, boutiques, coffee shops, bars, clubs, imported food stores and KTV venues. This is where students manage to drop that cash. For some, spending money is one method of maintaining relationships or saving face.
One report was about a college student in Zhengzhou, Central China’s Henan province, who borrowed 8,000 yuan ($1,214) at first but had to repay about 80,000 yuan in accumulated debt and interest after just six months through a series of repayment borrowings. He finally committed suicide as he couldn’t pay.
Students are suckered into these schemes by the ease of gaining a ready cash flow. Loans are approved within hours, using basic personal information. The consequences probably seem minor in the shadow of all the possibility that cash could grant. However, there is danger in store for these fickle borrowers.
image from: scmp
Part of the deal is weekly repayments and monstrous interest rates of as high as 30%. If students miss repayments they can be in for serious public humiliation. Some companies force borrowers to promote the loan sharks to their friends, tying them into a pyramid scheme. Many companies hold precious collateral: students are required to submit a nude image with his or her national ID card in frame, before the loan can be approved. This image becomes the threat: it will be publicly released online in the event of failure to meet repayment deadlines. Some companies offer larger sums (from two to five times more) to those who send nude images, a deal offered almost exclusively to female students.
One relieved student in this situation said, anonymously:
Fortunately, my family paid the money. The interest is very high. If you wanted to borrow 1,000 yuan, the weekly interest is 300 yuan, which means you have to owe 1,300 yuan within a week.
This issue has been widely reported but no law has yet been successfully enforced. This could be due to the low threshold for establishing lending platforms in China, as some companies masquerade under the e-commerce umbrella. Since there are no strict laws or regulations on campus loans, there’s little hope of management, and colleges are being advised to offer financial awareness training to university students instead.
Recently, on a flight home to China after a week away, I was mistaken for a man.
Moments before we landed in the southern city Guangzhou, a flight attendant reached over to my chair and pushed the button that made my chair spring upright. It was an awkward moment, in which he assumed that invading my personal space would be easier than communicating, perhaps because I was obviously desperate to finish the movie.
Assuming his English was not strong, I forgave him his trespasses – it’s often hardest to remember necessary phrases in a second language at the moment they require use. Then my brain caught up: what had I heard him say, despite the movie climax? I turned to my boyfriend for reassurance. He was grinning: “Did you hear what he called you?”
I rewound the exchange and my brain processed it; he’d said, “Excuse me, Sir.”
I’d never been addressed as ‘Sir’ before.
It dawned on me that my outward appearance was not decidedly feminine. I was wearing jeans and an oversized hoody belonging to my boyfriend, I didn’t have any makeup on, and my short hair was plastered down on my head.
I’ve never had hair this length before. Until recently, it had always been long – an obvious indication of femininity, even when everything else I wore looked neutral or masculine. Now, apparently, I’d switched sides in one swift haircut.
Admittedly, it had been a pretty drastic haircut – one that I’ve both been praised and criticized for, particularly by unsuspecting students and my very shocked boss. I’d gone from Rapunzel to G.I. Jane in a single June afternoon.
In many cultures, long hair is considered one of the primary things that renders a woman recognisably female. As both a biological by-product and cultural construction, the tie between hair and identity is strong, despite – and perhaps because of – the fact that hair is one of the few impermanent physical features. The social norms surrounding long hair and femininity go fundamentally unchallenged, despite the increasing commonality of women choosing to cut their hair short. (Especially in China, where most middle-aged women seem to have short hair, many young students choose to don a more androgynous hairstyle, and yet the extensive history of long hair being sexualised continues.) Therefore I view the outdated social expectation linking ‘woman’ with ‘long hair’ as a gender stereotype.
Returning to work after the summer months, during which my hair had grown pretty quickly, my boss told me: “Oh, you look like a ten-year-old boy.” This was apparently preferable to the “thug” look I’d been sporting when I left in June, but still lacking in comparison to his notions of “appropriate”, which could describe my appearance when I was hired. I shrugged it off while inwardly floundering, because how could I possibly respond to that?
