Backtracking: I spent the day in Laixi, morning Shaolin class, free after that. No phone (which I’ve been using for navigation) because it short-circuited in the rain. I rode my bike from the village to the city with nothing and a shirt and a mask and a shopping list.
A city of five million isn’t much for China but it’s a lot when your regular day is just a few people, their animals, and rosebushes. My discipline is new, a little freedom spoils it, I become a basic traveler like let’s buy let’s eat. At least things are really cheap here.
Laixi’s streets are organized geometrically, and I want to say also by service or thing but you can basically find everything everywhere. A row of massage places didn’t mean these were the only ones but I ignored my instincts anyway and walked straight into the first. It had a sign of feet maybe smiling at each other.
I was escorted into a hotel room on the fifth floor—hanky panky alert—and immediately made my way back out. Two big American feet skipping away from the happy footsies :( Blind massage was empty except for a blind man whom I almost tripped over but there was no way he worked there because when I asked him in admissible Mandarin how much for how long he replied, “No idea.”
A place called SPA was failure-sandwiched in between, pink exterior, inviting in a futile kind of way. SPA’s interior took a turn for the pinker—90’s Florida timeshare—but the girls looked strong and weren’t made up at all which made me feel relatively safe.
90’s Florida timeshare / geriatric ward. As an aside, the Chinese urban way is all about embellishment, dongles from dangles on curtains with sequins applied generously in all-over hearts: here, separating a hole in the floor toilet from a couple pink fleece pinned massage beds raised up on the only thing not pink, other than these girls’ unflatteringly pale faces: boxes of plywood.
Tulle was the last thing I saw before I laid face down my cushy pink entombment. I was too tall for the bed and would’ve got up to move it myself but my masseuse strongarmed the pink doused pyre with me tassled down on it six inches out from the wall, then slapped me on the back with her other hand to signal she was ready.
She wrenched my muscle knots loose for thirty minutes, then scraped the skin on my back with some sort of thin blunt tool. Every prolonged pull was like a record scratch of her repeated gasps and guffaws and drawn out aaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’s, which made me feel pitiful and disfigured and scared. I didn’t tell her to stop because I kept thinking it would end, but she went over my entire back. At some point her associate came in and they both kind of screamed, she lit something on fire, positioned a lamp over my butt, and waves of heat penetrated through the skin. That’s when I knew I had been shredded raw. The whole operation smelled like burning grass, and I wish that were cue for soothing nature sounds because I was in panic for the next thirty minutes, thinking she would burn me on top of everything else. Which she didn’t, and I thanked her for that, and refused to look in the mirror until I was alone and could begin to process what just happened.
It is summer, now, and I feel the heat most heavily when I’m naked, in bed, sweating. That’s not supposed to be a hot image, if you could just see my setup here: black from body after body after body mattress, made up with a roses on zebra stripe sheet that I sprayed with pesticide after finding lice all over it, sewer smells stuck in the linoleum from a pipe that runs through the floor. So, sweating ugly. Through way more than the one bottle of water I drank today—not enough, not enough—especially after yesterday’s scraping. I paid a woman to tear my back to shreds because burning up inside is a thing here.
This part of China is originally hot, changed for the hotter, dust turns pores in, scared for water, the flies fly tired until their little insect souls separate from body, spotting my dreams with dots of chitin night, just enough for minute stretches of sleep, before the farmers start their morning in the darkness, calling out produce from a loudspeaker, dogs barking at empty handed men, roosters pleading with the stars, one by one, to stall a jealous sun that always comes out on top, it used to be that trees soaked up its rays, but they were razed to the ground, the remaining few choked out by an industrial haze, the water backed away, I do too, it comes through my PM2.5 mask when I bike into town: Laixi.
That’s the surface of it, and we could end there—but for the people. 1.4 billion trips home on a daily basis, the ground may look dishearteningly ashen but white smiles break it, people live here, laugh here, breathe here, work here, hurt here, think here, create here, birth here, die here, within the headlines that delineate a solid dry mass of statistics, which is why I left my things behind in Berlin, for a little while, to better understand what’s really going on.
I live with a three-generation farming family—grandma, her son, his wife, their son, a stray cat that’s been taken in, a dog, a duck, and a rabbit—in a small village on the outskirts of Laixi in Shandong Province. I thought I would come to practice Kung Fu here, which I do—six hours a day—but instead of losing my sense of time to routine (which would make this a lot easier), each second chokes me up like a defenseless punch to the gut. I am witnessing a profound shift in culture, the trickling out of tradition, the ambitions of a people and a government that renders out Progress as something concrete, six months to complete. In a place like this I will always be a privileged visitor, and to be honest, I’m grateful for that. To be back on a mattress that’s stained with my own sweat is a sweet homecoming. That said, I’m committedly here, observing around the periphery of sight, where thought commingles with feeling and feeling with the all but invisible. The world is really big, which makes empathy and compassion from one side of the world to the other all the more riveting. I’ll be checking back in on a regular basis, with photos and stories and contemplations.