Mixed Feelings in a Chinese Massage Parlor
“Foreigners just have the most wonderful smell. Did you know? All of us here have noticed it. Every time I get a foreign customer, I notice. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s different than the smell of Chinese people. I really like it.”
My young masseuse chatters on as she works the knots out of my back and shoulders. In turn, I make periodic “hmm” and “oh!” noises to show I’m following. It’s February, and she’s excited to be back at work after a week’s vacation for the Spring Festival. Even though she has to be at work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, being at home just meant long days spent watching TV. It was too boring!
I rarely treat myself to massages in the United States because they are too expensive, but in China I’ve gotten hour-long massages for less than ten dollars. Salons range from high-end, with showers for guests and perfumed hallways and massage oils imported from Europe, to the low-end, which could mean as little as a curtained-off half of a hair salon’s back room, with a single bed draped in sheets of dubious cleanliness.
Mixed Feelings at Chinese Massage Parlors
Most of my masseuses are about my age, girls in their twenties who’ve come from far-flung rural provinces to seek their fortunes in the big city. The masseuse across the street from my apartment was born in Anhui, one of the poorest, least developed provinces in China, a place where men depend on beasts to farm and many students never go to high school. At thirteen she moved, by herself, to Shanghai and eventually made her way to Beijing. I never asked her the details, but as she laid out the basics of her life in a frank, pleasant tone, I had to wonder: how does a teenager end up leaving home and moving to Shanghai by herself? I suspected a painful history there, though I wouldn’t have asked. Mostly, I just admired her bravery and spirit.
I’ve had older masseuses too, like the ladies at the massage parlor down the block from my Shanghai accommodations in fall 2010. Those women were battle-axes: all sinewy arms and no-nonsense attitudes to match, but quick to smile when they realized a foreign client could speak Chinese. One masseuse, voice tinged with more than a little regret, told me that her shoulders were so broad because she had spent her youth laboring on the farm in her hometown. I thought she was beautiful, but could understand the inevitable comparisons between her own compact, sun-darkened body and the willowy white “ideal” Chinese beauty.
Inside that Shanghai massage parlor, the door to every room had a window in it, which I didn’t notice until my friend mentioned that the windows had signaled to her that the massage parlor was a legitimate establishment. It’s no secret that even though prostitution is technically illegal in China, in every city brothels are run out of five-star hotels, hair salons, entertainment centers, nightclubs, karaoke parlors and massage parlors. I’ve never gotten a massage in a hotel. I wouldn’t want to.
Mixed Feelings at Chinese Massage Parlors
I suppose as a woman, I can be secure in the knowledge that it’s unlikely I’ll go in for a massage and end up with a stranger grabbing my lady bits – and assuming such a gesture would be welcome. But as a woman, my heart aches for the many sex workers who were tricked or forced into their position, for their safety and for the hard choices they may have had to make. Every time I go for a massage I wonder… And my heart aches for women like the masseuses I met in Shanghai, one of whom was rejected by a colleague of mine because he didn’t want to be massaged by an “old auntie,” and the other of whom he specifically requested massage him. Perverted? Maybe. The thought of the whole encounter puts my stomach in knots.
“I really think I’m destined to meet foreigners,” my masseuse continues. “Every time a foreigner comes in, I somehow end up massaging them. But it’s great, because I love foreigners.”
I’m a lucky girl, to be lying on a massage table as a dedicated young woman beats my muscles into submission. I’ve never had to go alone to a big city to try to earn a living; I’ve never had a hard job with no weekends; and I’ve never worked a job that might ask me to be a prostitute on the side. But listening to this masseuse is enough to make me think she’s the lucky one. She loves her job, she loves Beijing. She loves massaging foreigners, with our special scent. I smile and relax into her touch, and hope that all the other masseuses I’ve met can find contentment too.
Mixed Feelings at Chinese Massage Parlors, to read more about Kate’s travels in China, visit: http://katesyearoff.blogspot.com.
Chinese Massage Parlors: Mixed Feelings, Chinese Massage Parlor