My God, I thought, toilets are ugly.
I realize this while lying limply on the bathroom floor of a south China hotel room. I’ve just thrown up, and collapsed to the floor to become more deeply acquainted with the tile. From here I have a clear view of the toilet, and it’s ugly. How have I failed to notice this before? Toilets are awkward looking objects with little sleekness or appeal, their square necks snaking up discordantly from a squat, round bowl. They look like aliens, I think. This is the most coherent string of thought I’ve had in more than an hour, but it’s interrupted when I start to barf again into my homely friend.
This is the best hotel room in a small city of six million near the South China Sea, and presumably also the best bathroom. I’ve been here for ten minutes so far, and all I’ve seen is the ugly toilet and the tile floor, which feels welcomingly cool on my cheek. Less than two minutes passed after I entered the room before my stomach began evicting the lunch I’d eaten earlier at a restaurant on a hazy grey bay in Zhuhai.
I left Hong Kong that morning with my husband, E.J., on the ferry that departs from the Royal Pacific Hotel. When I heard we were going to travel to the mainland on a ferry, I had hopes of a breezy, relaxing ride with ample legroom and an open view. But this ferry was strictly a working boat, a catamaran with airline-sized seating. The passenger area was enclosed on all sides in frosted glass which seemed to no purpose other than to block the passengers’ view of the sea. And worse, we were not permitted to move about once the boat left the dock. We stayed encased in our butt-compressing seats, with no sense at all of the progress of the trip.
Trapped in my seat and denied a view of the water, I occupied the time by filling out the passport control card for my entrance into mainland China. Most of it could be done in English, but there were two boxes that required me to copy, with exact precision while on a moving ferry, four Chinese characters. Our minder, Alistair, had written them clearly on scrap paper and handed them to us. (Chinese people who do business with Westerners usually adopt English names, and they often sound very British.) Fortunately, I trusted Alistair, because for anyone else it might’ve been funny to give me script that actually said “Eat a bag of dicks, ass-chicken,” and I would’ve dutifully copied it down on the official document and presented it to the stern Chinese immigration official. But Alistair was a deeply earnest, very diligent person, and impossible not to like and trust. When I was done, I was pretty sure my Chinese writing looked a lot like my four-year-old’s printed English. But I’d crafted a card that might embarrass me at passport control but would probably get me into the country.
It must be a universal principle that the people staffing passport control be selected from the nation’s surliest characters. In the business of policing the barriers that human beings build around themselves, the Surly Immigration Officer — who stamps your passport reluctantly, who has given his best effort to find a reason not to and has failed – can serve only one purpose: to remind you that you are at the mercy of a foreign government, and to behave yourself, or else. It’s foreign policy posturing at the grassroots level. It’s the same thing with the blaring red digital sign at the ferry dock notifying us that if we were carrying drugs, the Chinese government would probably execute us. Thanks, I thought. I appreciate the notice, because that would be an unpleasant surprise. Whoops! Americans are the worst, though. Our passport control officers are mean and we make entrants fill out their entry cards entirely in English. But at least the grouchy immigration officer would be the last unfriendly person I would encounter for the rest of my time in China. We were here on business. Everyone was friendly.
Alistair had arranged for us to be picked up outside the immigration building in a minivan which was to take us first to lunch in Zhuhai, then along the South China Sea to our destination city. Hong Kong had been a dazzling place with skyscrapers, a peak in the middle, and stunning beauty. The mainland seemed different to me, gloomier somehow. The humid, overcast April day didn’t help.
Around lunchtime, our driver turned down a long, peninsular drive toward an ornate building surrounded on both sides by water. As we entered, a gentleman led us to a room lined with fish tanks, where we were instructed to select our lunch. We could choose between stone fish, crab, sea worms, fish entrails, crocodile, turtle, snake, and an unidentifiable form of phallic-looking sea life that was stacked on end, swaying back and forth. They reminded me of groupies at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert during Freebird. All they needed was lighters. Neat. Deciding to ease into the culinary scene, I punted and picked out shrimp.
