The Bath House - Part 6

Go Back to Part Five: Lessons to Learn or Begin with Part One: The Call

Shortly after I arrived in China, I got to go to the bathhouse. The only time during my whole stay in China that I wanted to get on a plane and go back to America was right before I had to go to the bath house. You think going to the doctor and having to wear those little hospital gowns is bad, but try going into a room with twenty other people (men and women in completely separate rooms, of course) and no hospital gown on anybody. So, I did what any self-respecting female would do. I cried. “Oh, please, Lord. Not the bathhouse. Anything, but that. I’d rather eat dog. Please, not the bathhouse.”

Of course, I went to the bathhouse. I had to take my own hand towels, sponge, scrub cloth (think Brillo pad), combination shampoo/body wash, comb, shower sandals and a bag to carry it all in.

Then, we walked down to the local bathhouse. Usually, there is a bathhouse every two blocks or so. You can’t miss it. It will have a big pile of coal out front and you’ll hear the water running even if you can’t see it. In the winter, you’ll see the steam.

Just walk up to the counter. “Wang shang hao, xiaojie. Qing, yi ge.” (Good evening, miss. One, please.) Hand the lady at the counter four yuan (about fifty cents) and she will hand you a ticket and a key on an elastic band and a lock. Now, I hope you know the characters for man and woman, we wouldn’t want to go in the wrong door.  Hand the lady your ticket, lift the curtain and walk in. There’s a room about 15’ by 13’ with lockers along two walls and a bench in the middle of the room. At the other end of the room, there is a doorway through which you will catch glimpses of the shower room, but we will pay no attention to it now.

Let’s see, empty locker….empty locker…ah, here’s one. I’ll just lay my sandals down here on the floor and take off my socks and shoes and put them on the bottom shelf.  There, now I’ll just pile all my clothes on this other shelf here and slip my key onto my wrist.  I’ll leave one towel here and take the other one with me. Is that everything I need? Yes, I can lock it up now.  Oh, locker number…23. Okay, remember that. Deep breath, time to go to the shower room. I will live through this.

The shower room is very large. Maybe 40’ by 40’. It has about 25 showerheads around the walls. And it’s completely open, no stalls. Lots of steam is in the room and the water is very warm. I try to find an empty space, but with the Saturday night crowd, there isn’t one. Guess I’ll have to share one. Oh, she’s leaving. Good. There’s a little lever where you can turn on the water. Some bathhouses have foot bars for the water. All wet. Now I can go to the steam room.

See that little room in the corner? That’s where I’m headed. This room is about 6’ by 6’ and is heated by a steam radiator. It is very hot in the steam room.  I check to make sure I have remembered to remove all jewelry. I could get a serious burn if I forget. The heat is stifling. The air is so thick you can scoop it up by the handful. Lips and eyes burn. That’s what the wet towel is for. I cover my face. Whew! I’m outta here. Back to the shower room.

Oops. Bumped into somebody. She didn’t even pause. I guess they’re used to it. I’m not. How embarrassing!

Oh, and see that woman there? For five yuan, you can lie down on that bench and she’ll scrub you down. Want her to do you? Nah, me neither. Oh, and don’t be surprised if someone offers to scrub your back for you. And be prepared to have people introduce themselves to you. People are friendly in China, but there’s something about the bathhouse that removes even more of the usual barriers. By the way, if you hear folks discussing the weiguoren, you’ll know they are talking about you. Literally, weiguoren means “man outside the country”.

The bathhouse is the local gossip center where you can catch up on all of the local news. You can make new contacts, renew old acquaintances or visit with friends. And be ready to take a while. One hour is the minimum, but two hours is better. Leave before that and everybody will think you are still dirty.

Now, before we leave, we’ll have to visit the steam room again. That will dry us off a bit.  Okay, now we can go. Remember your locker number.  Dry off and get dressed and we can leave. Don’t forget to give the lady at the counter your lock and key.  See? That wasn’t so bad.

Go Forward to Part Seven: Eating in China
Daily Proverb

Proverbs 17:10

A reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool.