Learning to Embrace Guanxi: On Living Communally in China
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers on a Two-Year Teaching Fellowship in Taigu
Before Taigu, people warned me: China was a fiercely social country. After I arrived, I rarely went anywhere unaccompanied. I was ushered into crowded noodle stalls and into corner stores stuffed with plum juice, chicken feet, and hot-water thermoses. I often needed help at the post office, with its hundreds of strict regulations and wisp-thin envelopes you sealed with a depressor and paste. Students took me to the White Pagoda and the courtyard of H. H. Kung, the only historical sites in town that hadn’t been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Eventually, I’d be invited into my Chinese colleagues’ small apartments, where several generations of the family often lived together. I’d be generously served five kinds of dumplings, the bowl full again before I had the chance to set down my chopsticks.
In the unheated, Soviet-feeling building where I taught university English, I waited in line with other women to use toilets without doors or stalls. At first, I tried to turn my face away from the others, demurring. But there was no use trying to hide anything about our bodies here: whose stomach was upset, or who was crying, or who was on her period that day. We saw it all. We offered stacks of tissues when someone had run out of their own supply.
I lived in a tiny brick house, the tiles on my roof painted with evil eyes to ward off badness. I’d often wake to the arguing of an unknown college couple, shouting their insults right in front of my window, just a few feet away from where I had been sleeping. I’d stumble into the kitchen, startled to find a stranger outside the back door, shaking my (was it mine?) jujube tree and picking up the fruits from the ground.
Like most teachers at the agricultural university, I lived on campus, and I wasn’t hard to find. My thoughtful students showed up on my front stoop, bearing jars of weird, floating grains and fermented vegetables sent by their grandmothers. “If you eat this for six days,” they’d say, “you will be well.”
The word was out: I was sick a lot. It was my first time living abroad, and the new microbes were hard on my body. In Taigu, there was delicious street food as well as contaminated cooking oil, air, and groundwater. Shanxi province, even by Chinese standards, was an environmental disaster. The coal plants were next to the grain fields, pink and green smoke rising out of the stacks. On a good day, you could see the mountains that surrounded campus. Most of the time, they were hidden by pollution. Particulate matter caked the windowsills in my house.
People were curious about me. I was asked daily by strangers in the market square what country I was from and why I had come to Shanxi province—sort of the West Virginia of China, except that it was on the edge of the desert—as opposed to the more glamorous Shanghai or Beijing. They also asked how old I was, how much money I made teaching at the university, if I’d eaten that day yet, and, if so, what had I eaten? And why was I “a little bit fat,” they said, but not as fat as some Americans? How often did I need to color and perm my hair? (It was reddish and was curly on its own, I said.) Was that American living in the other half of my duplex my boyfriend? (He was not.) Well, did I at least have a boyfriend in the States? (Sarah, my girlfriend from college, was teaching down in Indonesia, but I didn’t explain her, for obvious reasons.) And, occasionally, from students and younger friends: What did I think of the movie American Pie Presents: Beta House? Was it an accurate portrayal of American university life?
Eventually, I borrowed my friend Zhao Xin’s laptop so I could watch the pirated version with Chinese subtitles. I was horrified. One of the thankfully forgotten sequels of the original American Pie, it made me squeamish during scenes of a fraternity’s hazing ritual, something about attaching a bucket of beer to some guy’s genitalia. There was also one exaggerated fire-hose moment, a sorority sister experiencing female ejaculation for the first time. As for the question of whether this resembled university life in the United States, I told them, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure. I had just graduated from a small, studious college in the Midwest. Despite its sex-positive atmosphere, things were, all in all, pretty quiet there, with some nerdily themed parties but no Greek life at all.
In truth, I’d had plenty of sex in college, but that had to be my own business. More specifically, I didn’t reveal my lesbian identity to anyone in China, at least at first. I responded to boyfriend questions with a simple “No.” I didn’t know what the consequences of coming out might be, and I couldn’t take the risk. Keeping this a secret, I’d come to realize later, was part of what made me feel so isolated that first year in China, even though other people surrounded me.
