I used to think I was worldly, well-traveled, and tolerant. After many years of traveling and studying abroad, I enjoyed dispensing advice on how to adjust to new cultures, where to go, and what to pack (see previous post). I even claimed I did not get culture shock anymore, since I was so used to trotting the globe and being all cosmopolitan.
Suffice to say I was punished for my arrogance a week ago.
I spent that day studying for my finals, and decided to take a shower before going to sleep.
Our shower stalls are divided by matte glass walls — they are not exactly diaphanous, but not opaque, either, and you can see vague outlines of the body of the person showering next to you.
As I was lathering, rinsing, and repeating, I detected two girls’ voices close to me; they were chatting in Chinese too fluent to be that of any of my fellow students (no offense), so I figured they were our Chinese roommates.
Since I could hear water running in the stall next to mine, without thinking, my mind registered it as one of the girls was showering, and the other was standing outside talking to her.
But when I looked up, I realized there were two body contours in that stall.
So at first I though they were making out, and delicately turned away.
(Going to a very liberal international boarding school and then living at a dorm at a fairly liberal college alters your expectations of dorm showers).
And then I realized they were chatting in a regular, friendly manner — no heavy breathing or flirtatious intonations. I carefully gazed up — and yes, I could see two body contours also lathering, rinsing, and repeating, each in their part of the shower stall. The stall was pretty small, so they were pretty close to each other.
I looked the other way, and saw that the stall on the other side of mine was available, so they were showering together voluntarily, not because there was no other place to shower.
And that just blew my mind.
I walked out of the shower having forgotten to finish rinsing my hair, and went to my room. I must have looked pretty confused, since my Chinese roommate asked me what was wrong. Having concentrated enough to speak Chinese, I asked her:
-In China, do girls shower together?
-And that’s, um, common?
-Yeah. I don’t really like it though, but many of my friends do.
-Do guys do that, too?
-Some do, yeah.
I still don’t know why it shocked me so much.
If the two girls were in fact making out, I would have not cared at all. I certainly don’t care what people do in the showers in their spare time. I don’t exactly have a crazy puritan approach to nudity, either: I have been to plenty of public saunas/lockerrooms/etc; I go to a local gym in Beijing where women feel free to stroll around naked while changing in the locker room, and that does not bother me much.
Unless it was a complete shower emergency, it would just never occur to me to shower with a friend. In some dorms in China, hot water is turned off at a certain time. So, say, if I got back from the gym with a friend, and there was just one shower stall, and we had ten minutes, I would not mind sharing a stall — although I’d probably wear bikini or underwear.
But in my opinion, showering with friends just does not cut it as a social activity.
The stall is small, there is one shower, which means you have to take turns. Our dorm stalls here are larger than those at Yale, but not gigantic, either.
I have never been known to take long showers, so showering time is not exactly sacred to me, either. In fact, if I get back to my dorm from shopping with girlfriends, and we decide to take a shower and then go eat out, I will be waiting for them long after I am done showering and changing. There is not much to do in there: even with letting that conditioner soak in and scrubbing my body raw, my showers are never longer than 10 minutes.
I do think that showers are relaxing, but I just don’t get what one is supposed to do there to spend around 20 minutes or more — I always guessed people had some sort of secret shower behavior. Standing still while the hot water is flowing over you and pretending they are in the Caribbean, doing their secret dance routine, singing, etc. That would make people wish for some privacy in a shower, right?
Even though I don’t seem to have any of that secret showering behavior, I still don’t understand why one would shower with friends. And no, I am not judgmental or critical, I just honestly don’t see the point.
Going to a spa together, getting hair done together, painting each other’s toenails even — all of these fit in my understanding of social interactions with females (and males, too, sometimes). Women often bond over some sort of grooming rituals, and what’s a better foundation of friendship then getting pedicures and discussing the latest trends in nailpolish?
I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else comment on this topic — I am guessing it might be because most foreigners in China don’t come across showering Chinese that often.
Or maybe no one else finds it strange?