Today at the gym, I suddenly felt someone run their hand down my back and over my backside (backside meaning rump). More than slightly startled, I turned around to find a middle-aged Chinese lady smiling a friendly smile at me. She said “You’ve gotten thinner! I saw you here when you started coming last month.” I wasn’t sure how to answer, especially after feeling like my personal space had been invaded more than just a little bit, but I think I managed to choke out a “Thank you!” She continued the conversation saying, “Yeah, in this month I can tell you’ve gotten thinner.” Then, to emphasize her point, she ran her hand over my back and rump AGAIN.
At this point, with all the uninvited backside rubbing, I was feeling just a little bit out of my comfort zone. But she seemed really nice, and I know that personal space rules work a little differently here…so I kept chatting with her. “What country are you from?” she asked. This question, by the way, is one that I answer anywhere from 2-25 times in a given day. It’s one of the first questions any foreigner will be asked when they meet someone new. I told her that I’m an American, which led her to tell me that her daughter hopes she can go study abroad once she graduates from one of the local universities. At that point, we both went our separate ways…she went to the ladies locker room, while I went to finish up my workout. While I worked out, I pondered the idea of personal space differences and comfort zones…never suspecting that on my return to the locker room, those comfort zones would be tested even more!
For the record, ladies locker rooms in China work a little differently than in the US. For one, there is a whole lot more nakedness. Unclothed ladies stand around putting on makeup, blowdrying hair, and rummaging through workout bags. There seems to be quite a bit more comfort with the same-sex nudity than in most locker rooms I’ve been to in the US…I think the luxury of private shower/changing stalls has made us a bit more prudish/private in this regard. But I’m getting used to it…”when in Rome” as they say. Though I must say that my whiteness does attract a little more attention than I’m used to, so while I don’t mind changing at the gym…I save my showering for the comfortable privacy of my own home. I guess I’m not thoroughly Roman (or Chinese) yet.
Even though I’m now pretty comfortable with the locker room situation, today’s locker room happenings would wreak a little bit of havoc upon my sense of personal space, propriety, and comfort. I reached my locker and just as I unlocked it, I spotted the (now naked and freshly showered) backside-rubbing lady. As I turned around, she shoved another naked female form at me and said “Hey! This is my daughter!” The naked daughter, standing all of about 3 cm away from me, said (in English) “Hi! I’m an English major!” I had to quell my urge to laugh at the situation…it seems that any chance to practice English must be seized, regardless of how clothed one may or may not happen to be. So…working very hard not to laugh, I said “Oh, your mom told me you want to study abroad. Do you know where you want to go?” At this, the daughter stepped a little closer to me and said, “America! Of course!” As I stepped back a little and tried not to look as awkward as I felt, I said something like “Oh yeah…Canada is also a good place to go study.”
Her English was really quite good…she told me her English name (Michelle), informed me that she chose it because of a character she liked in an American movie, and that she’s quite a big fan of American movies and TV shows. For a naked English practice, it was pretty good….and mercifully short. Just as suddenly as she had been introduced/thrown at me, she excused herself saying “Oh! I need to get dressed!”…almost as if she had just realized that she wasn’t wearing anything. As she dashed to her locker, she said “Oh yeah, by the way, so nice to meet you!” I replied that it was nice to meet her as well…which, by the way, it actually was. She was really polite, and I didn’t get any pressure to become a language practice partner or to give my phone number (a welcome relief, since that’s usually where these conversations wind up).
So the locker room today was a little awkward and uncomfortable…but no permanent damage done, except to my comfort zones. And who needs those anyway? Especially when China has such an un-subtle way of demolishing them when you’re least expecting it.
Some of our other experiences with this are below: