It’s mostly dark, and I’m mostly naked, and there’s a Chinese woman on top of me, spreading oil on my body.
This is, I know, pretty much every man’s fantasy (having oil spread on them, I mean, not spreading oil on me) bearing all the elements of one of those fakey stories we used to read in Todd Holscrum’s dad’s Playboys: a dark room. A woman. Lots of naked-ish flesh. Oil. Throw in a Bruce Willis movie and a box of Krispy Kremes, and we’re talking nirvana here.
Faced with this near paradisal, um, paradise, this confluence of all things exotic, physical, emotional, medical, and sensory, I find myself in the rare situation of being at a loss for words. I mean, how does one describe the experience of spending two hours being pampered and indulged and rubbed from tip to toe and back to tip again?
Then, maybe five minutes into the experience, I find a word:
The first time I went to the XinMeizi Spa in Shenzhen, I found myself wondering if the entire experience wasn’t designed with the specific goal of making pasty fat white men uncomfortable.
Take for example, the locker room attendants.
When you first arrive at the XinMeizi, you’re escorted into a lovely dressing room done up in oak with brass trim. An attendant leads you over a locker and, using a numbered bracelet you received at a desk and his own master key, opens it for you. Then he steps aside.
And stays there.
You look at him. He looks at you. You nod. He nods back. You smile. He nods again. You look at him again. And he looks at you again.
Is he waiting for a tip? you wonder. His hand isn’t out, but he’s clearly not leaving any time soon. So you reach for your wallet, pull out a 10 RMB note, and hand it to him. He nods, smiles this time, and takes it.
And stays right where he is.
Eventually, of course, you get it: he’s not leaving. Not for nothing. You’re still not quite sure why he’s there, but you realize that, if indeed you’re going to get to that promised land of the two-hour oil massage that’s waiting for you somewhere upstairs, you’re just going to have to ignore the guy and get on with your business.
So you unbutton your shirt, pull it off your shoulders and—
hand into the outstretched fingers of the man who’s standing by your locker. He takes it, pulls out an incongruous plastic hanger, buttons your shirt to it, and hangs it up. Then he returns to his previous position, feet shoulder-width apart, hands folded in front of him, eyes on you but not invasively so.
And he stays there. Again.
Well okay, then. So you slip off your sandals, which he accepts, and slides into a slot at the bottom of the locker. And then you slip off your jeans . . .
All of which sounds kind of nice, I know, except for the part about how it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable. Nevermind the part about someone standing there watching you undress: I have three kids after all. I get people wathing me undress all the time, usually with a running commentary: “Gee dad, how much popcorn did you have last night?” or “You look like a snowman, only hairier.”
No, more to the point, it’s just embarrassing being sort of waited on like that, like you’re a king and he’s a footman or a butler or whatever. Let’s face it: most Americans aren’t too comfortable with the whole servant thing—or even things vaguely resembling servants, like, say, caddies, or those old ladies at the Safeway handing out samples. This is particularly true of Midwesterners, I suspect, who: a) don’t have a history of hiring servants unless it involves shoveling their driveways, and b) don’t think they’re worthy of being waited on, not by anyone, anywhere, anyhow, no matter how much they’re paying for the experience.
And, of course, all of this is embarrassing because, well, let’s face it: sooner or later all of your over-wear will be gone, and then all that will be left is your, um, well . . .
Which, of course, you’re going to have to remove and hand to the nice guy who’s getting paid roughly 12 cents an hour to fold and stack clothing that doesn’t belong to him.
Including your underwear.
During my several visits to the spa, I’ve experimented with several different ways of responding to this situation. I have, of course, tried removing my skivvies and simply placing them in the locker myself. When I did this, though, my guy looked vaguely—perhaps even strongly—offended. What? his expression seemed to say: Your precious underwear are too good for me? You don’t trust your half-day-old Fruit-of-the-Looms to my working class hands?
Other times, I’ve attempted more devious methods, waiting, for instance, until just the moment when I’m about to drop my drawers, then suddenly pointing behind the attendant and shouting, “Look! It’s Janeane Garafalo!”