As a student in America, my life had been pretty communal. Still, like a number of Generation Y, middle-class, considerably selfish Americans, I thought I was fiercely independent and staged myself as the protagonist in my own life story. Very little prepared me for the level of social responsibility and interconnectedness that came with moving to Taigu. One of the first words I learned was guanxi, which can be roughly translated as “social connections,” or maybe “relationships.” If you had guanxi with others, you could count on them for most everything, and they could count on you; if you failed to foster a sense of guanxi, people would resent you or think of you as selfish, even though they might not say it out loud. Guanxi emphasized—or mandated—the whole you were a part of rather than the part you played alone.
I embraced this idea the best I knew how. My American co-fellow, Ben, and I mounted a disco ball in our living room and started hosting weekly dance parties for our Chinese friends: social activity for the greater good, something students reported as scarce on our small-town, farm-school campus. At these parties, at first, we’d awkwardly stand in a circle. But then the sorghum-alcohol punch we provided began to take effect, and our loopy, arrhythmic movements took over the room. Over time, we perfected our playlist: a mix of American 80s and 90s hits and cheesy Chinese pop songs. By our second year in China, our living room floor was beginning to split from people’s dancing enthusiasm.
The Americans got a wild reputation on campus. Our parties were on Thursday nights, but then we got a noise complaint from the university’s vice president, who happened to live in a house just 30 feet from our front door. When we showed up on his porch the morning after, with a giant fruit bowl and profuse apologies, he smiled and invited us in, as if nothing bad had happened. Our guanxi, the neighborhood harmony, seemed to be restored.
Overall, however, I was not the best at fostering guanxi. I often found myself hungry for space between others and myself: a necessary measure to quiet the buzz in my dislocated brain. I’d draw the curtains and hole up in my side of my foreign-teacher duplex, the door to my side half closed. This action was usually perceived as hostile or a symptom of possible depression.
“Why is she not coming out here?” I heard someone ask Ben on the other side of my door. “Is she sad about something? Why is she alone?”
The word alone in Mandarin can be translated in various ways. The expression I heard on the other side of my door, traveling by myself on a train, or walking down the street solo was yi ge ren. Yi is “one”; ge is a kind of counting word, placed between a number and an object. And ren means “person” or “people.” The expression “Are you yi ge ren?” when translated literally is “Are you one person?” In context, though, I began to understand this as a way of asking, “Are you on your own? Are you alone?”
Of course, I was rarely 100 percent alone, unless you counted when I was asleep or in the single-person bathroom in my apartment. I had come to Taigu paired with Ben, another recent college graduate, and there were two more Americans living in the house next door to us, doing their second year of the same teaching fellowship we’d all received. Most of our life outside of class involved a mixed group of American fellows and Chinese graduate students, with a few older Chinese undergraduates mixed in. We ate dinner together most nights at the hot pot place, just outside the campus gate, or at one of the noodle stalls at school.
Every once in a while, though, I’d find myself walking alone in public. I was not afraid: not near my house, not on the other side of campus, not even in the bleak brick-and-mud Taigu village alleys scattered with trash and piles of used coal pellets. There were terrible stories, real or imagined, of people getting snatched up around here and having their organs harvested. There was a line of massage parlors, a sort of red-light district, the neon signs flickering on and off.
When I passed another person, I’d see what I came to know as the Look: not threatening but a look more of curiosity or even shock, mostly due to my obvious non-Han appearance. Sometimes they’d ask me where I was from. Some would say nothing. Some would even ask me if I was okay, if I had eaten, and where I was going.
I don’t know whether it was the fact that we lived in the ultramilitarized People’s Republic or just that Taigu men are not the type to catcall, but I always maintain that China felt like the safest place I’d ever lived. Perhaps my outsider status as a Westerner protected me. Years later, when I returned to the United States, finding myself living in a host of smaller towns, as well as cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, I was shocked at how often some stranger on the street would whoop at me or stare for too long or start to walk too close. In my own homeland, strangely, I felt the most unsafe being by myself.
