This ended up being an outtake from the book. If you scroll back to my trip to Beijing, you can contrast the amazing imagery with this story:
In 2009, I decided to visit my friend in Hong Kong. There’s nothing like a 16 hour flight to really make you feel how far you have actually traveled.
I went with my friend Phil and we stayed with my friend Brian. The first night, the first song I heard was Bon Jovi, and in that moment, I knew I had made the right choice in going there. The signs, the smells, the store windows with duck and octopus hanging in them—it was all so exotic.
The next morning we flew another four hours to Beijing. That first night we walked around Tiananmen Square, the Bird’s Nest, and I was introduced to both spicy food and Chinese toilets. After eating spicy food for the first time and washing it down with a ton of beer, you do not want to have your first meeting with an Asian bathroom. I opened the stall door to find there was not in fact a seat, like I had been accustomed to my entire life, but a hole in the floor with poreclain foot grips. This would be a feat of strength for my thighs. But, when in Rome...squat and pee in a hole in the floor.
The next morning we were off the Great Wall. I could not wrap my head around the fact that in a few hours I would be standing on the actual Great Wall of China. Once it came in to view, I was speechless. My friends were also speechless but that’s because in the 90 degree weather, their hangovers from doing shots with Canadians at the hostel all night were becoming unbearable. In retrospect, I think the dramamine I took for motion sickness probably saved me from the same fate.
We walked five miles of the Great Wall that day. Well, I don’t think walking is the right word. There are areas of the walls that felt like they were built perpendicular to the ground, and other areas that put my newly acquired rock wall scaling skills to use. It was simply amazing.
“How the hell are you not hungover?!” Phil blurted out as he sat in a tower, red-faced and rested while a Chinese souvenir saleswoman fanned him.
“We’re on the Great Fucking Wall of China!” I yelled.
We returned to Hong Kong the next day. The following days were filled with sight seeing, giant Buddhas, tiny Buddhas, and some wild monkeys. And, since it was Asia, before we left we just had to have some custom clothes made in Shenzhen. That ended up being less glamorous than imagined, probably because the whole experience began with us getting quarantined at the Hong Kong/China border and having to sign paperwork that was in Chinese, which, I was convinced, was some confession of some sort and would land me in Chinese prison never to be heard from again. Luckily, that didn’t happen. And somehow despite the fact that these were custom clothes and they took measurements, nothing fit.
Shenzhen did give me something that I love to this day—a tiny plastic zebra that runs in circles around a pole and lives in the most poorly translated box I had ever encountered. Shenzhen also gave me the worst massage experience of my life. Massages are cheap in Asia, so it seemed worthwhile to take advantage of that. A place called the Peninsula was recommended to us. When we pulled up out front, key letters of the sign had gone out, and it read, “Peni s la.” When we entered the Penis-la, as I took to calling it, we quickly realized no one there spoke one word of English.
Brian was trying to explain in hand gestures that we wanted massages. I sat in a chair and watched as he struggled through it.
“Bri, you realize your hand gestures aren’t at all matching anything you’re saying,” I said. “You look like a lunatic.”
Eventually, since it was afterall a massage parlor, they figured out what we were there for. They started to lead us up a set of stairs and then the boys were told to go one way and I was about to be led another way.
“Just so you know,” Brian said, “they will probably have you take a shower first. I don’t know why, that’s just what they do here. But then they will take you downstairs to meet up with us, and we will all be in the same room for the massage.”
Sounded easy enough to me. I followed along into a locker room, where they motioned for me to take off my clothes and they were holding a towel out to replace them. There were three women standing there watching me. Awkward. I deposited my clothes into a locker and wrapped the towel around myself. Then I was ushered into a shower stall. So far, just like Brian said. As I started to lather up, one of the ladies whipped the shower curtain open furiously shaking her head No. I froze for a second, confused, then tried to cover my nakedness with my two hands. She left as quickly as she had come in and took any comfort level I had along with her.
I once again wrapped the towel around me, now half wet, half covered in soap and walked out of the shower stall. The same lady then led me past a small pool into a steam room. Now, this was my first time in a steam room. I had no idea if it was supposed to be so...steamy. I could barely breathe. She came in and quickly deposited a glass of water next to me, which I didn’t if I should drink. Is China like Mexico? Am I supposed to avoid tap water? Was it tap water? I left the cup untouched, but was starting to wonder if I was supposed to let them know when I was done with the steam room, or if they were going to come get me. Just as I was reaching my limit and needed some air, she came in and ushered me into the next room.
There was a table in a small room that basically just fit the table. I figured Brian was wrong, and they weren’t going to take me to meet the boys, I was just having my massage here. Since my anxiety level was growing by the second, I was okay with that and just wanted this experience to end so that I could get back to my friends. And with that thought, she ripped the towel off of me and motioned for me to get onto the table. Once again naked and uncomfortable, I laid down, closed my eyes and made believe I was okay with this.
I heard her rustling around in the corner so I looked over to see her reaching into a bucket of what I can only assume was old, dirty Chinese water, she took out a sponge and started scrubbing me. The scrub got personal enough where I felt like I should have gotten a free meal. At one point she had her hand on my breast to steady it while she scrubbed my stomach. Massages were supposed to be relaxing. This was not relaxing, this was molestation. I guess I could have gotten up and left, but was unsure if this was a normal practice in China and it was merely my American ways that was completely uncomfortable with what was happening. Or perhaps it was having my vagina scrubbed by a stranger. Either.
When my scrub down ended, she held out a piece of paper and a pen. The small notecard had some Chinese writing on it, a happy face, a straight mouth face, and a sad face. Well, I was certainly sad. She kept motioning to me to circle one.
“I don’t know what this is,” I said pushing the card back at her. “You do it. You circle one.”
This went on for probably longer than it should have and I eventually just signed a happy face hoping that meant I could get the hell out of there. So back to the locker room we went and instead of being given my clothes I was given a spa top and pant outfit. But then they weren’t letting me leave the room. Money? Did they want a tip? Yes they did. As a sidebar, somewhere along the way, my brain that could once do calculus degraded to a point of struggling with basic math on most days. I’m always grateful there’s someone else around to score darts. So being anxious and flustered I just wasn’t able to figure out the exchange rate properly and think I tipped this woman entirely too much for the dirty water bath. But finally, she led me downstairs. At this point, I was shaking, scared, humiliated, you name it. Everything opposite of the good feelings that come with massages and spas—that was me.
When they led me back to my friends I found they sitting at a table in plush robes with beers and food in front of them looking like the two most relaxed people in the world.
“What the hell happened to you?” Brian asked.
“I’m drinking all of your beer, right now,” I said.
The Thai massage that followed was actually fantastic, but to this day, I still don’t know what the hell went on upstairs, and every woman Brian asked who had a massage in Shenzhen, never had an experience like that.