Bite me

The students that I work with in China are not always reliable correspondents once I have returned to my natal shore, but some of them stay in touch and become friends. Those that do so all comment when they visit me in Britain that I ‘look different’. This is for two reasons: firstly, my Chinese students have never seen me without enormous hair (the humidity of the Asian summer is not kind to curly-haired women: in Britain, I can actually fit my head through doorways); and secondly, they have never seen me without insect bites.[1]

These are not any old insect bites, dear reader. All is quiet for the first few days after I land in the People’s Republic, and I am lulled into a false sense of security. Just as I have convinced myself that this time might be different, diverse alarums are sounded, and insects voracious and poisonous fall upon me with inaudible screams of delight.[2] Nothing can stop the onslaught: repellents are useless, as are long sleeves (they simply bite straight through). Low visibility holds them back for mere seconds, as per a trip to Qingdao a few years ago during which the entire city was shrouded in fog for twenty-four-hour periods at a time and I was bitten so badly that I could hardly walk for blisters and bandages. Somehow, I, an animal designed to find prey via the eyes, could barely make out the local Communist Party headquarters[3], but a bunch of tiny airborne creatures with microscopic brains and compound eyes managed to find something much smaller and easier to chew without any trouble at all.

The bites fall into three distinct categories. Firstly, there are big red ones, probably caused by mosquitoes. This year, two of these bites either side of my elbow developed into hard red patches that were so painful and so firm that I was unable to bend my arm. The patches also enlarged at an alarming rate, such that my carefully-drawn biro line had already been passed by an ironic red tide by the time I had finished drawing it. One of the Chinese staff was kind enough to buy me some kind of eucalyptus gel that came in a tiny white tub with a picture of a Swiss maid on the top, and this not only solved the problem and allowed me to stop gibbering about cellulitis, but made my room smell pleasantly of menthol. Secondly, there are small red ones with a tiny blister at the centre, which are ant bites. We screened Passport To Pimlico[4] for the students in a darkened lecture hall at one of Shanghai’s many universities, and somebody helpfully left the door open. Attracted by the flickering lights and quietly sweating cinema audience, stealthy ant attack ensued. These bites stream with tissue fluid almost constantly, rendering one’s legs itchy, sticky and totally unshaveable. This may sound like mere vanity, but allow me to remind you that a. I am rather proud of my legs, and never more so when in a foreign country as the sole representative of my race; b. it was far too hot for trousers and anyway I hadn’t packed any (nor would I have been able to buy anything that would have come close to fitting me); and c. I was in Asia and therefore already the hairiest woman for thousands of miles.[5] Finally, there are enormous orange blisters, which are spider bites.

The first spider bite I ever got was while walking in Nanjing Park with my dear father and his then girlfriend (now his wife, happily). I had been unwell for a few days with my usual gut-related issues (see Busting a gut) and so the ensuing faintness and enforced sitting down did not strike any of us as special. Later that day, however, The Blister started to appear on my ankle. It grew steadily and by the time I had reached Bristol[6], it was the size and colour of an egg yolk. The following year, my cornucopia of suppurating wounds included two more spider bites, one of which was right next to a scar on the top of my foot[7] and therefore unable to swell into its usual dome, instead forming a sort of kidney shape, uncannily like a giant orange-flavoured jellybean. This bite split during an invigorating sprint through Shanghai Pudong airport in a failed attempt to catch our ’plane home. An unbelievable quantity of liquid ensued, followed by Garden Naturalist applying iodine to the wound (iodine! Sweet merciful Jesus!). Having missed the flight, we were then put up in an unbelievably crappy hotel overnight, where we passed the time by counting (thirty-one), categorising (as above) and dressing my bites.

On my most recent trip to China, my inevitable spider bite was in a rather more awkward spot than usual: the back of my ankle, just above the edge of my shoe. The work is exhausting, the days are long, and the humidity and jet-lag suck any remaining energy out of all staff and students. Imagine my delight, then, on being informed that the last day of teaching was going to be crowned by a fancy dinner with a load of important people who might be able to offer me more work. The fancy dinner was in the usual multistorey building with a deeply unprepossessing exterior and stupendously luxurious interior, and while we waited for our dinner of pigeon heads and unidentified bits of lobster, we were encouraged to hob-nob by drinking cups of green tea and lounging about on a set of what I will describe as loveseats. My chosen loveseat was far too low for me and getting up out of it to walk to the massive circular dining table was an awkward manoeuvre. It was so awkward, in fact, that as I stood up I scraped the back of my ankle against the (razor-sharp) edge of the loveseat, not bursting the blister but rather slicing it off in a single gelatinous piece. This was so exquisitely painful that it numbed my vocal cords and I didn’t even squeak, but scuttled over to the table and sat down, where my ankle then proceeded to bleed gently into my shoe for the entire meal. On returning to the hotel, I soaked my bloody foot in the bath (it had also swelled up and was completely stuck to and in the shoe by all the bleeding, a bit like a window that has been painted shut), removed both shoes, threw them in the bin and asked room service to bring me bandages and disinfectant in the middle of the night.

I notice that Facebook is under the impression that I might like to spend my hard-earned money on a ‘lipstain’ (whatever that is) called Just Bitten. I’m not sure what I have done to give Facebook the impression that I am interested in a. being bitten or b. buying makeup, but apparently this product will make my lips ‘extra kissable’. One can only hope that women unwise enough to purchase something on the grounds that it comes in the form of an ‘adorable chubby crayon’[8] do not wake in the night to find tiny spiders pouring out of the tube and scuttling over their faces (for more spider-related horrors, see Eight legs bad).

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[1] Or in anything other than smart clothes, or in a country where I don’t lose a half a stone every week through sweating.

[2] How do you know there are screams of delight if you can’t hear them, you ask? Because the glee with which I am attacked cannot possibly be expressed any other way. I imagine them whizzing through the air, shouting across to each other like swallows when the gnat harvest is unusually plentiful (‘Wheeeeee! Gnats! Fuck, yeah! Gnaaaaaaaaaaaats!’) at a pitch that might have been described by Flanders and Swann in ‘High Fidelity’ (‘All the highest notes, neither sharp nor flat/The ear can’t hear as high as that/Still, I ought to please any passing bat/With my high fidelity!’).

[3] A building remarkably like a khaki-coloured fridge.

[4] Partly to teach them about British culture, partly to give me something to ask the PPE students about. I asked one of them in a practice interview if she thought that Passport to Pimlico showed that small states were inevitably pushed around by big states, and she replied, ‘no. I thought it showed that the French can’t be trusted.’

[5] Next year, I will be maxidressed to the hilt <swish>

[6] Bristol! Cool, damp, rainy Bristol! Land of friends, gardens, songbirds, pasta and cheese!

[7] The residue of an encounter with a slippery patio and a bicycle chain, recorded in my diary (see Broken Dishes).

[8] Many things are both adorable and chubby (dormice, for example. Man, those things are cute. The one in the picture I have linked to is called Dozey and may be the cutest thing alive), but I venture to suggest that such things are not usually inanimate, or indeed likely to be found in one’s handbag.