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Monkeys in the Middle

Goodness gracious! I have spent many of my birthdays away from home! Even though, it’s not the easiest thing to be away from home on your birthday, I have enjoyed many birthdays around the world. In Sweden, my Rotary counselor took me out for coffee and a slice of princess cake. Bright green marzipan frosting with pink roses covered the fluffy white cake as Ulla and her friend Lena sang “Happy Birthday” to me in a crowded cafe. In Senegal, I invited all of my friends over for a feast of beignets and a night of salsa dancing. I wore a bright pink halter dress as I danced my way into a new year. This year in China, I played monkey in the middle with Chinese business men at the local hot springs, ate chocolate eclairs and homemade cake, and celebrated my 25th year with good friends.

Some people expect fireworks. Others expect piles of presents. This year I truly didn’t know what to expect because an over-night trip to the hot springs was planned and turning into a sulfuric smelling raisin due to many hours sitting in a hot tub was something I had only experienced once before. If any of you readers have seen the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, then you can easily visualize the expansive bathing houses where spirit gods came to be pampered. They floated around from pool to pool soaking up the cleansing waters and spewing out the toxins. My experience wasn’t quite like the spirit gods, but we did jump from pool to pool, experimenting with the ones that used Chinese traditional medicine and the ones packed with other guests ready to party.

Our first task was to actually find the hot spring pools. The resort was so massive that many people could drive golf carts or ride bikes around the area to get there in a timely matter. We decided to rely on our feet and just follow random paths to where the smell of sulfur was the strongest. Cement bridges crossed small flowing rivers and led us to more twisting and turning paths throughout the bamboo forests. As excitement and anticipation flowed through our bodies, red glowing lanterns led the way to steaming pools smelling of sulfur and chicken soup. We could hear the cross between traditional Chinese music with thumping bass techno beats and we knew that we were coming close to the overcrowded pools. Just like any successful birthday party, I brought party favors, which came in the shapes of plastic orange squirt guns and a ball. The squirt guns came in handy when trying to catch people’s attention (if we didn’t catch it before with our American-ness and blonde hair!) and the ball turned my birthday celebration into one of the most memorable birthdays ever.

As children, we either enjoyed or detested the game “monkey in the middle.” I was never a good monkey, so tears usually found their way into my eyes before the ball found its way into my hands. With the Chinese techno beats in the background, everyone was in a good mood and ready to move. Once the ball was tossed into the pool, there was no turning back. A big circled formed and soon enough, there were about twenty of us playing “monkey in the middle.” Yes, it sounds like a tall tale from China. I was retelling this funny happening to my friend back in the states and she said, “Martha, is this true? Is it really like how it sounds?” Exactly how it sounds. Chinese men in their swim trunks were bent over laughing hysterically at their friends who were diving for the ball and getting mouths full of hot spring water. The ladies were squealing and laughing in their floral one-pieces as they raced for the coveted ball. The game ended after thirty minutes of extreme laughter and silly “monkey in the middle” antics. This birthday celebration will definitely go down in the history books as one of the most entertaining birthdays ever!