Wednesday, February 17, 2016

PAIN. You feel pain*.

I point to number 40 on the large notice board before me and give a hopeful smile to the white-coated woman at the reception desk. Numbers are the only symbols recognisable to me in a vast sea of Chinese characters. Forty yuan,** I’ve been told, is the price of a one hour massage. The receptionist doesn’t smile back; instead she looks bewildered, so I point to the 40 again, but this does nothing to allay her bewilderment. One of the two people receiving a massage in the room looks up at me, curious. His masseuse says something to the receptionist and the two women confer briefly while casting sidelong glances at me. When they nod their heads in apparent agreement, the receptionist says something to me, but I know not what.

Intuition tells me that I’ve been asked to wait so I take a seat and observe the scene in this somewhat dilapidated room. The receptionist is now engrossed in her smart phone. One of the masseuses is blind; he works with the sleeves of his white coat rolled tightly to the elbows and is moving slowly down the spine of his client, kneading and pressing with his thumbs and the heel of his palm. The client is fully dressed, minus his shoes, and a pillow case is placed over the area the masseuse is working on. He works through the layers, moving adroitly down the spine in slow repetitive motions. The other masseuse says a few words to her client and the woman turns over, face upward. Silence prevails once again as the foreground to the roar of traffic just beyond the double-glazed patio doors leading from the reception area into the street. 

I’ve come at the busiest time, when rush hour commuters vacate their place in the race to get home and drop in for a massage. This is my first trip to China and my first experience of a Chinese massage. In the weeks to come, when I frequently return here, I notice that clients appear to be working people or students of both sexes who call in as a matter of routine. Some ask for a masseuse by name, while others accept whoever is free. From what I can see, this is not an elite service on offer to those who can afford the rate; it is a common treatment option available to whoever, whenever.  

The silence is broken when a door at the back of the room is pushed open and another white-coated masseuse leans in. Her gaze immediately comes to rest on me. A few words are said and I am led off into a backroom for my treatment, whatever that might be. She closes the door and when we are facing each other under the glare of a fluorescent bulb that fizzes occasionally, she inquires why I have come, or so I presume. In all likelihood she is asking me what treatment I want and whether I have any injuries, important questions that I have no means of understanding or responding to. It’s hopeless. I smile benignly and throw my hands up in a gesture of incomprehension. We both sigh and my masseuse indicates that I am to lie on the narrow bed, face down, with my back exposed. While I am arranging myself thus she turns her attention to an array of what look like glass yoghourt pots, not unlike the Danone ones I used to buy when I lived in Spain. Then it clicks; she is going to give me a “cupping” treatment. I’ve heard about this... Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities extol its virtues, so I’m curious to see what will happen.

Each glass cup is placed on the skin and some deft manoeuvre is performed with a flame that issues forth from an electronic firelighter so that a vacuum is created, sealing the cup to my back. As I’m lying face down, I can’t observe the procedure but what I do feel is suction, increasing suction from each glass cup as the vacuum is created. When the masseuse has finished, there are about fifteen to twenty cups on my back that clink when I breathe deeply. She leaves the room and I lie quietly experiencing the strange sensation, which must be similar to that felt by patients in the 19th century when leaches were used to treat them.  

Once the cups are removed I’m left with an impressive array of maroon-coloured circles all over my back and on the tops of my arms. I can hardly wait to return to my room to inspect the outcome in more detail. Apparently, the darker the circles are, the greater the need for cupping. After looking in my mirror I do a search on the internet to find out what possible benefits I could expect from the procedure. Cupping, I learn, is believed to help draw out toxins and stimulate circulation throughout the body. It’s also used for muscle tension, pain, allergies, anxiety and fevers, as well as an array of other common conditions. 

In the weeks following the treatment I notice no significant improvements in my day-to-day functioning, possibly because I don’t suffer from any of the conditions that cupping is alleged to be beneficial for. Nevertheless, I keep an open mind, hoping that, at a very subtle level, cupping might be good for me.

When I return for a massage to the same place, this time I make it clear what I want; I point to the 40, point to my back and mime the act of giving a massage. Presently, I am guided out of the reception area, up a pitch black stairwell to the main room, where there are two other clients. One is a teenager, who is being “walked on” by her masseuse and the other looks like a middle-aged businessman, but he probably isn’t. Wu, my masseuse, is a thirtyish elfin-framed man whose delicate looking hands belie their strength. Very quickly, he introduces me to the landscape of my own body. All it requires is for him to lightly rest his touch on me to open my awareness to the vast swathes of tension which lock the muscles of my back and legs into rigidity. I’d anticipated knots of tension, but not this.

As the weeks go by, a connection with Wu develops as he tries to communicate to me some of what he is reading from my body. He even gets a voice-activated translation App on his mobile. When I wince under his touch, he consults the App and an electronic voice utters the words: “PAIN. You feel pain” into my ear. I nod encouragingly. One afternoon, close to the date I was due to leave China, Wu must have felt confident enough to get the electronic voice to chide me, “You need exercise. Don’t be [wait] too long.” How could I retort that I was doing exercise, three hours a week of power walking? Instead, I prop myself up on my elbows, smile sheepishly and give Wu the thumbs up for being so tuned into me. I really didn’t think that a thumbs-down message would be welcome to his well-intentioned advice.

There is something quite delicious about participating in a fictitious version of your reality, about knowing one thing to be true and having to indicate the opposite because your options are severely curtailed (by your ability to mime). I doubt whether I’ll ever learn more than a few words of Mandarin, which is a real pity,  but in the meantime I’ll enjoy the fun if I ever return to China, and I very much hope I will.

