I go there now regularly. Every time I am in China I look forward to it but it wasn’t always like that. The first time I took my shoes off and rolled my jeans up to my knees I wasn’t sure I could let myself enjoy it.
A Chinese foot massage. You’ve heard of them, right? A friend of mine who blithely goes where angels fear to tread, casually asked my traveling businessman husband:
“So do you get the happy ending then?”
I wanted to close my hands over my ears. Out in the open the question glared too blatant, rude almost. If he did, this wasn’t how I cared to find out. We all waited while he wondered how to answer the audacious question.
My husband is a happily married man, or so he assures me, and his actions support his words, so I’m not worried, not really, but I was, a bit, when he first went. Two-hour foot massages were built in to the regular business day in China and I couldn’t help grilling my husband. I didn’t actually say “happy ending”, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth, but I did ask a lot of questions; a middle-aged western woman trying to gauge how much he enjoyed it and if he enjoyed it too much.
Yes, the business men he worked with had offered him the option of the “happy ending”. He’d turned it down, several times. He’d tried a full body massage but hadn’t repeated the experience because there was too much emphasis on the experience of pain as a sign of a job well done. His Chinese colleagues felt cheated if the massage didn’t force a scream out of them.
Not only is my husband firmly married, he’s also fastidious about germs and bacteria and foreign stuff that you catch if you don’t have the immunity. For this I am humbly grateful. So, we talked about it a lot before I actually accompanied him to China, before experiencing it myself. I knew that it was traditionally a very male domain and I felt shut out of something intimate and apparently seductive that I might never share. We talked about that as well. In theory we dealt with it all. We tried to make me feel relaxed about my husband in the solicitous hands of an 18-year-old girl-women.
The first time I went took me by surprise. It was a five day whirlwind tour of the parts of China where my husband did business – mainly southern China in a booming metropolis called Shenzhen. Shenzhen, pronounced any other way but the way you would think, is a booming, modern Chinese version of the Wild West. Far away from the sobering influence of Beijing or the sophistication of Shanghai, it’s the dusty home to startling opposites. Glamorous restaurants spin at the tips of monumental glass skyscrapers alongside severe, unadorned concrete structures that pass for homes, stores and factories.
The night I had my first foot massage was already a night full of firsts. I narrowly missed the glistening eyeball of a very fresh fish but I did not escape many unearthly culinary delights, not yet delighting to my complacent western palate. I had visited the factory where my husband’s products were manufactured and navigated toilets bereft of seats and much else.
Yes, I was curious about this mysterious enclave of barefoot business men but 11pm was also a good time to retire after a long, relentlessly foreign day. No such luck. It was time to try on my newly acquired foreign diplomacy and all-round gracious wife skills.
We walked across from the restaurant where I had just enjoyed a splintered chicken possibly processed through the rotary turbines of an overhead jet engine. I thought we had far to go, we were not in an area where you would expect to find a massage parlor, not even a low-end, happy ending one.
I almost missed the entrance, then caught a glimpse of my group ascending an imposing marble staircase. I crossed a foyer, as abandoned as an empty elevator, and followed them up the stairs past a precarious fountain clinging to it like an afterthought. Everything was supersized, even the massages. Two to three hours is a long time for anyone to pay attention to the things our legs end in. But I run ahead of myself.
Before us loomed a vast and desolate reception desk birthed by the same dingy marble as the floor and stairs. Behind me a woman bent over an archaic instrument that was like a harp that had fallen over. Strains of high sentiment floated across the otherwise empty landscape.
I stood around feeling awkward about not being a man and apologetic that I wasn’t a candidate for the happy ending the wistful melody seemed to hint at. I privately wondered if I would be thrown out, an interloper, a spy, a wife who could not let her partner get on with his happy ending without her intervention.
I stuck close enough to the back of my husband to pass for the extension of a man, which, on this first trip to China, I was beginning to feel like. Junman, the charming Chinese man, who I am told did not offer my husband the happy ending and is happily married too, said something to a willowy ebony haired woman who seemed to materialize from nowhere. We traipsed behind her into a partitioned extension of the reception room.
I was still feeling acutely womanly, and not in a good way. I watched as the other men collapsed in a long line of shabby, taupe lazy-boys. They arranged themselves all over them like a mess. I perched on the edge of one. If I reclined I knew my legs would stick out like a pair of abbreviated chopsticks. I did not want to feel like I was four. I didn’t want to feel like I was 48, which I was. I wanted to feel like I was twenty something, in good shape, and elsewhere.
Everyone else was so at home that I felt like I was visiting theirs and not welcome. Even my husband looked oddly at ease. I tried not to look at him accusingly. See-ow-lee-den! See-ow-lee-den! (Our version of xiao li yidian – “softly” in Mandarin). Our group of locals was dispensing last minute instructions designed to ward off a brutal attack of our cosseted western feet. We were supposed to hiss emphatically “see-ow-lee-den” and if this didn’t work we were to snatch our feet back, leap to them and yell Junman! As loud as we could. Junman, who would be enjoying a foot massage producing the requisite ecstasy and screaming, would then intervene and beg, on our part, for mercy of the traveling feet.
When the girls trooped in en masse I felt suddenly antique. They were all under twenty and some of them considerably. Dressed in little t-shirts and sweatpants with running shoes, they giggled and virtually pointed at me. I knew it, I was a figure of ridicule. I got smaller and wizened even with my feet touching the ground.
