Dispatches from the motherland: Baths and showers

Today in class we learned a bunch of things related to bathing and showering:

  • 浴 (yù, to soak or wash the body)
  • 洗 (xǐ, to wash the body or part of the body)
  • 沐 (mù, to wash the head)

My teacher did his master’s in classical Chinese, so he likes to sprinkle factoids into his lessons. He explained that there exists a specific word for “washing the head” because, in ancient times, people had very long hair, so washing your hair was A Whole Thing. But the word 沐浴 has since evolved to take on a more abstract, literary meaning, like bathing in the sunshine (沐浴着阳光) or bathing in your parents’ love(沐浴着付么的爱).

He also talked about bathhouses in Korea (汗蒸房) and China (洗浴中心). He said modern bathhouses have exploded in popularity recently because of Korean TV shows (which I’ve never washed, but I’m guessing some of them take place in bathhouses?). Modern bathhouses are a place to hang out with your friends (or escape from your family): have a shower, soak in a bath, nap, eat snacks, go to the sauna or steam room (or maybe both), and relax.

He then explained that old-timey bathhouses (澡堂) were popular in the north because when the country was poorer and people didn’t have bathrooms at home, that was the only place they could go to wash — plus, the water in the bathhouse is nice and hot. Why stay home in the dead of winter, shivering all by yourself, when you can gather a bunch of friends and kick it at the bath house in the warm steam? He said if you and a pal go to a bathhouse together and scrub each other’s backs (搓背), then you are no longer 外人 (outsiders); you become 自己人 (“one of us”). 

Our university campus has many bathhouses, but I’ve never actually seen them. Maybe I will notice them now that I know they exist, the way I never really noticed bicycles in Hong Kong until I started riding one around the city myself. I’ve never been inside the dormitories here, but apparently, the local students and foreign students live in completely different living situations. The dorms for local students sleep four to seven students in a room, all in loft beds with desks beneath them. There might not be an en suite bathroom; if there is, there might not be hot water, or there might just be a sink and a toilet but no shower. The dorms for foreign students sleep two to a room with an en suite fully equipped bathroom. 

This means when local students want to shower, they have to leave the dorm to go to one of the bathhouses. One of my Korean classmates says when she stays late on campus, she’ll often see groups of students wearing pajamas toting buckets with shampoo, conditioner, flip flops, soap, loofahs, etc., walking to the bath houses together. 

Then our teacher told us that when he was in university, he and his friends would hit the showers together, and scrub each other’s backs, nobody ashamed of being nude around each other, but their southerner friend would be really embarrassed and shower in his underwear (he’s from the north).

This made me think of the creepy (and definitely haunted) swimming pool at my high school. At the end of swim class, we would hop out of the pool and hurry into the changing room to get ready for the next period. There was a communal shower area, as well as maybe one or two lone shower stalls partitioned off with curtains. Because of time constraints, we would all go into the communal shower with our bathing suits still on. I guess the logic was that way you could also wash the chlorine out of your suit. 

It also made me think of my flatmates. For the better part of this year, I lived in a flat with two other women: one from Fujian (south) and one from Henan (north). When you live with two other women and there’s only one bathroom, of course you’ll run into traffic, especially in the morning and night. Sometimes my Fujian flatmate and I would have to wait for the other person to finish so we could go in and use the shower, but we never ran into this issue with our Henan flatmate… until the summer. 

Come summer, our Henan flatmate would take the LONGEST showers, like from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., once or twice a week, as if she was washing every square inch of her body with a thimble, except the shower didn’t run the whole time, and we didn’t have a bathtub, so I’m not exactly sure what she was doing. But it was A Whole Thing. She would bring a speaker into the bathroom and set up her iPad to watch a TV show while my other flatmate and I would listen to the water running intermittently while holding our pee groaning in the living room for what seemed like forever. She wouldn’t let us in to pee even if we promised not to look into the shower stall.

Thing to be thankful for: Living alone and peeing whenever I want.

Thing to do: Make some friends and go to a bathhouse.

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