How do you prefer to be groped…?

It’s the wrong verb.

That’s what is scratching at the back of my brain throughout this alcohol lubricated conversation. It’s a housewarming party in the suburbs around Brussels, at a gorgeous house of an acquaintance in the small town of Lustin.

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Seriously – movie quality home.

And we’ve all been drinking a little bit, the Europeans and the visiting Americans. They’re rolling their own cigarettes and have themselves decoratively draped over lawn furniture like so many Ikea mannequins. I have this theory that Europeans, especially French speakers, like to see what American limits are in terms of conversation topics. To see if we’re as Puritanical as our stereotypes make us out to be. Then again, it could be because I am a woman, and love to talk. Who knows the inner workings of the human mind…?

That is why, in the setting sun on the hillsides, full of beer and/or wine and sausages, I find myself discussing the nuances of breast fondling.

It didn’t start there. First I got ribbed for going to Charleroi. The general consensus is that I’m very foolish to think that 1.) I would find anything of interest in a poor town like Charleroi and 2.) That I thought I would find anything about my family. I explain that I did not anticipate meeting family out of the blue, but that I wanted to see where my family lived. This prompts some more gibes about being from Charleroi. To any of my readers who have a less than savory neighborhood around their city, imagine being teased for being from there.

Charleroi – first you tear down my ancestral home to build a shed, and now you don’t have the decency to have a good reputation!

But back to the breasts. I’m not sure how we got there, really. I just assume that because there were Americans present the Europeans decided to see if they could make us blush. Jokes on them (not really – I would have ducked out if things got too raunchy or uncomfortable. It makes me sound a heck of a lot cooler if I don’t admit that though.)!

I’m trying to keep things clean – as clean as possible. I am, after all, and ESL certified teacher. English vocabulary is one of my strong points, and the nuances of the language appeal very much to my writer’s sensibilities. The two gentlemen in question – and to a lesser extent, the three women with us – are trying to get information on the proper way to touch a woman’s breasts. Surely, we are all unique?

Yes, the woman from Antwerp prefers the underside.
Yes, the woman from Brussels prefers the top.
(You don’t get to know mine unless you get to know me and I deem you worthy.)

But ultimately, under it all, there’s something bothering me about the whole conversation. It’s not that the questions are intimate, or that they’re very forward for casual acquaintances. I actually think it’s best to discuss intimacy with acquaintances, since you are unlikely to see them again and don’t have to worry about such revelations coming back to haunt you.

No, it’s the word, or to be more specific, the verb. See, the men keep using the verb “groped” as though it’s a good thing. No one has explained to them that when one “gropes” one is searching for something they can’t find, most usually in the dark. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you grope about. A woman who is groped is often groped without her permission, by some jerk (male or female) hoping to grab a bit of mammary.

For all you ESL students, “to grope” can have a negative connotation when applied to the human body. It implies – heavily – that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Better verbs for describing what you would do, once given permission of course, include:to stroke, to fondle, to caress, or even to touch. These are, in my opinion, better words, and as such convey a far more romantic idea than groping, which is what that one man did to me on a tram once. That memory is not a pleasant one.

Back to the backyard discussion – I eventually reach the above conclusion, that it’s the verb that makes the idea unattractive. This leads to a raucous series of miming verbs, where I try to pantomime groping, and they in turn provide very unattractive interpretations of touching a woman’s chest. Laughs are had by all. One of the men (who I learn later is the mistress [note: I need to find out if the male concubine is called a mistress. It’s not a gigolo because he’s not getting paid] of one of the women) proves his sophistication is really an act because he’s giggling like a young boy as we, the women both European and American, lament the fact that these are the reasons we are dissatisfied with the state of affairs.

So much more entertaining than teaching adverbs to teenagers, though….

I hitch a ride back with one of the men, who turns out to be a complete gentleman. He neither fondled nor groped me, and it was just the two of us and a long ride to Brussels and a full moon and everything. Eh voila!

So it is past midnight for the second night in my brief stay in Belgium. Jet lag and general fatigue are wrestling about in my bloodstream. I’m either faking being awake, or I’m dead asleep. The bed doesn’t care one way or the other, and at this point neither do I.