Eventually the giggling stopped. It seemed they’d had an impromptu conference and decided they would pretend I was some sort of sub-male. I was too old to be a woman. I was also not where you would find one, so that’s what I must be, a presumptuous sub-male entity.
The foot massage began with a back and neck massage which would be disconcerting elsewhere in the world. I was gestured at in a way that forced me to relinquish the lazy boy for the footstool. The gestures were helpfully illustrated by the actions of my non- sub-male counterparts who were hunching over on their footstools.
The massages I’m familiar with are accompanied by low lights and soft meditative music. Tibetan bells chime and zithers zither. Here the lighting was fluorescent and the only sound was incessant chatter and a lot of girlish giggling. The girls apparently had numbers and not names. If you liked one you could request her number for next time. If you couldn’t remember the number you’d have to take what you got.
I couldn’t help noticing that my husband next to me was enjoying the treatments of a particularly attentive number. My number was attentive too, but not to me. She was heavily involved in an entertaining conversation that involved Mickie, the Chinese man next to me, and his masseuse.
My number liked talking with her hands, this meant my feet really got in the way. She’d drop them repeatedly and then take them up absentmindedly, the way a mother would tend to a bothersome child while she was occupied with more important things.
On the other side of me my husband continued to enjoy the singular attention of his masseuse. I could feel my generosity rearrange itself into something smaller and less attractive. I was feeling manhandled by my number while he was definitely being woman handled by his.
I was getting a hot prickly feeling up my spine. To my number I was clearly not a true client. Young Chinese women appear to have a solicitous, bordering on patronizing, way with older women. Middle aged women appear invisible in these aggressive young cities. Despite the odd billionaire, we are just not the movers and the shakers in this society. On the other hand, or foot, men of any age are relentlessly revered even, or particularly, western men.
Several times in the interminable two hours, my number completely forgot that she was administering a massage. She would turn away and commit herself to long sessions of animated conversation. The only way I could get her attention was to gesture irritably at her – a very old crone thing to do. There was no other communication. She would then respond by treating me like a mother she barely tolerated, shrugging her shoulders, rolling her eyes and sighing.
Part way through my rendering down the girls spoke animatedly to the men and then disappeared, every one of them, and there were eight. I had no idea where they had gone but everyone else seemed okay with it. They returned a few minutes later with something else I was not used to. Each girl carried a plate of thin white bread peanut butter sandwiches cut in triangles and a glass of orangeade.
I watched the others carefully for my cue. Everyone said thank you very nicely and then ignored the food. I did the same. No-one was hungry after our lavish 13 course meal.
Once the feet had received adequate attention an elaborate and thorough thigh massage followed. At least that’s what my husband got. My girl didn’t know what to do with female thighs. Of course my husband’s number appeared to know exactly what to do with manly thighs. To do this she had to straddle his legs. All of this would not work for me. My masseuse sort of skirted around me primly, her attention momentarily focused away from the conversations and on the delicate matter of avoiding the female thigh.
There is something surreal about hanging out with someone with whom you can’t exchange a single word. Language provides the connective tissue that allows strangers to move towards one another. If you’re having a massage in a western country you probably won’t be called upon to converse. In this context I had begun by being invisible and followed that with silence.
Abruptly it ended. Hot, heavy bean bags were ground into calves, the neighboring masseuse got off my husband and an odd thing happened. Another one. Everyone offered their numbers the peanut butter sandwiches they had been given.
I was reminded of just how young they were, younger than my son and daughter. They accepted jubilantly and proceeded to stuff them into their mouths with one hand while they worked at tidying up the place with the other. They looked less like sultry underage girls on a saucy website and more like a team of softball players after a hot, sweaty game.
Did I have a lovely foot massage? This was my husband’s easy, innocent question. Well….I managed to keep my cool for the walk across the parking lot to the hotel. I was quiet in the elevator, but behind the hotel room door I began bouncing off the walls.
I don’t know what had irked me most, the sense of being a second class citizen at a massage parlour, my husband’s contrasting enjoyment, the young girl astride him, the young girls astride everyone.
I wouldn’t, couldn’t, come down until he grabbed me by the shoulders and held me still. For a while my arms still flew about. They had their own momentum. I’d never felt more dispensable. Everything seemed so heedlessly distorted and reinterpreted in this masculine dominated society. I felt so at sea, less irked than plain fearful, afraid the way a species must be shortly before extinction.
What had they done with all the middle-aged women? Why were the streets so unrepresentative of the full range of the human lifespan? Why the woefully disproportionate number of perfumed young things out there instead?
“It’s all just surfaces,” my husband said. He spoke about all the sparkle surfaces can have, especially the young, apparently flawless ones. He spoke about how he was not taken in by them. I just stood there flawed and waiting for it to feel safe again, feeling old and foolish.
This was several years ago, I’ve been back enough times to see through the surfaces. I’ve had a few reasonable massages and seen Another Woman in the massage parlor. Is it possible the trend is shifting? A month ago my husband and I went out to dinner in Changshu with some new business acquaintances; the CEO of a Hong Kong company and his Australian and Chinese colleagues. I watched as the younger of the two Chinese men sang a little karaoke with the Fillipino band and even filmed it for him to send to his wife back home. I remembered all that time ago and my awkward initiation into this context, how at sea I was. It felt different now. Later my husband told me that the charming karaoke singer, who had sat between us, had offered to ‘get some girls’ for him because ‘it was getting boring’. When Michel declined he said, ‘Next time, when your wife is not here, we’ll have some fun, we’ll get you some nice girls’.
Business as usual in China.