bath and body works doesn't even sell this particular lotion anymore - i just checked. it is lychee flavor, and one whiff sends me back two years and nine months ago, to hefei, china (or somewhere thereabouts,) to a small house with no front door, a light bulb on a string, a well in the front yard, and a wood burning stove in the kitchen with one woman cooking and one woman fueling the fire from the pile of sticks next to her. it takes me back to that house, where a feast was prepared for two girls who didn't speak much chinese by people who didn't speak any english.
in the weeks before we ventured out into the country, on our almost daily trips to the grocery store across the street from the school, we had started coming across a strange... something. this something grew on branches and looked like an armored strawberry. we were all curious about them, but no one was brave enough to buy them and try them, so we just passed by that large bin that was always surrounded by chinese people. then came the day we went out to the country.
i'm ashamed that i don't know more about this trip lisa and i went on. the language barrier that was always present when we traveled anywhere in china was never more evident to me than that day. the only other english speaker on that trip with us was our eight year old student tom, in his second semester of the english program. he helped when he could, but his vocabulary was not appropriate for the situation. he knew enough to accomplish "grandmother" and "grandfather," but our classes up to that point hadn't prepared him for an experience like that. tom's parent's didn't speak any english at all, and his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, spoke even less. we pointed, gestured, smiled, and laughed a lot.
while standing in the kitchen, trying to indicate that we wanted to help cook if we could, tom's mother brought in some of those alien strawberries. she offered them to lisa and i first, and we shrugged and said no thanks. we didn't know how to eat them, and didn't know how to ask how to do it. thankfully, she didn't give up - she took one and demonstrated, and soon lisa and i were pros. eating those lychees was like popping little pieces of heaven into our mouths. so sweet and cool and light and refreshing, they were perfect for that hot day. especially since we couldn't drink any of the water, and the alcohol they provided for us was (hopefully politely) declined. we spent the rest of that day sitting on various makeshift benches or chairs around the house, eating lots of new things, some delicious, some slightly scary, (but not eating enough of them - we ruined our appetites with those lychees) and trying so hard to somehow communicate how thankful we were to those people for opening their house to us. we ended that trip by taking pictures and showing them on the little screen to everyone involved, and giving out hugs and "wo ai ni's."
for the rest of my life, i will look back on that experience with mixed feelings. almost three years later, i look back on it with regret - regret that i didn't do more to communicate, that i didn't know more chinese, that i didn't eat more, or teach them a game, or something. but i also think of it as one of the most perfect experiences i have ever had. it was the culmination of that five months of my life - the icing on the already pretty wonderful cake. i was able to experience something i know i probably never will be able to experience again. it was a once in a lifetime. now every time i open up that lychee lotion and take a little whiff, i am back in that small kitchen, next to those amazing women cooking a feast for two girls they had just met and couldn't even talk to. or i'm in that sunlit yard, washing my hands with well water pulled up for me by my sweet little student. and no matter what conveniences i am surrounded by, i always wish to be back for real, and not just in my memory.