* * * *
In a country of a billion people, personal space isn’t just something that’s frowned upon; it’s often impossible to find. Even a small town like Taigu—just 40,000 people—was no exception. If you wanted to be alone in the daytime, you could ride your bicycle past the grain fields and the coal- and bauxite-processing plants to the even smaller village at the edge of the mountains, where there were several temples in the outcroppings.
In China, university dorms are not named after famous educators or benefactors but are instead referred to by serial numbers: “26 building,” “27 building,” and so on. I soon discovered that the undergraduates were living eight to a room: four sets of bunk beds pressed against the walls, one shared table in the barely existent center of the room. The graduate students, thought to be deserving of a bit more space, were also in dorms but housed in groups of four. The first time I entered a dorm room at the agricultural university, it was as if I was entering a unit in a warehouse. I saw schoolbooks, clothes, shoes, packages of dry noodles, and clothes-washing bowls crammed beneath the lowest bunks and around the perimeter. The room’s one narrow window was strung with several drying lines for shirts and underwear. It was the middle of the day, so the students were elsewhere.
My friend Wang Yue, a 20-year-old English major, pointed disapprovingly to one of lower bunks and told me that a pair of her roommates—two 19-year-olds who preferred to be called by their self-selected English names, Sky King and Toni—always slept side by side in this single bed. They were obviously in the early stages of a romance. “It’s like they wish the rest of us weren’t here,” Wang Yue told me, rolling her eyes.
It was unclear to me where her disdain came from. Was it just homophobia? Was she annoyed because these women had upset the guanxi and balance of the group, prioritizing their personal interests over the harmony of whole? Or was it because they were two women, finding a loophole in the single-gender dorm, the thing that was supposed to keep students focused on school, not on sex?
Everyone on campus was struggling for intimate space. The foreign teachers’ houses were adjacent to a small, circular garden where the willow and birch trees created a shadowy canopy over a few park benches. This was hardly a hidden place, but it was more secluded than the rest of campus. If I passed by at nightfall, I’d see the flash of someone’s limbs wrapped around another body, and then another couple on the next bench, just a few feet of away. This was the official campus hook-up area, a kind of 21st-century drive-in theater. The students called it the qingren shulin, or “Lovers’ Forest.”
Even the privacy in my half-a-duplex was not a thing I could always count on. My girlfriend, Sarah—who also had a teaching fellowship, but down in Indonesia—managed to visit China the first fall I was there, during her Ramadan break from school. We’d spent a large part of our senior year in college in bed together, but coming to teach in Asia, as well as our physical separation, had resulted in an almost celibate life for both of us. Desperate, we tried to cram as many sessions as possible into those two weeks of her visit.
One late Friday afternoon, we got interrupted by Ben’s frantic knocking on the door to my bedroom. He warned us that Xiao Zhang, a staff member for the Foreign Affairs Office, had just come over, and she was about to walk in any minute. She needed to see something on my side of the house, and right now, apparently.
A wave of indignation passed through me, which was instantaneously replaced by panic. I didn’t have any closets to hide inside. There were no locks in our house, except on the front door. And it was no use to pretend to be out: Xiao Zhang and the office staff members, for all sorts of reasons, regularly came into our apartments when we weren’t home and would have no trouble coming into the bedroom. The units belonged to the university, after all; we were just living in them.
Flushed, I pulled on my tossed-off clothes and rushed out into the foyer area, apologizing for my delay. I tried to close the bedroom door behind me, but, like most doors in the house, it didn’t fully latch. Xiao Zhang advised me, in the slowest Mandarin she could manage, about getting some sticky paper to try and trap the mice that had invited themselves in just after the weather had turned. “Right,” I kept saying, nodding, hoping to make the conversation as short as possible. I stopped understanding her instructions after a while. My language skills were not up to snuff, especially when I was panicked.
But it was clear from her hand motions that she was describing what happens when the mouse actually dies its horrible death inside the adhesive. She even went so far as to mimic a rodent scream, just so I would be prepared. I stood fidgeting. On the other side of the partially cracked door, Sarah was hidden under the duvet, still undressed and trying not to move.
