Tianjin bathhouse guasha: OWW!!!

The first time I tried guāshā (刮痧), the traditional Chinese scraping/rubbing therapy for having too much “fire” in your body (which can make you get a cold), a Chinese friend told the shÄ«fu to do it a little lighter than usual (轻一点儿) and it only got uncomfortable at the last two or so strokes on each line. The second time I told the shÄ«fu the same thing and barely felt anything, which kind of seemed like a rip off. This time I’m ready for the real deal so I don’t tell the guy anything.

Instead of using a coin or an animal horn to do the scraping/rubbing he uses a small-size fire cup; it feels like having a magnet on your back that’s attracted to your skin. It also means I’m getting suctioned and scraped/rubbed at the same time. And he does 30 strokes per line — I know because I’m counting… oohhh, am I counting! I’m grinding my teeth by the time he gets to 24 or 25. It hurts the worst on the sides of my lower back (where it’s soft) and on the back of my neck, I guess because there’s less flesh there. But I’m determined, and try to make conversation to distract myself from the pain. The shÄ«fu is a southerner who came to Tianjin from Anhui province in the early 90’s. Ow! Rrrrr… uuugh! The photo is from the morning after.

This bathhouse is a different kind from the first one we tried a few times. That first bathhouse was the lowest-level business/recreation-oriented kind that charge 10-12 kuài to get in. Last night’s bathhouse is a step below that. It was originally built as part of the neighbourhood either in 1980 or just before — one old man peeling off his callouses on the edge of the tub said he’d been going there since 1980. It’s 5-6 kuài to get in. Back then most people used public baths as much out of necessity as for recreation. Indoor plumbing and heating in these 30-year-old neighbourhoods is poor and back then people didn’t so much want to shower at home, especially in the winter. Many still don’t, because even though household gas or electric hot water heaters are now common and more affordable, the government-controlled heating is often virtually useless in these older places. Thankfully this bathhouse is too small for xiÇŽojiÄ›s; there’s no back room or private rooms to put them in. Plus there’s a women’s side, too; when I entered the lobby a mother and her happily excited 11-year-old daughter were just receiving their locker keys for an after-dinner shower. This is the one (the only one in that area) that Mr. Lu said “doesn’t have any funny business” (没有乱七八糟).

It’s definitely a step down from the first place in terms of facilities. I’m glad I brought my own towel, because otherwise it’d be a public towel that has already been used by several people that evening. Same with the shower shoes. For soap and shampoo you’re also on your own. Signs on the wall overlooking the tubs list what kinds of skin, venereal, and other transmittable diseases are forbidden in the tubs. Next to the signs there’s a picture of puppies sitting on heart pillows, and next to that a 1970’s-looking pin-up drawing of a woman who would be considered too fat by North American pin-up “standards.”

It was definitely great for language practice, and relaxing, but I don’t know if I’ll go back. It was over a half-hour bike ride home straight on into heavy wind in sub-zero temperatures. There’s gotta be a similar place closer to our apartment. Plus, it was pretty dirty. Ideally I’d find a closer and cleaner place for around the same price without xiÇŽojiÄ›s where I can return multiple times — that way I don’t have to have the same conversations (“What country are you from? blah blah blah…”) every time I go because I’ll see the same people. Maybe that’s a tall order, but it’s worth keeping an eye out, I think.

Other bathhouse & Chinese medicine/therapy posts:

Behold the power of China’s weather gods!

To best appreciate the awesome-but-sadly-apparently-temporary powers of China’s weather gods, you must play this mp3 while reading:

[audio:Toxic Love.mp3]

All these photos are from out our kitchen yángtái windows. The blue sky photos are from Oct. 1st; the less-blue ones are from this morning.

When we flew in to Beijing on Sept. 30 we could barely see the terminal from the airplane on account of all the kōngqì wÅ«rÇŽn (空气污染). But not to worry, in China the They can change the weather. When there’s an important made-for-TV event, They make it rain the night before and… voila!:

That was Oct 1st, the even-more-important-than-the-Olympics 60th anniversary national day military parade. And this next photo was from this morning — apparently They didn’t have any photo-ops scheduled today:

Pollution is measured here in term of “blue sky days” (蓝天). True to form, since reality in China is whatever They say reality is (you really ought to read 1984), “blue sky day” doesn’t actually mean that the sky is blue or clear; it means the official pollution readings are below a certain level, which often is still thick with haze. And never mind that the cut off line for blue sky days is still considered hazardous by the rest of the world’s pollution monitoring scales, or that They don’t even bother measuring the most harmful forms of air pollution particles. In this last photo, you can see the colour starting to change in the top left corner; there were no clouds today, and if you looked straight up, you could actually see some faint blue.