Just a Hint of Blood Rage…

(I swear in this post – be advised)
In an effort to not turn into a total pudge-pot while here , I have been walking around the track at the school. My school has a really nice quarter-mile track, so walking 5K every other day, or making a laughable attempt at running it, is an easy goal. Whether or not I’m athletic is not the point – exercise is a great way to release tension. When I’m stressed out about driving, or language barriers, or work difficulties, a brisk walk makes me feel better about things, normally.

But I’ve come to dread it. It’s not my body issues, though they are ever-present. It’s the students and the cat calls.

There’s never a moment when there isn’t someone on the track. I don’t care about other walkers, and I certainly don’t expect to be alone. It’s just that there are always students lounging about, or getting ready for classes of their own. And every day it’s the same. The girls aren’t so bad – they remind me of gaggles of geese. They clump together and stare at me and jostle and point and giggle and eventually one shouts, “Hello!” because she doesn’t know how loud my music is (it’s never loud – I keep a watchful ear going). I’ll say hello, one will say she loves me, they laugh, and I keep walking. This repeats for a few laps, and then they lose interest. Same with the girls in the upper story windows. They yell down at me, and a simple wave is enough to satisfy them.

The boys, though – teenage boys are much worse. Uncivilized and crude, they lounge on the grass and scream at me as I walk by. “What’s up?” “Hey, girl!” “Baby!” “Hello!” I keep walking, but I want to do something more direct. I hate this kind of bullshit. When I first arrived, I thought maybe they just didn’t understand how to use the language. Like Ariel with the fork in The Little Mermaid – it’s a tool, but what does it do? I know better now. And it’s always screeched at me – rare is the student who actually says “Hello” in a proper tone. I hate getting yelled at all the time – it’s warping how I respond to the most basic of English greetings.

Yesterday this happened:

“HELLO!” Screams a boy from my left. I stop, and remove my headphones. I do this every so often as a sort of teaching point – you can’t just shout at someone and expect no response. He looks at his friends, pleased that he’s made me stop. I can almost feel the smugness radiating from him. He doesn’t get that I chose to stop because he’s wrong and I’m going to try and address that.

“Hello!” I say, much quieter and far more polite. It’s a teaching moment. I repeat mentally. It’s a teaching moment. “How are you?” The boy tilts his head to one side and stares at my chest, saying something in Chinese in a tone that did not hide the meaning of the words I did not understand. He purses his lips at me. Ah, so that’s what this is – you little puke.

“Hmm?” Rather than ask in Chinese, I force a light tone, hoping (futilely I know) to prompt at least some English from him. Inside, I feel like I do before I start a game of tag – tense, maybe a little too focused.

“HMM?!” He mimics me, in a high pitched, overly loud and sarcastic voice. I roll my eyes, put my headphones in and force myself to start walking. I hear his self-congratulatory tone as he says something else to my back. My shoulders feel stretched, and I realize I’m digging my key into my thumb. My breathing is shallower. It surprises me, how angry I am. Once I recognize that I am angry, the emotion only gets stronger and more focused inside my head, calling for action. But I walk, thank goodness. On more than one occasion I’ve had a real disconnect between my rational response and what I actually do, my impulsive side getting a foothold in a moment of confusion.

Worse, because I stopped for one, they all start up, like horrible parrots. A pack of boys intercept me on the track. Their emissary comes forward. He’s wearing black and red – a different vocational track at the school. He wants small talk. I am in fight/flight mode. I barely make it through, and have to bite my tongue at his concluding remark of, “Ok now we’re good fine yeah ok friend.”

