After the Great Wall we went to see some tombs of emperors, but Jim went back to the hotel to “get some work done.” I told him that taking summer classes was a dumb idea, but he wanted to get a start on his MBA, so he was taking a class on Principles of International Commerce online.
When we got to the tombs, there was this huge gate at the front. Michael told us that after we crossed it we were in the land of the dead. We also saw a huge statue of a dragon.
“That dragon is Pi Xiu,” Ruby said, leaning closer to us and pointing at it. “He has a large mouth and no anus so he can swallow much money and not waste it.”
Margo and I snickered. My mother’s eyebrows appeared over the tops of her sunglasses.
“When we come back through this gate, you must all say ‘wo hui lai le,” or your spirit will be trapped in the realm of the dead,” Michael told us, and then he lead us closer to the door with the dragon statue outside of it. “This is Pi Xiu. He has a big mouth, but he has no anus. This is a symbol of saving money and not spending it. This is true story, not fake.”
Margo and I snickered again.
After the tombs we all piled back into the car.
“Dear friends. Perhaps you are thirsty?” Michael asked.
“Extremely,” my mother said.
“Do you have any water?” Margo asked.
“There is a tea shop close to here,” Michael said. “They do a traditional tea ceremony. Very important. Many world leaders have come to this tea shop to experience the culture of China.”
“How far is it?” my mother asked.
“It is very close,” Michael said. “We will go there now.”
Ruby leaned forwards and whispered something to my father. My father asked, “How much will it cost?”
“It is very cheap,” Michael said. “Very good price, very good price. You will see how we make the Chinese tea.”
“We’d like to try it,” the man from the Brazilian couple said.
My father looked back at Ruby and shrugged. I put my headphones in and tuned out of the conversation. Next thing I knew we were driving up a winding Beijing street and parking in front of a small brick building.
“Dear friends,” Michael said. “We have arrived. Please enjoy this tea shop and the traditional Chinese tea you will find inside.”
We all climbed out of the van and Michael led us into the room where the ceremony would take place. A small woman in oversized glasses entered wheeling a tray full of tea things. She gave each of us a small ceramic cup.
“Welcome,” she said. “First we will try the black tea.” She passed around a small tea pot and we each sipped from the cup. It was fragrant and bitter. “This tea you can buy if you like,” the woman said, pointing to the tea cup.
The next tea was a sweet fruit tea, and the woman poured it into a teacup that said Beijing. As she poured, the background of the cup changed from dark blue to light purple. “This cup changes color,” she explained, as the Brazilian couple oohed and ahhed. “You can buy if you like. Also the tea.”
The next tea she poured into a little ceramic sculpture of a boy. The tea went into the boy’s head and then came out from between his legs in a little stream. “This is our pee pee boy,” she said. “Check if the water is hot. Only if the water is hot, he will pee. You can buy if you like.” My mother looked at her tea like she wasn’t sure she wanted to drink it anymore.
Margo leaned over to Ruby. “Is that a traditional Chinese… thing?”
Ruby looked confused by the question.
Several teas later, the woman packed up her tea things and wheeled them out of the room. She came back with two bills, one for my father and one for the Brazilian couple.
“Lene,” my father hissed at my mother. “It was twenty-five per person.”
“Is that bad?” my mother whispered.
“Dollars, Lene. I thought China was supposed to be cheap.”
“Look,” Margo said, “I got one of those pee pee boys at the gift shop. They were only ten dollars.”
When we got back in the car, Michael suggested that we go to a traditional foot massage artist. “No,” my father said firmly. “We’ve spent enough money today.”
“We’d love to try it,” said the Brazilian woman.
“Dear friends,” Michael said. “I will drive you to the massage artist. Those of you who wish to try can try. Those of you who do not wish to try can stay in the car.”
That’s how Margo, Ruby, my grandmother and I ended up sitting in a circle in a Chinese parking lot playing Uno. We were there for so long that some delivery men waiting at the back door wandered over to see what we were doing. Ruby explained the rules to them in Mandarin. The next round we dealt them in.
My father didn’t want to pay for the hotel breakfast again, so we went to a restaurant a few blocks away that sold steamed rolls with meat on the inside. It was a small, open-air restaurant, and you could see into the back room where the steamed rolls were being made. We all got one or two giant steamed rolls with our meat of choice inside.
Around this time my stomach started to feel like multiple snakes were slithering around in it. Restless snakes. Snakes that were not at all pleased with the recent turn of events in stomachland. The snakes demanded that their grievances be heard. I poked Ruby in the shoulder and asked her if this restaurant had a restroom.
After a brief exchange with the man in the kitchen, she told me it didn’t.
“Well,” I said, clutching my stomach like it was going to fall out of my body, “where can I find one?”
“You could go back to the hotel,” Ruby suggested.
“No time,” I groaned. “Closer.”
“Ha ha,” Margo said, swallowing another pork bun whole. “You’re in pain.”
“There are the public restrooms,” Ruby said, “but…”
“Are they close?” I asked.
“They’re not like American restrooms. I do not think you would like them.”
My stomach made a loud sound between a gurgle and a wheeze.
“I think I can handle it,” I said.
Ruby led me around the corner and pointed to a door. She handed me a packet of Kleenex.
“Why…?” I said, staring at it.
“No paper in the public restrooms,” she said. “Sorry. I will show you to the hotel if you don’t like it.”
“I’m fine,” I said. And I walked through the door.
The first thing I was accosted by was the stench. I’m used to public restrooms smelling like cleaning supplies and sometimes like other things. This was different. I don’t think this restroom had been cleaned since the days of Chairman Mao. I had never really understood how horrible human shit smells in large quantities.
There were two rows of holes in the ground, and there were women squatting over these holes with their pants pulled down. There weren’t any stalls. I think there were partitions, but if there were, they didn’t even come up to my knees. I could see everything.
A squatting woman looked up from her cell phone. We made eye contact. For one horrible moment, I couldn’t look away. I was transfixed. She was there, squatting in front of me in a room that stank of human feces and farts. Her eyes were staring deeply into mine.
This is the most horrible moment of my life, I thought. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone.
I backed out of the bathroom, slowly, like I expected the woman to come after me. She looked down at her phone.
I gave Ruby the Kleenex.
“I’ll take you to the hotel,” she said.