P.S. – I think I’m just about done whining about the pollution, at least for now. Posts on karaoke survival, creative ways to stay connect with family back home, Tianjin’s suspiciously curvacious public statues, free One Child Policy baby accessories, and a racial Disney moment at the English school are all in the works.

Other pollution posts:

Karaoke Birthday Party!

For Jessica’s birthday we had a karaoke party with a bunch friends:

If you haven’t been to a good Chinese karaoke party yet, you’re missing out! Here’s some photos and fun video clips.

Piao Laoshi’s Korean boyfriend gives Jessica a “Happy Birthday Jessica!” shout out in the middle of his song, and elicits praise from some of the ladies who start chanting his name:

Liu Wei, Greg, Dingle and Zhou Jun give a heartfelt(?) rendition of Air Supply’s All Out Of Love:

Cute (they’re engaged):

Jessica got some cute stuffed cows as gifts, since 2009 is the year of the cow.

The cake says, “Happy Birthday, Lin Yi An” (生日快乐林怡安;shÄ“ngrì kuàilè lín yí ān). Yí-ān is Jessica’s Chinese name.

China’s NBA

A friend took me to a CBA game the other night. It was lots of fun and really close, right down to the last few seconds when the ball bounces off the rim and Tianjin loses by two points. He told me before we went that people would be yelling all kinds of dirty language, but I couldn’t understand most of it. Here’s what the guy behind me was yelling that I could understand:

    At the refs and coaches:

  • “You’re dismissed!” / 下课 / xià kè (lit. “leave class,” but in this context more like “You’re fired!”)
  • “Retire!” / 退休 / tuì xiÅ«
  • “Black whistle!” / 黑哨儿 / hÄ“i shàor (most popular thing to yell in our section – it means the refs have been bribed).
  • At the players:

  • “Beautiful!” / 漂亮 / piào liang
  • “Give it to the foreigner!” / 给老外 / gÄ›i lÇŽo wài
  • “Good foreigner!” / 好老外 / hÇŽo lÇŽo wài
  • “Great!” / 好 / hÇŽo

The lā lā duì (拉拉队; “cheer team”), Róngrong the lion (荣荣 the 狮子), and a lady at the scorekeeper’s table with a really loud microphone would tell us what and when to cheer, though it didn’t include any of the above.

Each team has a couple imported Americans who were definitely among the best players out there. The other team, from Liáoníng (辽宁), had a guy from China’s national team who was also a stand out.

Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future

Mrs. Shǐ is December’s Regular Zhou. The magazine seems to share similar feelings with one other critic who doesn’t appreciate having China’s blue collar folks telling their stories in foreigners’ magazines. So I guess from now on they’ll be “above-average Joe’s,” or at least for the next few months while we’re in Canada and I have to interview over e-mail.

As usual, the blog version below has better photos and includes the more interesting content. But I still haven’t included any of the horrific Cultural Revolution stories she told, or her complaints about the Olympics.

Striving Hard for a Stable Future

How one Tianjiner works daily to give her son a better life, one plate of chǎo bǐng at a time.

Mrs. Shǐ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. She’s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language students’ pathetic Mandarin. If you’ve got the time and the ear, she’s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during China’s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chǎo bǐng (炒饼) and dàbǐng jīdàn (大饼鸡蛋), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.

Mrs. Shǐ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiǎomàibù (小卖部), the little shop she’s carved out of a first floor apartment that she shares with her 25-year-old son. She used to sell food from an outdoor stall in a bustling street market for eleven years before the market was cleared away in a nationwide sanitation campaign.

I’m often there at lunchtime, when the tables and stools out on the sidewalk are filled with hungry college students, vegetable market shoppers, and workmen. Inside the walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves that overflow with snack food, cigarettes, alcohol, and seemingly random items like a large bag full of beer bottle caps. In between the newly-acquired fridge and a small low table with plastic stools there’s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.

Daily Routine
She gets up at 5:30 every morning, arranges the displays, tables, and chairs on the sidewalk, and prepares to start serving breakfast at 6am. After breakfast she makes some purchases, cuts up cabbage and cucumber, and gets ready for the lunch rush. After lunch she’ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesn’t always stop customers.

At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dàbǐng jÄ«dàn!” I haven’t counted how much I sleep at night. I close shop, eat dinner, shower, drink some water, watch a little TV, then go to sleep at I don’t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years I’ve managed like this.

