Ah, at last a real coffee shop. I don’t drink coffee, but I do love what a coffee shop gives me–wifi, upbeat background music, a little table, and the buzz of intellectual activity. Thank you, thank you China and Starbucks. I think I actually sighed when the barista asked if I wanted English Breakfast or Earl Grey. I would be embarrassed if I weren’t so happy.
The people sitting around me are committed–by local standards, Starbucks is expensive. I’m at a little cafe table with the wall to my back, which any cafe lover knows is excellent seating. There is a thin guy on my left in his late twenties talking on a cell phone, dressed in a short-sleeve button-down shirt, gray trim pants, and buffed leather shoes. On my right is a student in tennis shoes, T-shirt and shorts with earbuds hooked into his phone, three different colored pens, a sketch book and a textbook, and a cold and hot drink. In front of me, a young girl with a large yellow purse, dressed in a black tank top and beautiful long green split skirt (yoga style) and Birkenstocks (look-alikes?) just opened her textbook and is taking notes. When I got up to ask about wifi, I came back to find a woman in her thirties dressed in spiky heels, hair swept up in a bun, black pantsuit and shimmery pink sweater sitting next to me. As soon as I sat in my seat, she gathered up her things and left for another table. I can only guess. Does she not want to sit next to an American? All of my Chinese friends have told me Chinese people are very interested in America and the West, and I assume this woman who sat next to me, because she is in a Starbucks, likes American things. Maybe she likes the idea of America more than the real thing.
I paid the equivalent of $3.50 for my cup of English Breakfast tea. At Figaro’s, another somewhat expensive establishment, I pay around $2.00 for a cup of Chinese Oolong tea. Compare that to the dining hall where I eat every morning. They don’t have hot tea, but they have a variety of cold teas and juices, each for about 35 cents. An egg boiled in yummy, salty tea is about 20 cents. Warm, fresh-made soy milk is 45 cents. The red-bean filled steamed bun I buy each morning is around 30 cents. I can eat three meals a day for an entire week at the dining hall for around $20.00. Amazing.
Yesterday, I hit my all-time China low. I ate my breakfast on the ledge by East Lake and looked out over the water and cried. I spend most of my days relatively alone–my husband and all the teachers in his cohort and the Chinese volunteers are all busy during the day and in the evenings. I’ve been working on a new novel, and it’s very dark. I’m realizing for the first time how hard it is to write something dark when you are struggling with your day-to-day experiences. All of the little challenges, the heat, the GI stuff, the hand-washing of laundry, the stares when I am out in public, the ever-present difficulties of not being able to speak much of anything in the local language, well, all of these just added up to too much yesterday. I told a friend back home it felt like I was taking care of a toddler, never knowing when the next tantrum or puking spell or skinned knee would occur, and I’m almost two decades out of practice for dealing with a toddler. More accurate, though, would be to say I am the toddler. I feel up one minute and down the next, I can’t explain what I want or need to most of the people around me, I struggle to meet my basic needs for food, drink, and a usable toilet, and I don’t understand the rhythms or gestures of those around me. So, so frustrating.
It does get better. After crying at the lake, I decided it was time to get a massage. Unlike in the States, massages are a common undertaking in China. I can get an hour-long massage for around $8.30. And they don’t take tips. And there is no tax. Yesterday I had my fifth massage, and I hit the jackpot. There are two places to get a massage within walking distance of my hotel. The first week we were here, I got a 30-minute massage from an old man in the massage shop near the hotel, but because the person I’d asked to help with translation got something wrong (I guess), I didn’t understand how much (or how little) it cost. I wouldn’t let the masseuse go any longer than 30 minutes, and I felt very tense afterward. Not a good thing. Of course, he and I couldn’t figure out what to do next because we don’t speak each other’s languages, so I paid (too much) and left. The next two massages were at a more distant massage shop. The first one was okay, but he left the room so quickly (was he afraid of me? was it weird because I am American?) when he was done that I couldn’t memorize his face or name to ask for him the next time. A serious mistake. The next time I went back, a different guy pummeled the hell out of me. I couldn’t figure out how to tell him to be gentler. Oh, it was a bummer. Then, a few days later, after a day of walking, I decided to try again, but this time with a foot massage. I went to the shop near my hotel at around 7pm (you don’t need an appointment–you just show up), and the woman at the desk must have woken up some guy who was already asleep. He almost nodded off a few times as he worked on my toes, but he did a good enough job.
Back to yesterday. The lake. The crying jag. I went to Figaro’s and couldn’t write anything. The Oolong tea I ordered tasted bitter. So, I left. As I got close to the hotel, I thought, what the hell. I’m on vacation. Massages are cheap here, and they make me feel better. I’m doing it. So, I did. A young guy with knee pads (I don’t know what the knee pads were about) took me to a back room where the old guy I’d had the first week was massaging an older man on a tall massage table. The young guy put me on a low table that was actually a chair that folded flat. He unveiled the hole near the top of the table, laid some towels around it, and went to task. Very gently, I would add. He talked with the old man while he massaged me, and I caught a few phrases here and there. Maybe they were talking about me. I didn’t care. It felt so good. He worked my right shoulder a long time, then started talking to the old man, who had finished his other massage. He came over and worked my shoulder too, then let the young guy finish up. The young one said, “Okay,” and I sat up. The old guy stood there, watching me. He asked me something, and of course I couldn’t understand him. I assumed it was something like, “Do you feel better?” I managed to tell him I have an S in my spine (scoliosis), and he got it. He came up behind me, showed me how to sit on the edge of the table and lean my back into him, and he started working on my neck.
He didn’t stop for thirty minutes. OMG. He did all of the things my good friend Anahbra does back home in the States when he works on my neck. Part of the way the scoliosis messes with me is that several of my vertebrae are sticking out on the left, and if I feel anxiety or tension, I get this tight, painful thing in my neck on the left side that then radiates to my shoulder and up my head to my left eyebrow. He worked all of that out. I felt like I could just crawl up into his lap, and I practically did. He stood behind me and let my weight fall into his chest and abdomen, pressing one hand on my neck and the other on my forehead. Oh, what a way to get rid of my blues. Thank you, Li Deyan!