That time I went to get a facial, Part I

Every laowai in China makes a few mistakes here that he will regret forever. I’m not talking about major things like not learning enough Chinese or not immersing oneself in the culture enough — just daily decisions we wish we hadn’t gotten ourselves into. Mine is when I signed up to join a SPA. And then signed up for even more services. And then went to get a facial. I’ll start at the beginning.

One hot day last summer, I was walking back to my office after lunch, when I was stopped by a short, port man who asked me to fill out a survey. Being pressed for time, I waved him off, but he grabbed my arm and pressed on. “Only a few minutes, and then you can receive a gift card for a free treatment of your choice,” he said.

I tried the “I don’t understand Chinese” card.

“But you look Chinese! And you speak so well!” He pointed to his survey. “Can you at least understand this word?”

It was the only English word on the survey. It was, in all caps, SPA.

Why couldn’t I have just said no?

I sighed and started ticking off boxes while he asked me about where I was from and what I did. I handed the survey back to him and tried to collect my gift card, but he started directing me toward the building. “You have to go up to get it,” he explained. This was totally not the deal. I should have just walked off.

But I didn’t.

I went upstairs. The place was filled with women, which was somewhat comforting. It was clean and bright, with the sort of cheap, modern-gaudy furniture that one comes to expect in Asia. It was not dim and soothing, like a Western spa. People did not speak in gentle voices; they spoke in squawky flattery voices. The SPA ladies were dressed in fitted lilac suits, some with pants, others with miniskirts — the kind of uniforms you see in the Chinese service industry. One of the SPA ladies directed me to a chair and started fawning over my looks and asking about what I wanted to fix. Er, what? I said I just wanted the gift card, but she told me that we had to do the consultation then and there — what was I most interested in fixing? My face, my chest, my back? Is my period regular? What color is the blood?

I’m totally not used to these questions, especially at a SPA (which is like a spa?). But the suggestion of a back massage interested me greatly, as I had just gotten my first one recently and was thinking about making it a more regular thing. “I could use a back massage,” I said. And I was promptly led to a room with two beds. Someone was already lying on one of the beds, getting a facial. It was noisy with chatter between two SPA ladies explaining the treatment and trying to sell her a package deal. I was instructed to take off my clothes in front of all these strangers for my back massage. No one else seemed to think it was strange or uncomfortable, so I complied.

And then I got the most painful back massage ever!

“It’s supposed to hurt the first time,” my assigned SPA lady said. Because I had never gotten this particular type of massage before, because I sit down all day at work, and because of a variety of other reasons, there was a lot of blockage in my back. Blockage of what, you ask? Pathways for my blood and qi. Different places along my back were more blocked than others, which meant something, but I couldn’t quite understand what. A Chinese massage is designed to knead, beat and slap them all open. It is designed to hurt. Yes, the Chinese (including myself) are masochists.

Somehow, also, my SPA lady managed to tell that I get angry easily (爱生气, ai shengqi). Traditional Chinese medicine is like a creepily accurate horoscope. You’re not sure how they know, but they know. And then you get sucked in because it’s totally weird and different, and somehow they know things about you that you didn’t know, but you felt deep down, and you just have to find out what else they know. (Of course, you also know they don’t know anything, and all they are saying is psychobabble.)

My SPA lady massaged only my left side (“TCM rules dictate that you always start on the left side”) and told me that because I was pressed for time, I can set up a time to come back for a full free treatment. At this point, though, it didn’t really matter — I was well past an hour late. But I set up my appointment and went back to work. The left side of my back ached for days. But it was the kind of ache that I liked, so I looked forward to getting my full massage for free. Somehow, even with all the weirdness and hassle of having to go through a consultation then and there, I had no idea what I was in store for.

I can’t deal with the stinging pain of regret anymore, so stay tuned for Part II.

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