Day 13: Not for the Faint of Heart

Living in China has pushed my boundaries in more ways than I would have expected. For one thing, I no longer have the slightest equivocation about getting naked in front of a large group of other men. Though on one hand, this would do wonders to harness my burgeoning career in the adult entertainment industry, it also serves very practical purposes here in China. For one thing, weekly trips to the pool necessitate nudity, as do post-swim showers in a steam-filled locker room that see at least three men to every shower-head. For another, this new-found comfort with nudity also helps on those less-frequent trips to the public bathhouse in Taigu.

Think of public bathhouses as roughly the equivalent of laundromats in America. In the rural countryside, most apartment buildings and tenements don't come equipped with bathtubs or shower-heads, so it behooves tenants to have a place where they can take twice- or thrice-weekly washings. Though the bathhouse's main function is for bathing, some occasionally offer a small sauna or a lukewarm hot tub to complement the group showers. The reception room always sees a gaggle of svelte half-naked men lying on chaise lounges waiting to usher you in. Once inside, you are told to strip naked under an intimate canopy of bright fluorescent lights and store all of your belongings in a locker. The rest of the procedure is almost Roman in its archaic simplicity—you are handed a small towel and a packet of shampoo and proceed to the showers. The only difference is that, in China, you might notice a couple of squat tables covered in slick foam padding along the way.

I couldn't actually find a good picture of a Chinese bathhouse, so technically this one is in Baghdad, Iraq, but the accommodations are remarkably similar (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Those squat tables are for scrubbing. The way it works is this: first, the table is wrapped in a sheet of plastic. Then, you lie on the table and proceed to be rigorously rubbed and scraped until all of the dead skin is peeled off of your body. Like most people, I was quite skeptical at first. The idea of a stranger hovering over me with a Brillo sponge literally grating away at my bare inner thighs didn't seem like something I wanted to pay money for. But, like most things about China, I got used to it, in the same way that I did the grizzled older Chinese gentlemen who insist on laying spreadeagled near the mouth of the hot tub. After all, every time I go to the pool, I see men comfortable enough with their sexuality to literally straddle another man while vigorously thrusting and scrubbing his back with a beaded hand mitt.

My experience with scrubbing was largely good, after the momentary disgust of being specked with fine, rolled black shavings of my own dead skin. After I was doused with ladles of hot water to clean off, my skin felt smoother and softer than it's felt in years, and radiated with a healthy reddish glow. I still insist that the job of “scrubber”—though probably not desirable in any conceivable way—must be one of the most bizarre and unique in the world. On the women's side, I hear it's done by a woman dressed solely in a bra and panties, violently heaving and scrubbing up-and-down one's body. Though we are fortunate to have showers in our own homes, it's still a treat to go to the bathhouse. Labor is cheap in China, so it doesn't cost much of anything, but the real appeal lies in ever-expanding my comfort zone. And who knows, by the time I get back to the states, maybe those group showers in Harkness won't seem so scary after all.