* * * *
Besides teaching, eating, and the lessons with my Chinese tutor, I spent a few late afternoons a week at the campus’s indoor swimming pool. The idea of swimming, especially in a poor, dry province like Shanxi, sounded luxurious in theory. In practice, the pool felt like an environmental apocalypse, so gritty and chemicalized that you could barely make out the T’s on the tiled bottom. The water smelled like a mix of spoiled vegetables and bleach. The chlorine powder was dispensed in satchels that looked like giant artificial jellyfish floating just above the underwater jets.
One week, I ran into my student and his friends on their way back from the pool building. He told me they had closed the pool down for a couple of days. “They must change the water this week,” he told me assuredly, in English. “It is the first time in seven years they will change the water.” I hoped something had been lost in translation.
The pool scene was, despite this, pleasant enough. Of course, if you headed there with the sole intention of swimming a bunch of laps, you’d be frustrated. Like everywhere else, the pool was full of bodies, especially in the shallow end. For every 15 meters I swam, I’d usually stop to talk to someone: a student, or a friend, or sometimes a complete stranger. If I didn’t stop, I’d likely collide with them in the water anyway.
Right away, I noticed that most of the women stayed in the shallow end, trying to develop the basic skills to pass the university’s swimming test. The lifeguards/pool keepers, all middle-aged men with beer guts and sagging swim trunks, were impressed with my sessions in the deep end and with my swimming skills. “You have a good sui jue,” one of them told me, which literally translates to “feeling of the water.”
But my sense of the water wasn’t intuitive so much as it was another marker of my Western, middle-class upbringing. I thought of the series of photos in my mother’s albums back in North Carolina: me at six months, fat and smiling, at baby swim class at the YWCA; me at four, splashing in the waves at the beach; my first swim-team picture at the age of six, posed next to the diving board. In China, however, swimming pools were scarce, and most natural bodies of water seemed apocalyptically contaminated. For most of the Chinese students, the university was the first place they’d had access to anyplace where they could swim.
* * * *
The women at the pool intimidated me. It was not because of their swimming. It was the locker-room shower scene that I found daunting: an enormous, packed-to-the-gills mob of bodies and steam.
Unless you are very wealthy in Shanxi, most homes do not have their own shower. Chinese towns have public bathhouses. At university, similarly, there were no showers in the dorms themselves; showering was something most people did a couple of times a week in one of the university’s provided facilities. Or, if you bought a swim pass, you could take your showers at the pool.
At any given time, the showers at the pool had four or five people gathered around each showerhead, taking turns to rinse. To pass through this shower room, even just on your way to or from the pool, was to push through a crowd of women and soap and hair. Much to my Puritan dismay, it was almost impossible to find unscented anything in rural China, including laundry detergent or maxipads, and the shower room was no exception. The air was overwhelming with its shampoo and soap perfumes, freesia and juniper and lavender. In the fog, it was a humid, scented forest, with limbs reaching in every direction.
I had never seen so many naked bodies together, been close to so many people at once. Most of the women, being students, were in their twenties: their skins completely smooth, their breasts small, their bodies angular and narrow by my own Western standards. Many of them had tied a red string around their hips, with a jade pendant for luck. There were some older women, too, who were teachers or lived in the community. Their bodies were considerably rounder, more weathered by time. Some had caesarean scars that had never faded, their bellies divided by the pink line.
The level of intimacy here terrified me. In this shower space, my own shame came from what I couldn’t hide: the obvious strangeness of my Caucasian body and its larger proportions of fat, muscle, and hair. It was one thing to walk through Taigu, wearing jeans and a jacket I’d bought in town, and be stared at immediately because of my red curls and pale skin. It was another to enter the shower room, for it to be obvious that the hair in my crotch was as red as that on top of my head.
“Wow,” my friend Wang Hui Fang said the first time she got a look at me, not long after we had met. We weren’t even showering then; she and I and our other friend were just changing into our bathing suits, stuffing our clothes into a shoebox-sized locker with no lock. “Name hong!” she exclaimed, an expression meaning “really, really red.”
