Wednesday, February 17, 2016
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