What a thing to say to your much younger female employee, to whom you should be offering respect as a teacher and coworker. To be clear, there was no cultural misunderstanding: he’s American and I am British. We speak (almost) the same language.
We all know that gender stereotypes pervade society, but it can still be a shock to find this sexist tendency just sitting in the annals of your boss’s psyche when suddenly ‘bam!’ it hits you in the face.
I don’t care whether others think I look pretty. I don’t care whether I look the way people expect. I do, however, have a problem with people projecting their archaic image of what woman means onto me and other strong, independent women. I am offended by the implication that an impermanent change to my appearance makes me any less capable of doing my job.
Many of my female students felt the need to reassure me, “You still look beautiful.” These are young adults reading a BA in English, who with years of study under their belts could not possibly be oversimplifying their comments. Knowing several identify as feminists after an 8-week class unit on women and gender, I was disappointed by their implications of hair as the source of beauty, as this shows a reluctance or inability to question the social norms that surround women and long hair in Chinese culture. Every last one intended that to be a compliment; none of them landed.
What continues to overwhelm me is the extent to which ideas about gender are rooted in language. Now looking back – back past those overzealous students, past the outdated opinions of my boss, to the gendered mistake of the flight attendant – what’s the theme here?
It is all about language.
Despite the similarity of comments across several languages, I couldn’t help but look to the differences between Chinese and English for some answers. Of course, I don’t mean to target any language over the next. Germanic and Latinate languages have two or three genders built into everyday grammar. Both French and Spanish, for example, have speakers around the world referring to feminine tables and masculine cups of coffee.
In English, our most basic pronouns are gendered. But in spoken Chinese, ‘he’ sounds identical to ‘she’: tā. I wondered whether the flight attendant had simply misspoken… so I went further.
he / she
nánhái(zi) / nánshēng
nǚhái(zi) / nǚshēng
sir / mr.
tàitài / fūrén
honey (US) / love (UK)
In Chinese, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are about as different as the words in English but imply more equality: ‘nánrén and ‘nǚrén translate into ‘male person’ and ‘female person’.
Major differences abound in polite forms of address, however, and all are gendered, starting with ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. The formal way to address a man is ‘xiānshēng’, which means ‘Mr.’ or translates as ‘first born’ – a nod to China’s preference for boys. ‘Xiānshēng’ often follows a name, as Mr. would precede a name in English, but can also stand alone.
Some say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.
‘Xiǎojiě’ is sometimes used to address a woman in Chinese. Xiǎojiě directly translates as ‘little sister’ (or ‘small elder sister’) but means ‘miss’ or ‘young (unmarried) woman’. It is also now slang for prostitute, so is a dangerous term to use because it is very easy to cause offence. Another is the word for a married woman, ‘tàitài, which can be used as ‘madam’, ‘mrs’, ‘married woman’, and ‘wife’ – but tàitài isn’t usually used for strangers as it normally follows a name, as Mrs. would precede a name in English. Similarly, fūren is rarely used outside the context of referring to a woman as someone’s wife, as it literally means ‘husband’s person’.
A respectful form of address for any male worker is ‘shīfu’, which is a polite way to say ‘master’ or call someone a ‘qualified worker’, but is used as the way many Americans say ‘sir’. I most regularly hear shīfu used when talking to cab drivers or in reference to the ‘worker’ who comes to fix things around the house – a nod to the gendered nature of manual labour (and creating awkwardness when you don’t know what pronoun to use for a female cab driver). Chinese men will often use the term ‘gēmen’ when talking to other men. Gēmen (‘dude’ or ‘brother/brethren’) reinforces a sense of male solidarity, which pervades Chinese culture.
One that continues to surprise me is ‘měinǚ’, which is used as a synonym for ‘madam’ or ‘miss’, means something close to ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ and is far more common than xiǎojiě, tàitài, or fūrén. Měinǚ (which translates as ‘beautiful woman’) is the go-to pronoun for a woman you don’t know, particularly if you want to avoid offense regarding age. The term can be used genuinely, and innocently, between strangers, but it also connotes a level of sleaziness in certain situations. The average women can think of a moment when she’s been addressed as ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ in an overly familiar tone by someone she doesn’t know. Usually this false intimacy is trying to get her to buy something, and it grates. Měinǚ is similarly used by salespeople, housing agents, and customers who want better service.