When she saw my embarrassment, she switched to English and tried to reassure me.
“It is very interesting,” she said with enthusiasm. She grabbed, then, at the nonexistent flesh on her own waistline. “I am really getting fat,” she said, as if she meant to comfort me.
So I usually rushed through the shower room at the pool, being there only long enough to rinse off, my frantic quality probably causing me to get even more attention than I would have otherwise. Sometimes I avoided the shower room altogether, opting to walk home shivering, with the chlorine eating away at my hair. I was choosing, then, to use my own showerhead in my apartment, which was simply attached the wall and got everything else in the tiny bathroom wet: sink, toilet, trashcan, floor. Even in the privacy of my own bathroom, showering could be a messy, unbounded experience.
* * * *
Once I went with Wang Yue to visit her hometown of Datong in the north of Shanxi province, another cold, dusty, coal-mining city that borders Inner Mongolia. On Saturday afternoon, we went to a public bathhouse near her family’s apartment.
The showers were strangely empty that day, much less crowded than the pool building’s at school. Several middle-aged women turned to look at me incredulously and then went on with their scrubbing. With all that empty space in the tiled room, I actually felt cold, despite the hot water beating down on me.
I admitted to Wang Yue then that I felt embarrassed showering at the pool at school. To make things even weirder, I pointed out, I was a teacher. The shower room called to mind one of those teaching-anxiety dreams, I explained, when you suddenly find yourself naked in front of one of your classes. Wang Yue looked me at, confused. It hadn’t occurred to me that the “teaching naked” dream might be specific to my cultural background.
“Like, what if I see one of my students in the showers?” I asked her, reframing my point. That would be embarrassing.”
“Why?” she asked. “I mean, like . . .” she said, her English colloquialisms flawless, “they are also there taking a shower, right? They don’t care. They are doing the same thing as you.” She offered me her bottle of soap. She had a point.
* * * *
In this new phase of my life, where I felt exposed all the time, there was still so much in the culture that seemed guarded, so much information I’d never be privy to. At the start of the day’s classes, I frequently got notes from missing students who gave vague excuses for their absences. “Dear Teacher,” the notes usually read, in English. “I am sorry I will not attend class today. I have something to do.”
In Mandarin, the expression you shi means you have some kind of business to deal with, the specifics of which might be private and need not be explained in detail. There is no good translation for this phrase, at least in my experience, though my students tried. What these somethings were, I never found out.
Despite the communal culture, there was a limit to how much of myself could be seen. I had my own secret. My first year in Shanxi, I felt I couldn’t explain to any Chinese person—mostly because of the conservative social mores of where I was living—how much I longed for Sarah and how impossible communication had become, given unreliable Internet access and my crackling phone as well as the unpredictable restrictions from the government in Beijing. We found our Skype calls going silent.
As exhilarating as it was to be living abroad, there was also, for me, the day-to-day panic I didn’t know how to explain to others, which came from an accumulation of small things: not being able to read all the characters on the bus schedules or figure out how to send a package. Or what to do when you eat something that gives you violent diarrhea all night and when the water source to your toilet is cut off, in a province with severe shortages, between 10 pm and 7 am. When I think back on China, even my good days had an undercurrent of deeper, untranslatable anxiety. It was that dislocation that only comes when you find yourself living, all of a sudden, on the other side of the world and not understanding how anything works. On bad days, I felt that I shouldn’t have come to China. As an outsider, maybe I had no business being in Shanxi at all.
At night, I lay awake in my cold little bedroom, listening to the rat inside the radiator vent toenailing his way out onto the dark floor. China is a pretty loud place, but at night in Taigu, there was only this, plus one other noise: a train, about a mile away, from Xi’an on its way to Beijing, sounding its horn into the crisp, landlocked night. I could hear its pitch shift as it grew closer, then farther away. A sort of reverse alarm clock: I heard this every night at the same hour. Years later, when I think of the word alone, I still hear this sound.