This worked, to an extent: He looked. I dropped trou. But then there was a problem with the retrieval process, something involving swollen ankles and an oddly angled foot, so that when I bent over to snatch this particularly awkward piece of 70%cotton/30%rayon, I lost my balance and toppled into my guy, who still had his back to me, staring around the locker room, trying to figure out what the hell a garafalo was.
My most recent attempt involved trying to make a game of the whole thing, balling up my underwear, dropping into basketball stance, faking a dribble or two as I feign first left, then right, before shouting, “From the top of the paint—he shoots! He scores!” and arching the aforementioned ball of elastic-bound apparel over the guy’s head and into my locker.
Hopefully. Because if I miss, not only does this poor kid have to handle my skivvies, he has to stoop down and pick them up off the floor. Assuming I haven’t undershot, rocketing the dang things into his face.
Once you’ve disrobed, you’re handed a large towel and a pair of sanitized rubber sandals that cover your big toe and little else. Then you pad into a large room that looks like someone crossed the transporter pads from the Starship Enterprise with a Roman bath house: in the middle of the room is a large fountain filled with black water. On both sides of it are curving rows of cylindrical shower stalls, each floor-to-ceiling and made of glass, with an open side meaning that as you’re showering the rest of the room gets a charming view of your nice, big, deep-fried cheese-curd loving butt.
And as if this isn’t bad enough, you’re taking a shower in your sandals. Which, let’s face it folks, just looks weird. The male body is not really so hot to begin with, particularly when naked and over the age of say, 19. But put this froggy-looking mass of buttocks and hairy shoulders and stumpy legs on top of a pair of undersized plastic sandals, and what you have is less fodder for comedic calendar, than proof that God hates women. Because otherwise, why would he/she/it make women have to look at that?
Of course, by the second or third time I went to the spa, I was sort of over the silliness of everything and could just go and enjoy the sheer wonder of it all: the showerheads are wide and the spray is strong and even. I soap up, rinse down, and towel off before going into the steam bath, where I sit for a good twenty minutes in the white clouds, meditating on the nature of the universe, my sense of my own self-hood, and how my lungs actually burn whenever I draw a breath. I also chuckle about the sign just outside of the glass doors that reads: Warning—Persons should not mulberry in stem room who have:
· Had wine
· Heart problem
· Shin disease
Hong Kong is filled with “Chinglish,” signs whose meanings have clearly been translated from Chinese characters directly into English. Usually I don’t make fun of these things, recognizing that it’s rude to mock someone who can speak two or three languages at even a minimal level while I can’t even order off the menu at Taco Bell. That said, “mulberry” intrigues and delights me. The only explanation I can find for its use here—and in verb form, no less—is that someone mixed up “linger” and “lingonberry,” and then somehow took it a step further and confused “lingonberry” with “mulberry.”
It’s just a theory, of course. If you have a better one, let me know.
After another shower to rinse off the steam bath (I mean, how cool is that? Two showers in twenty minutes!), it’s back to emotional pain land. You hand the attendant your wet towel in exchange for a pair of baggy shorts and a loose-fitting shirt. Both of these are made of a reddish-batiky stripe that makes you look like a walking futon cover. As if that weren’t bad enough, you get to wear this costume out of the locker room door and into public, strolling into a small lobby where a young woman in a business suit takes one look at you and decides you’re clearly incapable of pushing the elevator button yourself. So she does it for you. You then go up a floor, into another small lobby where you register for your massage. Then it’s back into the elevator, where you’re joined by three very attractive young Chinese women who are also here for a massage, who are also wearing Pier-1 fashions, who look at you as though you are some sort of bizarre animal they’ve never seen before, or alternatively, a 44-year-old gweilo dressed like an idiot—and who, making all of this all the worse, somehow manage to make their baggy shorts and loose tops look runway trendy.
Up two more floors, and you’re escorted into a small room with two massage beds, each with that peculiar hole at the top for your face, making it—the table, not your face—look like an oversized Do Not Disturb sign. Here they instruct you to take off your shirt. Which you do. Then you sit there, half of you covered in your stunningly ugly batiky shorts, the other half flabby and cold and wishing it were covered, even in stunningly ugly sofa upholstery batik.
