The Pee-Pee Boy
or An American's Culture Shock in China
If you stay in China long enough, you will undoubtedly develop a serious, and often debilitating, addiction. You will find that not only can you not start your mornings without a quick fix, but also cannot function for most of the day without it. Wandering aimlessly through dark alleyways like a dirty ragamuffin, you seek out the seedy dealers who sit with countless tins of their product, hawking multiple varieties and strengths, depending on your need. For me, it was the Oolong that satisfied my evil desire and stopped my withdrawal pains. For others, only straight green would do. Like so many others before and after, I had become a tea addict.
Tea and China are so intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to think of one without the other. At every restaurant you patronize, in every shop you visit, at every residence you enter, tea is offered to you unsolicited. Nearly everyone you see walking down the street has a tea thermos for easy access. As we would bargain our way into possession of a camera, or new shoes, or a knock-off Communist China tchotchke, we could merely say, “Do you have hot water?” and the vendor would immediately take our thermoses and fill them up. If you ever run out of your tea supply, there are tea vendors within a block or two of wherever you are in any given city. The Chinese are also always willing to share some of their stash, though it is generally considered good etiquette to eventually repay the favor.
Tea has a very calming effect and provides just the right amount of caffeine without the hangover that you usually get with coffee. There are also several tea varieties that are caffeine-free, but with the same health and wellness benefits of green tea and its offshoots. It is a great after meal drink, especially after a large feast, and nothing cures a hangover faster (in my opinion). Every 8 AM Chinese language class we took as part of our study-abroad program found us huddled over our tea thermoses like it was our last remaining possession on Earth. After an hour or so of sipping the magic elixir, we would be completely ready to tackle that difficult language. This meant, of course, that whatever knowledge our teacher tried to impart upon us in that first hour was lost forever. Oh well, such is the nature of addiction.
Our first formal introduction to proper Chinese tea came in Beijing, during a visit to a (likely government-run) “authentic” Chinese tea house. In the long line of ready-made tourist shops we visited (including a pearl factory, jade factory, silk factory, and – no joke – a terracotta warrior factory), the tea house “factory” was by far the most worthwhile. At the tea house, we were all seated on long benches in an elaborately decorated room, facing four women in long, multicolored robes, who taught us how to properly brew tea, Chinese-style. Different styles of tea were prepared in their own unique ways, and not one of them involved a tea bag. After demonstrating how to use the multiple tea pots (or cha chong), cups, bowls, and plates in front of us, we sampled each tea. We tried an oolong tea, black tea, green tea, jasmine tea, and pu’er (an earthy tea, which was pronounced poo-er, eliciting chuckles from all of us 21 year old little boys). The tea was all magnificent, and none of us left without purchasing some of their superior, if over-priced, product. However, before the demonstration was over, the tea ladies produced the highlight of the day – the pee-pee boy.
As the tea ceremony was explained to us, the tea ladies always spoke in perfect English. It was so perfect, in fact, that it was obvious that every word was carefully scripted and practiced religiously before a single tourist stepped into the tea house. Whether it was government oversight, or just a very careful shop manager, we knew that every word was selected to enhance the tourist experience and entice us to buy a lot of their tea. Therefore, we were all pretty surprised when the tea ladies each pulled out a small clay statue and announced:
“Now we demonstrate the pee-pee boy.”
“Pee-pee boy” was clearly the most accurate name that could be given to these figurines. Maroon-colored and about five inches tall, the clay statuettes represented a young, Buddhist monk-looking boy, clothed except in one key area. Can you guess where that area was? There they were, for all the world to see, little pedophilic figures which were apparently a key facet of Chinese culture. Best of all, there was a tiny opening at the tip of each little clay penis. It was this peculiar aspect of the pee-pee boys that the tea ladies were about to demonstrate.
It turned out that if you dipped the pee-pee boys in cold water until they filled up, and then poured hot water on top of them, the pee-pee boy statues would launch a wickedly impressive stream of water out of that aforementioned tiny opening, thus simulating a young Buddhist monk taking a much-needed piss, perhaps after chugging some fermented yak’s milk. It was one of the most hilarious things I had ever seen, and we all vowed to get our hands on them. Everyone in that room suddenly had the perfect idea for a souvenir for their friends and family back home. What the pee-pee boy had to do with tea was beyond me, but the tea ladies were pretty serious about it, and frankly, that made it even more amusing. Unfortunately, the tea house did not sell the pee-pee boys (missing out on a huge sales opportunity), but did provide them for free...if you bought their deluxe gift box. This gift box contained an impressive array of tea and tea paraphernalia, but clocked in at roughly $100 US. Needless to say, we all left the tea house sans pee-pee boys, but with a greater appreciation of Chinese tea.