Nǚshì is also used as ‘lady’ or ‘madam’, and is more neutral than měinǚ but less commonly used because there is possibly a class element at work here. Some might say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but I think they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.
Finally, there are the familial terms of address that commonly get used outside the family setting. For men, there is shūshu, which means uncle and implies that the individual being addressed is older than the speaker. This is what a parent or grandparent would instruct a child to call an adult male who holds the door for the family: “Say ‘thank you, shushu.’”
The equivalent for women is ‘āyí’. As it means auntie, āyí implies familiarity, but is also used for any woman older than the speaker. Children to young adults, young adults to older women. However, it is also used to describe female workers, like cleaners, cooks, babysitters, live-in child-minders, and often implies the woman is middle-aged or older. Yet it still retains its original meaning and is used without thought about a hired worker one moment and a family member the next.
How are we to believe Mao’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, come nánhái for boys, and nǚhái for girls. These pronouns are commonly used from infancy through teens and into the twenties. Similarly, nǚshēng and nánshēng refer to a young person’s student status, whether at school or university. Around twenty, young men begin to reject such infantilising terms, preferring something akin to ‘big boy’ or ‘man’. But many women continue to use nǚhái throughout their twenties and even into their late thirties, if unmarried. The reason, perhaps, being the lack of an alternative with positive connotations; unmarried women would rather be infantilised than referred to as an old woman, as a prostitute, or as ‘leftover’.
One of the most stigmatised and problematic terms in Chinese is ‘shèngnǚ’, or ‘leftover woman’. Unlike all the other pronouns listed above, shèngnǚ is rarely used in direct address or to refer to individuals. However, it is commonly used to refer to a major social issue in China, in news reports, advertisements, and other media. Women who have chosen to focus on their career instead of getting married at a young age, or have simply not found the right person to settle down with by the age of 27, are referred to as ‘leftover’. While a woman in this situation may not hear herself referred to as a shèngnǚ, she might instead be told by relatives and friends: “no-one will want to marry you.”
One of the most problematic gendered terms in English is mankind’, which rests on the outdated principle that using ‘man’ to mean the human species, is gender neutral. Here, apparently, the Chinese have got it right: ‘rénlèi’ means ‘human’, ‘humanity’ or literally, ‘people kind’.
What does all of this say about Chinese society? Well, it seems clear that all terms of address, whether formal or familiar, are gendered in some way. Every pronoun seems to carry some kind of connotation, but those for women tend to have more serious, offensive or damaging implications than those for men.
Chinese women constantly hear references to their age, marital status, appearance, and sexual availability, simply when being addressed by the people around them. Girls and young women grow up into this culture, knowing that their language is lacking something essentially positive and uplifting for women. Not to mention the use of gendered pronouns for those people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, how does any woman find her own sense of identity and self worth within this restrictive, dogmatic system?
How are we to believe Mao Zedong’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?
With conversations about gender becoming ever more prevalent worldwide, and contemporary social movements problematizing traditional notions of sexuality and gender, it is increasingly more important that our use of language reflect the reality of life in China. My ultimate remedy? Find new pronouns.
In April this year, my wonderful mother came to visit me in Beijing. She hadn’t taken an international trip alone for a few years. Well, she hadn’t left Europe alone for something like 30 years. (Having kids changes things like that, I would think.) So she boarded a plane from Norwich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Beijing, and arrived with me on a Friday morning, a little before 9.
We were overjoyed to see one another. It had been nine months since I’d left home, since I’d sent her home with a pile of stuff I’d had to jettison and we’d had our last hug at Heathrow airport. That was the longest we’d spent apart in the nearly twenty-six years since I was born.