* * * *
That first spring, when I’d been in China nine months, Sarah finally broke up with me over the phone, the result of a multicall argument we couldn’t seem to resolve while in two separate countries. Neither of us would back down. “This is impossible,” she admitted and then hung up, as if some unknown force in the universe was responsible for what was happening to us. Despite that fact that we were already physically separated, and knowing the unlikely odds for relationship survival—several countries between us, two new cultures to adapt to, no plans to see each other until later in the summer, and being immature, in our early twenties—the breakup blindsided me.
I wasn’t out to any of my Chinese friends yet. So the night after the phone call I spent wallowing in the company of the Americans next door, eating, in alternation, seaweed-flavored potato chips and beef-flavored potato chips. (We would eventually start calling them “breakup chips,” since hardly any American’s long-distance relationship survived while one member of the couple was living in China.) We drank large bottles of Xue Hua, a mediocre Chinese beer. The next morning, I woke at dawn, hungover and disoriented, to the loudspeaker narration of a campus-wide exercise routine. I couldn’t decipher any of the voice’s directions except for the counting parts. “Three . . . four . . . five . . . SIX!” the voice kept saying, the reason for this emphasis unclear to me.
My grief that spring was enormous, maybe even out of proportion. Before China, I had never been particularly weepy, especially not after a break-up. Now I cried any time I was not in front of a group of students: during dinner, during my Chinese lessons, after I bought vegetables in the square, while sweeping my floor or wiping the black coal dust from the windowsill. In Shanxi, all my usual emotions became augmented in ways I didn’t understand, and the boundaries for who should and shouldn’t know my feelings became more and more unclear.
Everything I ate made me sick. I started to resent hosting the usual dance parties, giving a thin-lipped smile as 20-somethings flooded my house. It wasn’t long before my new Chinese friends put two and two together, even though I had never directly explained to them that Sarah, who had visited in the fall, was my girlfriend. I did not have to spell it out. “Oh! You have xin shi,” they would tell me, letting my lesbianism be implied rather than stated outright.
When it comes to emotional matters in China, there is a variation of the vague expression you shi, the usual “I have business” or “I have something to do.” If you say you xin shi, it means, more specifically, you have a matter of the heart to deal with, or something is weighing on you, or that you’re worried in an all-consuming way. The word xin, written 心, is an actual pictograph meaning “heart.” Xin shi was how my friends referred to struggles with their boyfriends or girlfriends, or, occasionally, even more sensitive matters. (One close Chinese friend, I eventually discovered, had had three abortions in the past four years, all of which she’d kept a secret from her family and most of her friends at school.) The phrase is useful and can serve as a euphemism if you want it to, allowing you to both guard the details of your situation while also offering the gesture of an explanation.
The first time I uttered the phrase, it was because it was a bad day for me, my eyes still red and swollen when I entered the grain-seller’s store to buy a half-kilogram of flour. After I asked for the flour, the woman nodded, looked hard at me like an all-knowing mother. “You xin shi,” I said, and she seemed to accept that.
“This poor foreigner,” I heard her say to her husband, shaking her head, as I was heading out of the door. But that was the last time she’d refer to me as foreigner. I’d always be one, but the next time I came in to buy something, she called me Luo Yi Lin, the name I’d been given by a Mandarin tutor just after I’d arrived to China.
* * * *
Not surprisingly, being with other people could sometimes distract me from my breakup. But I preferred to hang out with my friends one-on-one rather than be in the crowd. My favorite thing to do that spring was to sit on my stoop late into the evening with my Chinese tutor at the time, Zhao Xin (or “Maggie,” she sometimes called herself), drinking cheap beer and talking. Maggie had slowly become my closest friend in Shanxi. She was less demure than most of the Chinese women I knew—she cursed and played badminton and got angry at her boyfriend a lot. With the formal hour of the Chinese lesson long past, our conversations tended to get crasser and crasser as the night went on. These sessions, I maintain, are how I finally got conversational in Mandarin.
