March 8th was International Women’s Day and to commemorate that, this is a women’s travel story. Yes, I do mean a tampon story. Consider yourself warned.
Driving from Panjin to Dan Dong should only have taken three or four hours, but the bus was taking the scenic route and the first snowstorm of the year had hit that November morning. So instead, it took nine hours. Nine hours, one pit stop. And I was in that special monthly state of “enjoying being a girl”.
Ally, my travel partner, had been in China for several years, and was accustomed to how bad the bathrooms can be. When the bus stopped at a small cement building in the middle of nowhere she said, “It’s going to be ugly,” and headed for the bathroom stalls.
Stall is really too generous a word for the structures I’m talking about. There are no doors and the walls are only waist high. Actually, bathroom is too generous a word. What it is, is a trench to squat over. Everyone uses one trench. You can imagine how pretty this gets. But I am not one to stand on ceremony. When you gotta go, you gotta go. I had to go and take care of the other issue as well.
I followed my friend into the bathroom. There were three stalls. I was fourth person. “Well, I’m not going to stand and stare at her while she pees,” I thought and backed out of the room. I was new to China. Chinese women walked passed me and did stand, staring at the people peeing. You do what you have to do. So I went in, stared, then finally took my turn to squat with a nondescript, middle-aged Chinese woman staring at me.
Now, in recognition of the fact that half the people in the world never have to deal with this, let me just state the obvious and say that inserting a tampon is a very private thing. It’s not just that I had never before done it in front of a stranger. I had never done it in front of anyone at all. Not in front of my former husband who I had lived with for 13 years, nor in front of my mother, who when I first came of age, described what to do, told me a funny story about her first time, and then left me to it. Nope. The Chinese woman was my first. Northeastern China is one of many corners of the world where women don’t use tampons. I can’t imagine what she thought. Quite possibly the experience was as disturbing for her as it was for me.
Back on the bus, I reflected on my new experience and was drawn back to a conversation I’d had with Zou Jun, the Chinese matriarch of the family I lived with, a few weeks before. I had seen people making small fires and putting some kind of special paper into them. Zou Jun told me that fires were to honor one’s deceased relatives and that prayers go up on the smoke. The papers I had seen were money, going to relatives in heaven who needed the money there. (The fact that heaven had an economy and that one could be broke there was vaguely disturbing to me, but I often find descriptions of heaven disturbing.) She went on to say that if you burn money for someone, you must not wear skirts or dresses when it warms up in the spring. The spirits want to come back and can fly up into you that way.
Suddenly I sat upright in my seat on the bus and called to Ally who was stretched out in the seat across from me. We were in a remote area of China and yelled back and forth in English with out worrying that someone else would understand.
“Hey, Ally,” I said, “You know how Zou Jun said that if you burn money for your relatives you’re not supposed to wear skirts because a spirit will fly up your vagina? Well do you think you’re safe if you have a tampon in?”
She howled with laughter. “Maybe if it’s a super!”
Then she went on to muse over the lost marketing opportunity. “Oh, my God, China is the biggest market in the world Tampax is going about it all wrong. They should be selling them as demon blockers.”
Demon blockers indeed. For the rest of the trip, and probably for the rest of our lives, that is how she and I refer to those, oh-so-necessary little plugs.
Happy Women’s Day!Published in