Just about every day it’s something like this. Yesterday was just one of the bad days.
This sort of problem raises a myriad of issues, some of which I address here:

 

  1.  I am almost twice as old as most of these students. I’m not a teenager to be riled. I’m an adult. They’re stupid little fuckwits, and that’s just how boys are.
  2.  I am a teacher, and as such I am held to a different standard of behavior. I can’t go attacking students, even if they’re disrespectful. And these are not my students. I can’t fight every fight.
  3. I am an American. I have to create a positive impression about my country’s behavior abroad. Fighting will not do this. If I respond I’m just proving the stereotype.
  4. I am sick of feeling like I can’t do anything for fear of upsetting others. I am not a doormat.
  5. If I keep walking, they’ll lose interest like the girls. They always do. But it’s so unsatisfying….
  6. I don’t speak enough Chinese to take him down verbally. He doesn’t understand English well enough to feel properly put down if I yell at him in English. And I know making me yell is his goal – it’s all their goals. They want to rile me and see what I’ll do. It’s a predictable scene – I get upset and yell, they smile and laugh because they don’t see me as a person. It’s like poking an animal in a cage to make it angry.
  7. How dare they…Screw maturity and screw being an adult! I have just enough strength and just enough wiles that I could make it to that little pig, grab his throat and knee him in the balls before he’d have time to react. I could put what little actual fight technique I know to use. Maybe sing the theme from “Team America” while I do it. Now that’s a story everyone would remember! I’d get deported in glory!
  8. They’re ignorant, and their ignorance comes from living in a closed society with limited access to Western influences. Like the Greek security guards at the Embassy, who got all their information about America from watching BET.

You might not believe me, but all this whirls around my head as I walk. Maybe not as articulate as I just wrote it, but something like every one of those thoughts is there, simultaneously. And likewise, my solution floats above it all. I’m not going to tattle to the principle. I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to lecture.
I’m going to walk. Disappointed, frustrated, angry, sad, and resolved.

There’s no joy in it – I’m running my thumb along my key groves like it’s a totem. Rather than feel relaxed, I’m more stressed. I can barely concentrate on my audiobook – I can feel my blood pumping, my muscles demanding something more than putting one foot in front of the other. On the second loop, more calls, more words, and I ignore them. It’s rude – anywhere else it’d be so rude of me to not acknowledge people at all. Even a catty retort is a response. Dismissal is expected in certain places, like with merchants and taxi drivers. But students – you’re supposed to want to teach students, not club them.

I’m angry at myself for being angry. I’m angry that my mental state has gone so uncivilized. And I’m angry that I’m not proud of my not engaging. I can’t even feel good about doing the right thing, because I’m so angry that I’m in this situation at all.
It’s the safest place to exercise, physically and theoretically. Mentally, I’d be better off dodging traffic in the streets of Wenjiang. At least there yelling an obscenity at a taxi is not frowned upon.

Patrick Swayze would know what to do….

 

But I leave for Shanghai tomorrow. A little distance will help I am sure.

The Perfume Road

My call to Dad drops at the same instant there’s a knock at the door.

Two of the housekeepers stood there, all smiles. I wondered what I did wrong, or what they did if anything. Perhaps they wanted to apologize for waking me up that morning? No, that wasn’t it. They entered the doorway, and one of them started energetically talking and gesturing to my perfume bottle.

My lack of language skills is so painfully…well, painful at this point. I get the impression that the woman is interested in my perfume. It’s my every day wear perfume – Diesel’s Fuel for Life. They stopped selling it in the department stores because apparently I was the only one who liked it. The bottle currently on my nightstand I had saved for a year after buying it in Paris, not knowing when I would be able to get it again. China seemed like a good time to have it with me. And now I have found someone else interested in it as well.

The two of them don’t speak a word of English between them. I break out my translator apps and notebook and proceed to get thoroughly confused. I understand she wants “three” of something – does she want to sample the perfume? No, I get the idea she wants to buy it – she’s gesturing to her pocket. So I write down what I paid for it – $50 USD. This is an undersell, actually. Given the strength of the Euro to the dollar, I probably paid more like $65 for it – well, maybe $60 (the dollar was rebounding a little). I show the number to the woman, and write the amount into RMB – 330. This is a slightly over the mark, because currently the exchange rate is 6.2 RMB to the dollar. I don’t know what it is compared to the Euro (I would look it up later). It all sort of evens out in my head.