We ate in a private dining room with a Lazy Susan on which was displayed snails, my shrimp (which had kept their heads), some delicious kind of pickle, and lots of a lobster noodle dish. My prissy taste buds recoiled from the tough, sinuous snails, but I swallowed it with a smile and moved on. I tried a bit of everything, because that’s what was polite, and I was determined not to be the Ugly American. The lobster and noodles were tasty. I ate more, along with the unknown pickled vegetable and a plateful of rice.
After lunch, there were three more hours to our destination, and Alistair had plans for us along the way. I rode in the backseat of the van, watching the new and different landscape roll by. After about an hour, we stopped at a gas station for the bathroom, and our driver bought a small package of freeze-dried chicken feet. This pleased me, because it proved that disgusting convenience store foods are universal. America has pork rinds, and China has freeze-dried chicken feet. It was one of those happy traveling moments where you feel closer to home and very far away at the same time.
But looking back, the chicken feet might have started it. By the time the minivan pulled into a small resort town on the South China Sea, my stomach had untethered itself and was floating up into my throat. I thought I was mildly car-sick, so we walked a bit on the beach. The haze was so heavy the horizon was invisible. There were people around, but an oddly flat atmosphere prevailed. A few people were selling things from covered stands, and they all turned to stare at us. Things seemed weird. I couldn’t tell if things seemed so weird because I was getting sicker, or whether I was feeling sicker because things seemed so weird. We got back into the car and drove up a mountain to a new resort that was under construction. Here, there was almost no one – no one working, no one wandering around, no one anywhere. As we strolled along the newly-constructed veranda, my face erupted into a chilly sweat. I sat down at a table and began to tremble. I suspected a bad case of motion sickness combined with lingering jet lag. The tequila I’d had at the Mexican bar in Hong Kong was probably not improving the situation. We agreed to scratch plans for dinner and continue to the hotel.
As we sped across the countryside toward the city, the world took on a sort of twilight surreality. The Chinese characters zooming by on road signs only made it worse. The landscape looked ever duller and more threatening. As we approached the city, the constant rhythm of car horns drummed on my head. I am an anxiety-based life form, and panic sprouted in my chest as I began to wonder what was wrong with me. Finally, thankfully, we pulled up in front of the hotel. I tumbled out of the van and into the hotel lobby, still quivering, still sweating, and trying to breathe slowly to keep myself from throwing up. You cannot blow chunks in this lobby, I instructed myself. E.J. had told me that this city received few American visitors, and he got stared at every time he visited. I was not going to be the American who showed up at the hotel and barfed all over the front desk. Someone else could do that, but not me. Desperate, I remembered a tip I learned in my childbirth class to forestall morning sickness, and immediately pressed my index finger to my upper lip. The instructor said the upper lip is a pressure point, and she’d used it several times to keep sick kids from throwing up till they could get to the bathroom. For all I knew it was a placebo. I didn’t care.
I stood there at the counter, shaking lightly, while Alistair helped E.J. through the endless check-in process, during which the language barrier became abundantly clear. I didn’t want to be the Puking American, but I could live with being the American who stood there vibrating like a Hitachi Magic Wand with her index finger pressed nervously against her upper lip. I did this all the way through check-in, through the elevator ride up to the third floor, and until the door closed. I found the bathroom, removed my index finger, and my stomach started throwing lunch overboard.
That’s how the night went; I would vomit for a little while, return to the bed where E.J. was and slip into a sort of half-sleep populated by nightmares and exaggerated fears, until I woke up and it was time to throw up again. Barf and doze, barf and doze. He slept through most of it, but worry played in my head on a loop in my half-sleep. How sick was I? Would I have to go to the hospital? One of E.J’s co-workers had gotten so ill with food poisoning on a trip to this city that he’d had to go to the hospital. The doctor, he related to us with wide and privileged eyes, had thrown the used needles on the floor. My anxiety rose. I sweated a lot. What if I died? What would happen to my son? Why couldn’t I have waited to get sick later in the trip, perhaps in Shanghai or Nanjing?