Growing Up
Her living situation today is better than it was in past decades, when she remembers food rationing and being unable to buy things, even if you had the money. Still, some of her favourite memories are of her childhood in Tianjin’s “South City No-Man’s-Land” (南市三不管儿 / nánshì sānbùguǎnr), which until recently was one of Tianjin’s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (南市食品街 / nánshì shípǐn jiē) now sits near where she grew up as the middle child of seven.

When I was little I was pretty mischievious, even though I was a girl. I was a tomboy. Growing up in Nanshi was good. I could talk about Nanshi from morning ‘til night. It was really rènao (热闹 / loud, bustling, lively), especially in the evenings. There were wrestlers, storytellers, hot rice vendors, soup vendors, all crying out, it was fun to hear. You could buy big snails, five or six for two máo ($0.03). When we were small we couldn’t cook; we’d just go to the food vendors.

I had my son in Nanshi. When he was one-and-a-half, in 1983 on May 26, I moved to our current place. That was when they built Food Street and assigned us housing according to the number of people in our family. Now I have my own house to live in. In the old place I didn’t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rènao and convenient. Now it’s already gone; it’s all Food Street now. It’s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.

Future Hopes
The turbulance of the past still impacts her life today, as it does for millions of Mainlanders from her generation. When the Cultural Revolution broke out she was just starting middle school. That means she essentially never had a chance for a real, normal education, but still has to make do in today’s market economy. “Long live Chairman Mao” is the only thing she can say in English. She’s come through hard times, and those life experiences shape her hopes for the future:

I wish my son was able to go abroad, like the way you came to our country. But I can’t be too idealistic. I don’t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my son’s future is able to be good. I don’t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesn’t have to have the kind of difficulties I’ve had it’s fine.

My most important desire is to hurry and make money so my son can buy his own place and get a wife, and have a stable life – a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I can’t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.

I can’t resist asking Mrs. Shǐ what she thinks of foreigners:

I’ve had contact with Japanese, Americans – I’m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, we’re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? It’s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.

How to: Hang with the homies and not get totally hammered

Mr. Lù invited me to have dinner with the old boys tonight. I had a total blast. Undoubtedly the alcohol helped, especially for Mr. Lù. Fortunately, I knew it would be that way, and prepared accordingly. I know enough Chinese to catch and contribute to some of the jokes, and just the fact that I can do that is apparently really stinkin’ funny for these guys. From left to right: Mr. Zhāng, Sòng, Guō, Lǘ, and Lù (Mr. Guō is apparently the one who first suggested the Chinese name they all use for me:

I knew there’d be a lot of alcohol – there always is, never mind that the invitation is literally “invite you to drink alcohol.” I was supposed to meet them at 6pm, so I ate a ton of food at 5:30. Having had a few practice rounds with these guys in the past made it a lot easier this time to relax and have fun without worrying about either drinking too much or not being kèqi (客气) enough when refusing more drinks. And, thankfully, Chinese cups are smaller than North American cups, plus East Asians are genetically among the weakest drinkers in the world. In the middle of it all I managed to record the interview I need for an upcoming magazine article, despite Mr. Lù’s protests that I not record when he’s been drinking.

It was nice that their invitation came when it did. It’s easy to read the news right now and be tempted to think all kinds of negative, suspicious things about Mainlanders. People can say whatever they want in the news about Mainlanders and the issues surrounding the Olympics – but the Tianjiners we know are great.

The longer we stay here, the easier it is to know how and when to refuse too many drinks. It’s no joke, though, that if you’re going to eat with Mainlanders, especially if you’re a guy, you’d either better go in with a plan or be ready to get hammered.

Meet Mr. Lù – a living Léi FÄ“ng

(This is the first in an as yet unnamed monthly series that tries to introduce foreigners to Tianjin’s “regular Zhou’s” – the 老百姓 (“old hundred-names”; common folk) who form the beating heart of Tianjin. Mr. Cháng, the sidewalk barber, is next. The interviews are severely hindered by my lack of Mandarin and it shows, but it’s still a fun project. This blog version contains some extra details that wouldn’t fit the space requirements in the magazine. Other adventures with Mr. Lù and the old boys club are listed at the end of this article. Mouseover the Chinese characters to see the pronunciation.)

A Modern-day Living Lei Feng
His friends call him a “modern-day living Léi FÄ“ng” (新时代的活雷锋), after the orphaned Mao-era peasant soldier famous for his unselfishness toward fellow comrades and selfless devotion to the Communist cause. The “Léi FÄ“ng spirit” (雷锋精神) lives on today in elementary school textbooks, songs, an online video game, advertisements, and popular imagination as a way to describe people who go out of their way to help others. It also lives on in people like Mr. Lù, our neighbourhood’s bike repairman. The way he and his friends have treated my wife, myself, and even my second-hand, high-maintenance, fake Flying Pigeon bicycle make it obvious why his friends give him this title. This “modern day living Léi FÄ“ng” extends a generous helping hand to locals and foreigners alike, and he has a good deal of fun doing it.