After much discussion and more character writing I decide I am getting nowhere. No matter how slowly they speak I can’t respond. I figure out what she’s trying to say, sort of, but I don’t know how to formulate my responses. The words I translate do nothing to facilitate – they only lead to long explanations and laughter. So I say very slowly “1 minute…” and take off for the lobby. Tina is there, thankfully. Tina, who speaks moderately good English and is polite and patient. Tina translates one of the character sentences: “I would like to buy your shampoo.”

Breakthrough. So I trot back upstairs to my room, to the two laughing housekeepers, and write a discounted price down on the paper – 250rmb. It’s roughly $40, and my reasoning is that even though I haven’t used that much of the perfume, it’s still not new and I have used it, so charging full price wouldn’t be fair. I also appreciate that for $40 I could eat out every day for a week if I wanted, or eat lunch at the cafeteria every day for a month. But something is up – the one who wants to buy is still saying “three” something. It’s not 300 – because there’s no way she’d be asking to pay me more than I asked. The other one is trying to help my speaking slowly in different words, but I’ve hit my wall and there’s no going through it.

I do what I’ve been avoiding – I call reception and ask for Tina to come up to my room. I don’t like being an inconvenience, but I can tell when I’m in over my head and need help. Tina arrives like very polite cavalry, and through multiple translations we finally iron things out. The women want three bottles of perfume, and want to know when I can get them. I explain I only have the one, but that I could try to find some more for them if they wanted. Part of my brain is sarcastically asking when I’m planning on flying to Paris in the next couple of weeks. Then more details emerge – one cleaning lady wants a bottle like mine, the Fuel for Life. The other wants to buy my current bottle, and wants me to try and find two more Diesel perfumes which are not Fuel for Life. They both really like the smell.
Forget the Silk and Jade Roads – It’s the Perfume Road which runs through WenJiang…

I offer a couple of solutions to Tina. I can have my family find the perfume and ship it to me. Or I can try to locate it myself. Either way, I will find out the cost and let them know. The one gets serious – it’s her last day. And I am scheduled to check out soon – what happens if I find the perfume but I’m not at the hotel? I respond that even if I check out, I will bring the perfume back with me and drop it off with the other housekeeper, the one who is staying. I find the idea a little laughable – that I would go buy a bunch of perfume and then keep it.

Money in hand, perfume off the table, an outpouring of thanks to Tina, and then it is quiet in my room. Dad has gone to bed – I will have to apologize. And I am now reflective.

What just happened…?

In the hustle and bustle of miscommunication, I have somehow sold a bottle of perfume I’d been holding onto for over a year because it was one of my favorites. I sold my favorite perfume at what was most likely an undervalued price because…
Because…

I have no answer to this. That concerns me. Because someone else liked it and I can find more? Because I don’t remember to wear perfume most of the time anyway? Because it was a nice thing to do for a couple of ladies who maybe don’t see Western perfume that often? Because it’s just perfume and just money and really in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter? Because I have a real problem with not being able to say “no” to people, which I have not yet resolved? It’s a little of each, with a lot of that last one.

And now I’m hunting for perfume online? In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. Let’s see…I bought the perfume at a Sephora. There’s a brand new Sephora in Chengdu! And according to the Chinese Sephora website (which does not have an English translation button, for shame!) the Diesel line of perfume is available. Cost…460rmb. Huh – so those ladies got a steal for my 85% full bottle. If the store in Chengdu carries it, then my little treasure hunt becomes much easier.
Let’s see, as of March 29, 2014:
45.50 Euro = 65 USD
45.50 Euro = 388 RMB
65 USD = 403 RMB
460 RMB = 74 USD = 54 Euro

So perfume is considerably more here in China than back home in the States, and more so than Europe as well. The price of smelling good….

Oh, and if you’re in China and put in http://www.sephora.com, you get taken to http://www.sephora.cn and there is no way to get to an English site. If you click on the “International” link down at the bottom you get taken to a host of other Sephora sites, none of them English. The Canadian site links back to the Chinese site. I can find information in Czech, French, Italian, Greek, and a host of other languages, but not English. Thank goodness brand names stay constant.