Maggie showed up at my house one spring night, appearing like a ghost on the dirt path leading up to my porch. She was coming from her graduate program’s class party. “I had dry white wine,” she kept saying, over and over, in English. Something was off about the translation: there was no dry white wine, at least the kind made from grapes, anywhere in town. Maggie only spoke English to me when she was drunk; it was her secret code to let you know what she’d been up to.
She had missed the dorm curfew, so she stayed with me. We shared my double bed, talking loudly and rudely for a while, scaring off the mice. She kept asking me, in English, with a strange British accent I’d never heard, if I had any beer in the kitchen. I didn’t.
Far away, we heard the train pass, its timbre now more muddled than what I remembered in the colder months. Why was that so? We lay on our backs next to one another, our shoulders just barely touching. The ends of her black hair crossed onto my pillow. I could smell her shampoo. The room felt still, big around us. What was this? It was a closeness I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I was thinking about what could happen, what would not happen between us. We got quiet. I wanted to know what she was thinking. Finally, she rolled toward me and reached across my arm. I held my breath and froze.
In a teasing, nonsexual way, she grabbed the hem of my shirt and tried to tickle me on my stomach, the way my sisters would do when we were kids. She stopped suddenly, with the heel of her hand just below my ribs.
“It’s strong here!” she said, jubilant and surprised, pointing to my upper abdomen. “I like it.”
When I exhaled, it came out as a laugh. She rolled back onto her back. A thin sliver of moonlight was wedging its way through the bedroom curtains. Our chattering thinned out, and the room went still again. I heard her breathing shift toward sleep. Our shoulders were still touching.
* * * *
Language-wise, I finally gained the confidence to spend a good chunk of that first summer traveling alone. On a warm night in June, I stood beside the railroad tracks outside Taigu Railway Station, balancing my backpack across my feet. Alongside me was a small group of students with tiny suitcases, farmers with burlap bundles across their backs, and a handful men and women who carried nothing except poker cards and the sunflower seeds and pears they would snack on. When the train to Beijing approached, a red light and a low honking in the dark, it slowed only long enough for the twenty or so of us to climb on: not from a platform but directly from the dusty ground. A train attendant reached her hand out to grab mine.
From Taigu to Beijing, a trip I’d made many times, took nearly 11 hours, meaning we’d wake up just before the train pulled into Beijing Station. And then it was another 24 hours to Inner Mongolia, the first new place on my journey, where I’d end up, for several nights, sleeping in a yurt, under quilts and on the floor. A hole at the top of the tent showed the pollution-free, star-spangled sky.
On that train to Inner Mongolia, we passed through a dry mountain range that eventually leveled out against the grasslands: a kind of lush prairie filled with long shadows, the sky enormous and flat and blue. The herds wandered in the distance, a scatter of white coordinates. I sat on a foldout seat by window, talking to strangers for hours. “Are you yi ge ren?” they would ask me, surprised, wanting to know if I was really traveling by myself.
I was, I said. And I wasn’t, in another sense. At night, in my train compartment, I slept on the high bunk with my backpack nestled under my head. There were two strangers on the bunks below me, and three more against the opposite wall. We were together, if only for tonight. A man across the way snored rhythmically, precise. I could still feel my grief from the past year close to the surface, but it felt good not to be alone as I drifted into an on-off sleep. The six of us jostled across the terrain, passing towns and villages in the dark. Occasionally, I woke to the train’s deceleration and the thunk of a new rider being hoisted aboard.
* * * *
Back in Taigu, I had finally gotten over the showers at the swimming pool. Because my American co-fellows were men, they couldn’t help me with this. I faced my fear by always entering the shower surrounded by my women friends. This is what all the women did; I don’t know why it took so long for me to figure out that it was my aloneness, not just my foreign body, that made people stare.