Mr. Lù fixes bikes on the corner near our neighbourhood’s front gate every day from 7am to 5pm (8pm in the summer). But from my perspective as the one of only three foreigners in the community, we should include Welcoming Committee and Host in his job description. I don’t know if giving foreigners a warm welcome and helping them feel at home in China is a big part of the “real” Léi FÄ“ng’s official legacy or not, but it’s certainly a part of Mr. Lù’s. It’s people like Mr. Lù and his friends that make living in a Chinese neighborhood so much more enjoyable for the new foreigners.

My wife and I first moved into this community in April 2007. We were fresh off the boat with a grand total of six weeks of Chinese class under our belts, meaning we could point and mumble in the vegetable market and usually get what we wanted if we’d reviewed the vocabulary beforehand. Aside from that rather necessary survival skill, we couldn’t communicate much of anything. But that didn’t stop Mr. Lù and his friends from inviting us over to sit and chat when they were having lunch outside or from being generous with their food and bái jiÇ” (白酒 – the infamous Chinese alcoholic drink akin to “white lightning”). Not daunted by the language barrier, Mr. Lù used food, snacks, drinks, rounds of Chinese chess, and a lot of friendly banter to make it clear that we were welcome to stop by for more than just getting tires patched and brake pads replaced.

Some days he’s drowning in bicycles, and it looks like the repair jobs people have dropped off are laying siege to his mobile tool shed. He’ll fix more than thirty bikes on busy days, but after twelve years of repairing bicycles he’s not intimidated by the heavier work load. He enjoys the extra work and the extra pay that comes with it.

When he’s not too busy he can fit in an after-lunch nap, go fishing on the canal, or chat it up with whoever’s around. Sometimes there can be small crowd; his repair corner can be a social hot spot, and he’s not too stiff to have some good-natured laughs at the foreigner’s expense. Neighbours occasionally choose his corner for a game of Chinese chess, which usually draws more participants than just the required two. As the eighth of nine children and the fifth brother (he has three sisters), I imagine he learned early on how to handle a crowd.

When I first learned of his family’s size, I was shocked. Nine children? But it was the same for his friends. Decades ago Mao had said, “More people, greater strength” (人多力量大), and people were encouraged to have large families and make more workers for the development of the economy. This policy was short-lived, but for Mr. Lù’s generation – people who today are old enough to be grandparents – families of this size are not uncommon. Mr. Lù and his wife have a daughter in her mid-twenties who works for an oil company.

Despite his warm and easy-going manner, Mr. Lù doesn’t necessarily have it easy. He makes 1500 to 2000å…ƒ (yuán) per month (about $200-$275), and rent for him and his wife is only a little over 80å…ƒ per month ($11) because the apartment is provided through his work unit (单位). However, he no longer has the security he once enjoyed when working for his government work unit at a state-owned textile factory. Like many Mainlanders of his generation, the “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗) has cracked; the state-owned enterprises that haven’t been closed or sold can no longer provide jobs for everyone. People like Mr. Lù, while still retaining some benefits from the old days like a cheaper apartment, have to fend for themselves financially. He misses the time when he didn’t have to worry about the basics of life, and when it was easier to find work.

When he was younger jobs were easier to come by. He’s worked for several different companies over the years, including a furniture factory and the Tianjin Daily newspaper offices. But he’s older now, and potential employers are less interested. He worries about retirement, which usually happens at 60, and how he’ll manage. More people are riding buses and taxis than in the past, and car ownership is on the rise. No one feels the gradual decline in bicycle use more keenly than bike repairmen like Mr. Lù. He jokes about how hard it is to find a bathroom when working outside, but the gradual decrease in work is his biggest work related difficulty. He wishes that the government could somehow help him improve his life, but he doesn’t receive any work or money from the state.

These worries don’t hinder his generosity. He charges little for his work, and sometimes even refuses to take money, to the point of pulling it out of the money jar and stuffing it directly back into people’s pockets. I’ve not only witnessed him do this to others, but personally experienced it myself.

Mr. Lù hasn’t had a lot of contact with foreigners, but aside from a decidedly unfavourable impression of South Koreans, he says we’re alright, and hopes that we will learn Mandarin well and bring Chinese culture and history back to our home countries.

Additional info on the “real” Lei Feng:

P.S. – I just now delivered a copy of the magazine and some photos to Mr. Lù, and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. He didn’t seem to mind that the editors used the wrong lù character for his name in the translation (he’s è·¯, not 陆).