When we arrived in our ultimate destination of Shanghai, we discovered markets that were flush with every possible variety of tea, not just the usual green, oolong, and black teas. Often it seemed that the Chinese had derived a tea from every flower and plant in the nation. Chrysanthemum tea was made by steeping dried chrysanthemum flowers, creating a beverage with a floral honey flavor. Spearmint tea was supposedly excellent for digestion, and tasted incredible. One of our favorite teas was called Floating Lantern. Basically a dried flower bulb, Floating Lantern would, upon pouring hot water over it, blossom into a lovely pink flower, releasing a floral/green tea flavor as it bloomed. Not only did you get a delicious tea, but also a show to go along with it! More impressively, at some of the antique markets, the tea shops would let you sample the teas before you purchased them. Like a quality wine shop, if you were on the fence between two or three different teas, the shop proprietors would seat you down at a tasting table, go through the elaborate process of brewing and serving the tea, and rather than making a decision on a tea based solely on smell, you could make a much more informed choice based on its taste. If nothing else, it was a great way to kill some time and take a break from haggling and walking around.
Of course, drinking lots of tea also meant having to go to the bathroom quite often. In the hotels and dorms, the bathrooms we encountered were, at worst, passable and always Western-style. While we found the occasional cockroach or two, for the most part using those facilities were a completely uneventful experience. However, just about anywhere else in China, especially when we left the more modern portions of a city, we were guaranteed to see the dark side of Chinese bathrooms. The vast majority of public restrooms in China that aren’t located in restaurants with the names McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, or Starbucks come without a tradional toilet. Instead, you’ll find the “squatter.” This consists of a toilet-shaped hole in the ground and, if you’re lucky, a roll of industrial-grade toilet paper somewhere nearby. This is not a problem at all if you happen to be a guy who just needs a quick pee, although aim becomes a little more important than if you were using a wall-mounted urinal. The girls on the trip, however, all developed superior squatting muscles, more out of necessity than anything. If you needed to use the bathroom for any other reason, it was normally advisable to hold off until you could make it back to the hotel, dorm, or a nearby McDonald’s.
Sometimes, though, you just had to go. We all carried around both a small roll of toilet paper and a traveler-sized bottle of Purell, just in case we found ourselves in one of these unfortunate situations. On those occasions when we had to eschew patience and go for it, we encountered the full spectrum of bathroom cleanliness. The squatting itself got old quick, but was made even worse when you were forced to hold your breath and close your eyes the entire time, lest your senses became aware of the disgusting mess around you. Some of the bathrooms we used in China, particularly in the more rural areas, were nothing less than human rights violations. A few of them looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the Great Leap Forward, which is exactly the opposite of what we did when we opened the door and saw (and smelled) the filth inside. Some of the funniest stories we heard from our classmates came from instances when the squat turned into a slip. To be fair, most of the bathrooms we used, particularly in the major cities, were no worse than what you would find at most American gas stations and rest areas. But the ones we remembered, and tried to avoid, were memorable in the worst kind of way. Sometimes it just seemed like we were playing Russian roulette with the bathrooms.
But, I digress. It turned out that these antique markets had a few surprises other than the tea shops. As we were walking around one of these markets in downtown Shanghai one sweltering day, we came across a table selling old Maoist-era relics. Set beside the grouping of Mao watches, Mao clocks, Mao “Little Red Books,” Mao coffee mugs, and Mao propaganda posters, was a giant clay vessel filled with water. Floating in this water, much to our delight, were dozens of different styles of our old friends the pee-pee boys. By this point we had pretty much given up all hope of finding any more of these, with their future value now relegated to a funny story we could relate back home. This vendor, however, was selling many more varieties than the Beijing tea “factory” had, and at an unbeatable 1 yuan each! We quickly cleaned her out of her supply, and walked away utterly satisfied at our good luck. This area was regularly frequented by foreign tourists, and this vendor clearly knew her market audience. Not that we would ever claim to have any kind of significant influence on the street market economy, but in the following weeks, vendors selling pee-pee boys seemed to spring up everywhere. Clearly, word had spread that Americans had a thing for statuettes of half-naked Buddhist boys simulating urination. Proud ambassadors for our country we were, indeed.