Saturday, May 4
One day, when we were still living in the U.S., I went for a bikini wax. I adore my esthetician: she’s Chinese, moved to the US with her husband years ago, had two kids, divorced, and now lives with her parents in South Berkeley, providing depilatory services in a little room off their garage. (Where, as you lie on the cushioned table wishing the space heater was a little closer to your naked bottom half, you can hear her kids thumping back and forth across the floor above you while you discuss whether, this month, you’d like the full Brazilian or just a little off the sides. If the former, Ming will eventually ask you to turn over “so I can do your asshole,”* the final dousing of the glow of pampering that usually surrounds this service, but refreshing if you’ve often wondered whether the conceit that having all the hair in the most sensitive area of your body ripped out by the roots ought to be considered pampering was devised by—gosh, I’m debating between writing “sadistic latent pedophiles” and “men.” You pick.)
At any rate, Ming was very excited to hear that we were moving to China. Or at least, she had a lot to say about it. “You’re lucky you’re going to be there after the Expo,” she said. “Oh my god, the crowds! And everybody pushing. And people are so dirty—spitting on the street.” At the time, I thought maybe she’d been living in America too long, and was simply reacting as an American would, but a hundred Shanghai taxi rides later, I think she was displaying the sort of low-level kvetching that Chinese folks seem to do about all Chinese with whom they’re not directly connected—their regard for each other, and people in general, seeming to decrease with each degree of separation from themselves.
The main themes of these complaints are: 1) There are too many people in China. This is generally said with head-shaking, and leads directly into complaints about the comportment of those people, as above. 2) The many ways in which you can be cheated, scammed, or randomly and improbably violated (as in the recent rumor I heard about the 20,000** HIV positive Xinjiang people who were said to be traveling around China lacing restaurant food with their blood).
As a foreigner, I am believed to be both a likely target (the Chinese couple who notarized the documents for the transfer of my medical license to China wouldn’t let me leave their Berkeley office without teaching me how to say “I live here,” in Chinese, a phrase they hoped, even in the absence of capacity for any follow-up, would protect me by moving me one degree closer to my interlocutor) and woefully naïve.
It was this latter presumed deficiency that Ming then began to attack. By now she was using her wooden tongue-depressor stick to spread on the warm wax, and I was trying to relax into the one part of the experience that could remotely be described as pleasurable, when she said “Listen, when you’re in China and your husband goes out with his friends from work, you have to go with him. Every time.”
I popped my head up. “What? Why? What if I don’t want to? What if I’m working?”
“Because if you don’t,” she said, patting down the muslin strip on top of the wax, “then they’ll go to a different place.” Rip!
“What kind of different place?” I asked, when I’d caught my breath.
“A different place,” she said, grimly, patting down the next strip. “You have to go with him.” Rip! “Every time.” Rip! “Now turn over, please.”
Maybe she was right about my naiveté, or maybe the same thing that made me go visit Ming in the first place—sadists and masochists exist in symbiosis, after all—made me force her to spell it out: the karaoke, the drinking, the private rooms, the girls. Ming was utterly convinced that these things would be available to MTH immediately on our arrival in Shanghai, like the fruit platter at a beachside resort.
Two years later and I’ve gone out with MTH and his colleagues exactly once—an experience so tame that it made me think Ming must have been right—this couldn’t possibly be what they are actually doing for fun. And yet, her presumption that direct blockade is the only way to avoid MTH—or any man’s—straying toward that platter filled me mainly with pity for Ming. She’s not alone—I recently watched a Chinese (well, Hong Kong-ese) movie on the airplane whose entire plot consisted of men sneaking around to meet their hook-ups while their wives/girlfriends tried to catch them at it. All except the main character, who wasn’t sneaking around, and his girlfriend, whose attempts to catch him at the sneaking around he wasn’t doing became more and more lunatic, culminating in the two of them spending every waking moment together, in what read to me like a horror-story, but appeared to be meant to be a quirky romance.
One never knows for sure, of course, and MTH is now in Beijing four days a week, which would provide ample opportunity for sampling from that platter (I didn’t even think to ask Ming what I was supposed to do about that eventuality--was I supposed to go along on business trips, too? Or was her strategy a Shanghai-only plan, aimed at damage control rather than full prevention, sort of like Mark Bittman’s “vegan before 6pm” diet? ). The women of China (or anywhere, for that matter) would be fools not to throw themselves at him—his beautiful eyes, warm smile (when he cracks one; it’s rare enough to be a special treat), wit, and extreme capability make him hard to write about (if you’re the kind of writer whose inspiration is the blundering awkwardnesses for which her own life is an endless source), yet easy to love. But, two years after my conversation with Ming, it strikes me as important that my only reaction to it, as I got dressed and hobbled out of Ming’s parents’ garage, was to think “I cannot WAIT to tell MTH about this,” pleased to have a story I knew would make him laugh.
*I later grasped that this wasn’t so much a cavalier break from beauty services tradition but a literal translation—in Chinese the commonly used word, even in a salon or a doctor’s office, is 屁股洞, or ass-hole, which, let’s face it, has no more reason to be a swear word than belly button. Yet there it is.
**One of my favorite things about urban legends here is that they always come with such specific numbers, and the numbers abide. In fact, for me, the numbers often serve as a marker: When you hear one featuring prominently in a statement—as in “Mao was 70% good,” (now the official party line), you can be sure that the statement is not so much representative of the speaker’s actual, independently-made opinion or experience but an iteration of the brand of oddly specific rumors and state-sanctioned nonsense that abounds here.