It was difficult for me, but it was I who had made the decision to leave. I can’t imagine what it is like for a mother to watch her child move abroad, not knowing when she would see her little girl again, nor knowing anything of what her little girl would see. My mother still says, her chin barely reaching my shoulder as I squeeze her a little too tight: “how did you get so big? Where did my little squidge go?”
I know it was difficult for her. Especially so since I had decided to stay in Beijing for a second year. Seeing me in April was a big deal. Plus this was the first time she’d ever been to China. I had to make this a more-than-memorable trip for her. I had to show her how China had captured my heart and might never let me go. So I set about planning an itinerary for an adventure she would never forget.
We skipped across China, hand in hand from one province to the next, for a little over two weeks. We spent entire days climbing holy mountains, spoke broken Chinese to beekeepers in rural hillside villages, met Chinese families who gave us boxes of tea, ate unbearably spicy dinner with young English major students, took painfully long bus rides through winding valleys and got terrible altitude sickness in the Himalayas of western Sichuan.
My mother is a brilliantly fun patient travel partner. She bore everything in good humour and often surpassed me in physical stamina. She told me constantly how impressed she was that I could speak enough Chinese to make sure she got no meat in her food.
Towards the end of our second week of travel, we’d made it Litang, a small town on the China-Tibet highway. At 4,012 metres above sea level, it just so happened to be the highest point either of us had ever been to. Our bus journey there had taken us form below 3,000 metres to above 5,000 metres and back down again. I had sweated and vomited almost the entire journey, my ever-calm mother talking me through it moment by moment.
So, after three days in Litang, most of it spent huddling, heads aching, under the blankets in our hotel room while drinking five-flavour tea to counteract the altitude (apparently all the ingredients are picked at above 5,000 metres, and none contain caffeine, so it is especially good at curing altitude sickness), and some spent exploring the plains, the nearby temple and the sixth Dalai Lama’s birthplace, we just had a few last hours before the sun would set on our final day in the Tibetan world around us.
The kind, well-spoken Tibetan woman who ran the hotel had told us about hot springs nearby, recommending again and again that we go, so we finally let her arrange for her husband to take us. We hadn’t read anything about this place, so were excited to get beyond the Lonely Planet suggestions for Litang. I imagined a vast open space overlooking the town, where hot, clean water bubbled from the ground, forming a small pool before trickling down the mountainside. Mum said we should prepare for the wind at that height, and we both hoped the extra altitude wouldn’t be a problem.
As we prepared to leave the hotel, the owner explained that her husband would drive us there, drop us off and come back an hour later. We were confused, but we climbed into the car. As the engine started up, she leaned towards me in the passenger seat and advised me not to get my hair wet because there was no hairdryer there. I looked at her blankly, a vague understanding of the situation dawning in the back of my mind.
“We haven’t got towels. Do we need towels?” I asked her.
“Yes, they do not have towels”, she told me. “Quickly, get towels!”
I ran up to our room and grabbed both of our blue travel towels (the use of which my father always compares to drying oneself with a plastic bag) and hopped back into the car moments later. We’d already paid for this, we had to at least try to enjoy whatever was awaiting us at the end of this drive.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in a courtyard surrounded by low buildings, numbers painted above the numerous doors. A quick exchange in a language that was neither Chinese nor English, but Tibetan, led to a woman unlocking and opening one of the many doors, shoving a wadge of something fabric-like into a corner and loosening a huge plastic tap. Water poured forth into a very basic paved concrete pool. Our chaperone pointed to his watch, said “one hour” to me in Chinese and waved goodbye before he drove us. This was it. The hot springs we’d imagined dissolved before our eyes, realisation dawned. This was simply an elaborate ruse to get a British mother and daughter into a hot bath together for the first time in 20 years.
In actual fact, it was lovely. We stripped down shyly (and quickly, thanks to the bitter cold) and sat on the cold tiled edge for a while, trying to acclimatise to the heat. Sinking slowly into the water, we relaxed completely. The heat stripped away the tension that days of cold and discomfort had bestowed, leaving us energised and talkative.
It was the best bath I’d had in years.
A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia