I signed up for a SPA package. It’s the mistake that keeps on tormenting me. Read how I got myself into this mess here.
When I went to get my free back massage, my SPA lady was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask for her because I didn’t get her name when she massaged half of my back the first time. And I couldn’t quite remember what she looked like, though I was sure I’d recognize the way she spoke. It turned out not to be a big deal, though, and I was assigned instead a sweet girl named Xingxing, which means “star” in Chinese. I love stars, so I thought it was fate.
Xingxing took care of me and settled me into an unoccupied room, serving me some red bean soup when I told her I hadn’t had lunch yet. It was quite different from my first visit — quiet, calm and almost relaxing. Xingxing asked me about myself and told me about herself as I ate; like the other SPA ladies, she was college-aged, from the countryside and with little education. Her hair was pulled tightly back into a bun, and she was wearing a trace of makeup that enhanced her bright eyes. She spoke with a young girl’s charm, softly and prone to small giggles. Over my next few visits, Xingxing would tell me about her past relationships, life back home, and what she did over the weekend. She showed me photos she snapped of herself after getting dolled up to go out and amusing pictures she made of her friends. After one session, she gave me a quick manicure because she knew I liked to paint my nails. We traded small gifts — I gave her some Western-branded makeup, and she gave me a scarf.
But the young Chinese are a restless bunch, and the turnover at my SPA is somewhat high. Xingxing told me she was going home for a few days because her sister was getting married, but it turned out she was leaving forever. I had been going to get weekly massages from her for more than three months by then, and I was comfortable with her and settled into a tolerable routine. The first time, when I got the free massage, she — or her boss, rather — had talked me into buying a package deal of 10 back massages for RMB 2,888 ($465). It was a ridiculous offer that had been as high as RMB 8,000, but the boss lady talked about how blocked up my back was and how it could lead to some Very Bad Side Effects. She showed me how they used excellent foreign imported products and how much a single massage cost (which actually is about three to four times the cost at any Chinese massage parlor). I told her I didn’t recognize the brand they used, the manufacturing label said it was made in China, and the name sounded like a Chinese person’s idea of a foreign brand name (really, it’s Omar Vigor). I told her I didn’t need to spend so much money on back massages because it’s a treat, not a necessity. I told her everything I could, but she offered to throw in free gua sha* — cuz man, look how much sha I had! — after every back massage. I caved.
It was the worst mistake ever.
What I wanted: A nice package deal where I can go in for a back massage that methodically removed the tension in my back and shoulders from sitting in an office chair all day whenever I wanted to relax and de-stress.
What I got: A horrible package deal where I can go in for a back massage and hear their latest sales pitches, which incidentally is just what I need to fix something else that is wrong with me. It is not relaxing.
There are spas — nice spas — in Beijing that offer the same services, using oils that actually smell good, in an actual spa environment, for about the same price as this SPA. I chose to stick to this Chinese SPA mostly because I was already there and they were being pushy, but also because I thought it’d be a different, more Chinese experience. For one, there is the traditional Chinese medicine, whose philosophy is almost instinctual to me, but I actually know nothing about it or how it works in practice. But more than that, there are the SPA ladies, who are from a demographic that I regularly get a chance to associate with, and it has been interesting to learn about them and their lives. But I unfortunately failed to realize that a Chinese SPA would necessarily entail other “Chinese” characteristics.
For instance, unlike at a “real” spa, where massage therapists may chat with clients but usually remain more demure, my SPA is more like a small-town beauty parlor. The therapists are instructed, it seems, to really engage with clients (perhaps this is considered a sign of good service?). They ask all the standard questions — have you eaten, did you work today, how long and why am I here, what’s the U.S. like, etc. — and tell me about what’s going on their lives. Sometimes they’ll bring up current events or their other clients. They’ll remark on my state of health (You’re so dry! This part of your back is so blocked up! You have so much sha! I have no idea how to respond to these remarks — “oops”?). I don’t mind a bit of chatter, but sometimes I just want to just listen to nature sounds and fall asleep.
They do not play nature sounds. They play pop music.
There’s also very little privacy. If it’s a rather busy time, they put two people in a room. Sometimes the other clients are getting facials, sometimes they are getting back massages. I’ve even been put in a room with someone getting a boob massage, which is an actual treatment offered at my SPA. This of course means more chatter. And if it’s not busy, the other therapists will come in and chat as well. There is one lady (I’m not sure of her actual rank, but she seems more like a manager than a massage therapist) who adores me and who would come in and hold my hand, or rest her head on my stomach, or grope my chest, or give me little kisses. It was all kind of pervy. It’s the sort of thing you would do with your best friend but not with your SPA therapist. But if this SPA has taught me anything, it’s that the boundaries here are less … bounded … than where I come from.
But the absolute worst part is how pushy they are. They are always trying to sell me something. Once, it was face care products. The next, it was a special bra that is more corset-like than a bra. It was tight, but not uncomfortable, custom made, and provided tons of support. What it does is push all of the fat from your back and stomach to your boobs and lifts them and your boobs up. It turns out I could be a natural F cup! In all honesty, I actually kind of liked the bra, but it costs, like, 2,000 kuai ($330)! Also, the way they tried to sell it to me was annoying because they tried to say how bad normal bras are for me. The sponge-y material absorbs all sorts of bad things, and it doesn’t get washed out, apparently. And years of inadequate support from wearing normal bras can cause boobs to leak to the side, under the armpits. They even showed me pictures. But the special bra will do the opposite: over time it turns all your back fat into boob fat. I was close to being sold on the cleavage it gave me, but when they introduced the whack science, I could no longer buy it on principle. A bra that is healthy for you! Please.
Then, when my 10-massage package deal was nearly used up, my dear Xingxing tricked me into buying more. At first, she just said that there was a special deal for first-time customers: They could get 30 back massages for RMB 5,888, plus 10 free gua sha and hot stone treatments, 10 head massages, and five facials for free. It was such a great deal that it was limited to only the first five customers in all of Beijing, including at other stores. They would have to get special permission to extend this offer to someone, so favorable it was. But she was telling me about it because — well, because she wanted me to have it. And because the big boss wasn’t there today, she could get away with telling them I was a new customer. And stuff like that. And before I knew what was happening, the pervy lady had already sealed the deal and brought in the credit card machine to swipe. It would’ve been so inappropriate to say no. I handed over my card.
And so it goes. Using their whack science, they’ll diagnose me with something and tell me the treatment that I need. They’ll even give me a special price for it. No, thanks, I just want to relax with a back massage. But your back won’t improve without — Who said anything about improving? I just want a back massage! — What about other parts of you? Don’t you want to be beautiful?? Don’t you want to be healthy???? You can’t be beautiful if you’re not healthy, and you can’t be healthy without our treatments! They want me to come in multiple times of week for this and that, and they absolutely don’t understand when I say I don’t have time for that. Apparently, if I want to be beautiful/healthy, I’d have to commit a lot of time to it, or something. When I first bought my massages, I was thinking it would be a once-a-month thing. But they say it’s most effective to do it every two to three days. These people are insane. Or greedy. Or both.
It’s like going for a massage at a community health clinic run by big pharma.
* Gua sha means, literally, “scraping sha.” What is sha? It’s poison. It’s also translated as “fever” sometimes. It basically refers to mythical toxins that build up and get trapped in your body and blood vessels following aches and pains and illnesses. The “scraping” refers to the literal scraping your skin (usually with a sharp, smooth object) to bring these toxins to the surface, where they dissipate and leave your body to heal and recover. It can be painful for the uninitiated, but it actually does relieve pain and help activate blood flow.