And which point, your masseuse shows up.
And the pain begins.
Let me ask you this: when someone says massage, what do you imagine? Okay, okay: besides that. Seriously, what comes to mind? I’m guessing that 99 out of a 100 people would mention something nice, say, pleasure, or sensuality, or relaxation. Even the word massage, I would argue, has a soft, gracious sound to it: maaaaah-saaahg, with those long “A” sounds, that softest of “G”s.
I carried this idea with me into the spa the first time I went, and held onto it for a good 11 seconds into the actual massage, at which point the sturdy young bricklayer on my back dug her thumb into the ridge of muscles running up the side of my neck and pushed as hard as she could.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!” I said.
Or tried to say. Because when someone is grinding a digit into the side of your neck so hard that you’re seeing stars and you can’t draw a breath, you can’t really say much.
“You okay over there?” Chris said. He was on the other table, getting, I assumed, a similar treatment, though his voice sounded neither distressed nor breathless.
“Urgh,” I said.
“Excellent,” he said. “Enjoy.”
Very shortly, Attila the bricklaying SS officer moved off my windpipe and onto the rise of tendon and muscle that climbs off the shoulders toward the neck. I’m not exactly sure what she did here, but it felt as though it involved fingernails, wooden nails, and a twelve-inch needle filled with Icy-Hot. After that, it’s onto the knobs of my spine, my shoulder blades, and my rib-cage, where she engages something weird that makes it feel like she’s moving the damn things back and forth like a xylophone on very small, very rusty wheels.
Before I have a chance to recover from that, she moves onto my all of my joints, spending maybe thirty minutes finding all the places in my body where ligaments connect to bone and rubbing them with her finger until I can actually hear my white-blood cells screaming “What the hell?!” and rushing around like firemen in search of their pants.
Meanwhile, Chris and the woman who’s working on him are on the other side of the room chatting about text-messaging and MSN. Bad enough that Chris isn’t feeling any pain—it appears his masseuse speaks English, which means that even if he were in need of tendon re-attachment surgery, he could at least mention this to her and get her to lighten up a little. Attila, on the other hand, doesn’t speak any English. And what’s more, she’s Chinese. And not that fakey, Hong Kong kind of Chinese, but real Chinese, from the People’s Republic, wearing a Mao suit with a star on her breast pocket and the little red book in her hand. She speaks Putonghua, you understand, the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, a language I don’t understand, though I do know enough Guongdonghua, Cantonese, to count to twelve and to tell the nice policeman I didn’t know there was opium in my sock.
So I’m helpless, unable to tell her to stop, incapable of getting up and walking away due to my newly aligned joints and hemorrhaging esophagus.
Eventually the pain dies down. That or my nerves just give up and fall into a coma. Either way, at this point, Attila gets out the oil and—well, really really really makes up for everything she’s done to me so far.
Now before I go into this next part of the narrative, I want to make the point that Chris and I are at this particular spa because this is where he and his wife come all the time. And they come here all the time because it’s safe. And by safe, I mean safe. And if you need a further explanation than that, then I’d suggest that you stop reading. Now.
Yes, mom, this means you.
Seriously, this is a kind of important point to make. Prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, and there are “massage” parlors everywhere. Prostitution is not legal in the People’s Republic, but Shenzhen is sort of a cowboy town where everyone’s on the make and the law is about as flimsy as the 100 RMB notes shop keepers slip to the local police to make sure they don’t get bothered.
The Xinmeizi, though, is legit: though the rooms are dimly lit, the doors have clear glass so that anyone strolling by can see in. Similarly, there are glass-filled windows between the rooms. With this kind of set-up, kinkiness would be pretty hard to get away with. But just in case there’s any doubt in the average customer’s mind, the masseuses are dressed in black pants and clinical white tunics, about as sexy as your local dental hygienist.