Mercifully, my brain eventually shut down, and so did my gag reflex. Two minutes later, though – or so it felt – E.J. nudged me a little. “Hey,” he murmured. “I have to go.” We were in China on business – his business, which was supplying the United States with Chinese-manufactured consumer products. He had suppliers to meet. This was his sixth trip to China, and my first.
“Whf?” I moaned in reply. It had been less than two hours since my last session of Barf & Doze, and I had intended to ask “Why are you interrupting the first sleep I’ve had all night?” But “whf” was all that emerged. Whf.
“Remember where Alistair offered to take you?”
This was obviously intended to be an actual conversation. I opened one full eye. “Yeah,” I grunted. The rural village Alistair grew up in, before surprising everyone by becoming a wealthy entrepreneur, was within twenty miles of this city. He’d offered to take me there, introduce me to the people, and let me take some photographs of a markedly non-touristy side of China. But I was confused at the question, because I thought it was pretty clear that my condition made that an unwise trip. I mean, look what happened to the first President Bush when he pushed it on an Asia trip.
But over the next few seconds, I realized that he didn’t understand at all.
“Well, are you going?”
I groaned. Here we were again. E.J. always reminded me of the Black Knight from Monty Python. No matter how sick he was, he always seemed able to pull it together and do what he needed to do – It’s just a flesh wound, you know – and I always felt like a weakling when I couldn’t do the same, or just didn’t want to. Getting food poisoning in a foreign country, after all, wasn’t enough of a reason to fall down on the task of being adventurous, was it?
“I suppose you would jump right up and go explore China if you were me, right?” I asked, the question slightly muffled because half my mouth was still pressed into the pillow.
“Well, I have. I’ve been where you are.”
“What?” I opened the other eye. I wasn’t buying this. “When?”
“I’ve been sick on previous trips,” he insisted.
“I don’t remember hearing about that,” I said. “I don’t remember you throwing up all night.”
“Well, I didn’t throw up all night,” he conceded. “But I’ve had diarrhea.”
I was offended now. I opened my second eye and propped myself up on the pillow. “Diarrhea?” I snorted. “Please. I aspired to diarrhea last night. I prayed for diarrhea. I would have thrown that lunch a goddamn parade if it had stuck around long enough to become diarrhea.”
He sighed, irritated by my irritation. I sighed, disappointed in his disappointment. And, somewhere in the back of my own mind, I was disappointed with myself for not living up to – something. He surrendered. “Okay. I have to head out,” he said. “Mmf,” I replied, half asleep again from the effort of the conversation.
After his first meeting he checked on me, and brought me orange juice from the hotel restaurant. Orange juice in this south China hotel is not from a carton. It is freshly squeezed, light, foamy, and sweet, and it kept me alive that day in between naps. By the following morning I was upright again, and able to join E.J. and Alistair in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, even though I only ate watermelon and glanced queasily at Alistair’s squid noodle soup.
In between bites of egg, E.J. nodded at a man across the room, sitting at another table. “Isn’t that Charlie?” he asked Alistair, referring to another supplier he was scheduled to meet the next day. Alistair looked over and nodded. “Charlie, yes,” Alistair said. “Why doesn’t he come over and say hello?” E.J. asked. Alistair looked confused. “I don’t know,” he said. “Very strange.”
That night, I asked E.J. if he ever found out why Charlie ignored him at breakfast. He laughed. “Yeah. He thought you were my mistress, so he stayed away out of respect.”
“Your mistress?” I asked incredulously. We shook our heads and chuckled.
I didn’t question at the time why it was so easily assumed that an American man sitting with a woman at breakfast was obviously having an affair. But there was a bigger question lurking: If my husband was going to have an affair, whispered the voice inside my head, why would he have it with someone who looked like me?