*I spent ten weeks in the autumn of 2015 living and working on Henan University campus in the city of Kaifeng.

**Forty yuan = about £4.00

Friday, January 15, 2016

China on the Move

About a dozen young men gather nightly in the old gardens of Henan University in central China to practise their kung fu skills. Overhead, thousands of bats skim and flutter in the deepening twilight, their twitters momentarily lost in the shouts and bellows of the martial arts practitioners below. This is my introduction to night life in the campus gardens. For the participants, this scene can hold little allure, but for me this is one of the memorable encounters I was fortunate to have on my first trip to China. On the long journey eastward from Ireland, I had hoped for difference, and I’d already found it on the first day. For me, bats and kung fu were a thrilling start to my ten-week stay in Kaifeng.

Daily and nightly, the gardens of the old campus hosted several fascinating activities. Sometimes there were up to 150 students of tai chi following their teacher’s every move; there were seniors whose badminton games must have started at dawn, judging by their enthusiasm and the  glean of sweat on their foreheads when I passed them each morning at 7.30am on my way to class; not far from the pagoda were the singers, whose voice strengthening exercises didn’t seem to differ much from the kung fu fighters’ bellows and shouts; and then there were groups of up to thirty students who regularly gathered by the trees and on the basketball court to revise en masse for their next exam; further away, there were one or two lone students by the pond whose manic mutterings only ceased when they glanced down briefly at the text book to refresh their memory . 

On most afternoons I spent a few moments at my hotel window watching up to half a dozen toddlers joyfully pursuing the cutest members of the large colony of feral cats that lived close to the car park. The cats tolerated the “fun” as long as they were given food, but when the treats finished, the cats vanished. As winter advanced and the temperature dipped to freezing, the toddlers’ movements became increasingly ungainly, being swaddled, as they were, in multiple layers of clothing, topped by a padded coat. Fun over, cats gone, the toddlers were rounded up and wheeled or carried away. Children, I quickly learned, are worshipped in China. I wonder if Freud was thinking of China when he wrote “His Majesty the Baby”.  

And then there were the nightly fireworks. I couldn’t understand what the festivities were about when I first noticed these spectacular displays. I inquired of my students as to the occasion but they were puzzled that I was even asking the question. In the end I concluded that the Chinese had firework displays for apparently no other reason than because they could. After all, China is the cradle of gun powder.

Another mystery was the marchers. Every evening, at a few minutes before 8.00, I heard stomping feet and a series of shouts in unison, very close to the hotel.  I heard the marchers clearly but couldn’t see them in the darkness from my window. In the final week I saw them, and they were not marchers. While I was sitting on a wall, waiting for them to pass, I heard a softly fluctuating tune arise from the gardens behind me. Through the hedge I glimpsed dancers. They were dressed in black flowing robes, moving gracefully in the gloom, blending their movements with the surrounding shadows. When the dancing finished, the group signalled the end with a series of shouts and stomping feet and then they dissipated under a moon hazy with the high level of pollution in the atmosphere. 

In the third week of my trip I discovered power walking Chinese style. A couple of my teaching colleagues had mentioned that instead of joining a gym they had joined Chinese power walkers on the athletics track behind my hotel. I’d never power walked before and since my colleagues were so enthusiastic, I put on my trainers, slipped past the kung fu practice groups in the garden, and strolled over to the athletics field. Immediately, I was struck that the majority of people were in groups, some of which numbered up to fifty strong; this was power walking en masse. The few loners I could see dotted around the track appeared to be in the serious business of race walking - Olympic style.

For no other reason than proximity, I chose the group of around fifteen people that was closest to me on the track and, somewhat self consciously, slid into their ranks. It soon became apparent that I wasn’t as fit as the others. The pace and distance were a challenge for me but, by moving to the inside lane, I was able to keep up. On that first night I kept going mainly because my ego refused to let me drop out. But by the time we finished, I had determined to join the power walkers at least three times a week while I was in Kaifeng, and that was even before the endorphin rush.

I enjoyed the power walking partly because of the wonderful Chinese “get up and go” music the “leader” blasted from a speaker attached to her belt. There was no mistaking that this woman with the music was the leader. She was in the front line, flanked by her “lieutenants “, and she set the pace. Those of us behind followed the red blinking light of her speaker, which moved slightly from side to side in the darkness, in tune with her gait. And her gait was unique; I had time to study how she moved, lap after lap, week after week. I noticed how her right arm swung left to right while her left arm moved forward and backward. Her right leg brought to mind a staircase, climbing up a staircase. For me, the overall effect of her arm movement and robust gait was inspiring. Yes, the energy of the group was crucial but I felt it was she who powered us around that track.

There were other, bigger groups than ours, but we were the fastest. Coming up behind another (slower) group, our leader would raise her arm and point leftwards to signal that we were to cut across the field diametrically and rejoin the track on the other side. By then our bodies had settled into the rhythm of the pace, we’d reached “cruising speed”, when less effort was needed to keep up. The music urged us on, but in the silences between one song and the next, the sound of our footsteps marked a tempo of its own. The hour we spent on the track nearly always flew by, and when we entered the home straight in tune with the final chords of “I like to move it, move it. You like to... move it” darkness had completely surrounded us.

Now that I’m home, I miss the camaraderie of the power walkers, with their cheerful banter each time one or the other felt brave enough to test their English with me. Exercising in a gym, under the glare of fluorescent lights, with pop videos for motivation is not the same. I hope I will return to Kaifeng, to the power walkers, and if I’m brave enough there is always the dancers. But that option requires true courage from me.