All of which is important, for fairly obvious reasons: when you’re laying in the dark, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, with a woman you don’t know straddling your body and rubbing oil into every square inch of your skin (baring a few—a very few—unmentionable bits), it’s good to know that there are boundaries.
I have a good friend and former colleague—a sociologist—who used her last sabbatical to enroll in massage school as part of an anthropological project. She was interested in learning more about this particular population—what motivated them to do this kind of work, the effects of working so close with the bodies of others, their sense of their own selves.
At the time, I thought this was a pretty weird way to spend a sabbatical—where were the nights laying on the couch eating poptarts and watching bad movies?—but now I think I get it. I mean, being a masseuse has to be a pretty intense job: physically exhausting, for one thing. Physically intimate for another: seriously, there are a finite number of inches—very literally—that the masseuse or masseur doesn’t touch. When a woman gets a massage in Shenzhen, for instance, her breasts get rubbed. This isn’t an erotic move in any way: it’s just another part of the body that it’s the masseuse’s job to attend to. Men’s chests receive the treatment. so why shouldn’t a woman’s?
The point, of course, is that it’s physical intimacy, not emotional intimacy that’s at work here. One friend made the point that it must be tricky for someone giving a massage to be sensual without being sexual. The recipient of the massage, after all, is looking for more than a medical rub-down: the entire experience—the dim lights, the scented oil, the warm room—is meant to be indulge the senses. The client wants to lose themselves in the pleasure of the experience, not feel like a another chore on someone’s to-do list. The person giving the massage, then, has to be engaged with what they are doing—but not too engaged.
In the end, of this line between sensuality and sexuality probably isn’t so hard for the masseuse to maintain: for them, finally, I’m guessing we’re all just flab, hair, and bone. Nothing sexy about that.
The real difficulty, of course, is for the general public, folks for whom physical contact occurs only seldom, only in a sexual context, or both.
All of which is very interesting in a clinical, philosophical kind of way (leave it to a Midwesterner to make a post about massages boring) but doesn’t really describe the unbelievable pleasure it is to have someone push, pull, kneed, and walk on every square inch of your body (yes, yes, barring the naughty bits) for a really long time.
Seriously. 45 minutes into my relationship with Attila, I’m fantasizing about finding out where she lives and blasting Barry Manilow outside her window for the next seven years. Round about the time the oil came out, though, I start to think, “Well, maybe this isn’t so bad.” Then she starts doing this thing that involves rubbing her knuckles back and forth, back and forth, generating a heat that goes way down into the deep tissue of my muscles, and I think, “I wonder if she’s married?”
It’s another two hours before Chris and I stroll out of the Xinmeizi, having topped off our massageseses with foot rubs, head rubs, and another round of shower-steam bath-showers. Chris also got a manicure, but I promised him I wouldn’t mention that, so I won’t.
Anyhow, we’re strolling out of the Xinmeizi, thinking about lunch, when I reach up and rub my forehead.
“Holy crap,” I say.
I stop, lean forward. “Touch my face.”
Chris looks at me for a moment. Then he says, “No.”
“Seriously,” I say, “touch my face.”
I rub my forehead again, slide my fingers over my temples. It’s like I’m made of marble covered in warm cloth—so smooth, so soft, like I’ve never had a pore in my life.
“Quit being a wimp,” I say. “Touch it. You won’t regret it.”
Chris takes a step back. He’s a big guy, Chris is, even if he did just get a manicure, the one I won’t mention.
“Dude,” he says, “I’m not touching your head.”
“Come on,” I say.
“It’s soft,” I say. “You won’t believe how soft it is.”
“Oh,” he says, “trust me: I believe your head is plenty soft.”
He’s turned now, is heading down the walkway toward the escalator. I follow, tugging at his sleeve.
“It’s like a baby’s bottom,” I say, “only it’s a head.”
He nods at me out of the corner of his eye, keeps walking. I follow, running my fingers over my forehead, feeling that soft soft skin, that skin that’s been rubbed and steamed and scrubbed and steamed again. It feels good. Really good. Indeed, my whole body feels good. Really good. Life is good.