After a long afternoon in the pool, with our hands turned as wrinkly Shanxi’s jujubes, we climbed out of the water and slipped into our plastic slippers, careful not to fall as we headed into the tile corridor. We passed the open toilet stalls, the stench pricking my nose, just before the perfumed smell of the shower room took over. We peeled ourselves out of our suits and wrung them out with our hands. I could feel my breasts swaying a little as I stepped over the tile ledge, the cold air grabbing my bare skin. As I crossed into the foggy threshold, I heard, in English: “Teacher!”
I had finally run into a group of my students. They were undergraduate freshmen, English majors. I had only seen most of them when they were wearing their glasses, so I hardly recognized them at first. Luo An, who introduced herself as “Annie” in my class, looked at me in a dreamy, blurry sort of way. She was one of her class’s leaders and the most forthright in English, talkative and clear.
“Do you come here often to have a shower?” she wanted to know immediately. “And are you by yourself?”
“I usually shower at my house,” I told her. I motioned to my friends in front of me. “We are together today.”
The smallest student, who called herself Stella, nodded at me demurely, her wet bangs and bob still hanging in a perfect square around her face. She was less than five feet tall. Undressed, her body seemed to be solely composed of bones and skin, barely pubescent. Her chest was almost completely flat. At this point, I remembered my own shame, that I was also naked. They must all be looking at the weirdness that is my body, I thought to myself: my red bush, sturdy thighs, and sizeable butt. I could feel my face growing hot, despite the cold air.
But I resisted the urge to turn away. There is nothing weird here, I told myself. I was 23 years old. The students were 19: barely even women yet, but still women, nonetheless. Toward the end of my conversation with my students, it hit me that they were treating me in much the same way they had at the times we’d run into each other in the marketplace, fully clothed. Seeing their teacher out in public was seeing their teacher out in public, regardless of the circumstances.
I slipped further into the steam, the showers’ whooshing noise, the clamoring of female voices, their exact words getting lost in the larger din. I placed my plastic caddy at the edge of the room, with the dozens of others, what seemed like hundred of bottles of shampoo and body wash crammed inside, washcloths draped over the handles. By now I had run out of all of my preferred Western toiletries—my last holdout from my former day-to-day life in the United States—so it was next to impossible to tell my basket from the others.
On the one wall where there were no showerheads, I saw a dozen undressed women lean against the tile, as if poised for a series of painful tattoos. Instead, their friends vigorously scrubbed their backs. The scrubbers wore hand-shaped loofahs, what looked like textured oven mitts, and rubbed so hard—more like scoured—that the top layers of skin began visibly pilling in some places. Of course, I had no loofah mitt of my own, but Wang Hui Fang insisted that she use hers on me. “You first,” she said. “Then me.”
Eventually I turned, putting my hands on the tile wall. I glanced over my shoulder. There had been a handful of women staring at me since I entered the shower room, but once they realized that I was with friends, they went back to their showering, seemingly losing interest.
The scrub hurt almost as much as I imagined it would. Wang Hui Fang worked in long, shoulder-to-butt strokes, the friction so fierce that it felt like my skin was lit. At first I thought this force was unnecessary, but then I remembered the swimming pool’s chemicals and what the bottoms of my feet looked like: almost black in the dry, dead parts at the edges of my heel, and the ball of my foot its own dingy plateau. I had made the mistake of trying to go barefoot in my apartment a few times, earlier in the year, and I had paid the price. I couldn’t seem to get all the Shanxi dust off my body, no matter how hard I tried under my tiny home showerhead, no matter how many times I mopped my apartment.
Pronouncing me done, Wang Hui Fang handed me the fluorescent pink mitt, and I looked for an open showerhead to wash it out and rinse myself. There were none. “Just push your way through,” she suggested. I edged slowly into the crowd, waiting and waiting, my backside getting cold, until finally a woman stepped out from under the spray, and I got my clearance. I rinsed the mitt off first and then myself. The water was hot, and the pressure was good, much better than the lukewarm trickle of the sad shower in my apartment. I was not alone. I was so close to the stranger next to me that when I bent forward, my shoulder brushed hers. The woman and I turned to look at one another at the same time, both of us sort of smiling in acknowledgment. The collision was inevitable; the room was very full. Neither one of us felt the need to apologize.