I like to seek out massage parlors “one step above brothel”. If the sign prominently displays a neon blinking foot and the menu uses only clip-art, I know I’ve come to the right place. This type of massage spot, with its glaring lights and blaring television, is definitely not relaxing, but the prices are cheap, and the masseuses know how to make you whimper with a simple elbow jab or thumb poke. Of course, you always run the risk that the place genuinely is a brothel, but so far, I have not been propositioned.
These massage parlors are great for massage addicts like me, who want to get down to business and have their knots, aches and pains kneaded away like a slab of lumpy bread dough beneath the hands of a master baker. No soothing lotions, dimmed lights, or gentle, fluttering hands, no classical music lulling me to sleep, and definitely no privacy. Chuck me in a room shared with three other customers already snoring away, make me wear some silly matching pajamas, and let’s get started!
For extra entertainment, I try to find parlors where the employees speak Mandarin. At first, this was to address my own paranoia – my deepest, darkest fear that yes, they actually are talking about how ugly my feet are – and simply eavesdrop. But when you chuckle out loud at comments not directed at you, it soon becomes apparent that you are not the ignorant monolingual expat you appear to be, and any potential peace and quiet is shattered as the conversation expands to include you.
To spin this in a positive light, I decided to view these very chatty massage sessions as “slightly-free Mandarin lessons”, rather than run off to a different parlor where I could be left in peace behind my assumed language barrier. The downside to this, however, is (as any student of Mandarin or expat in China will agree) that Chinese people are brutally honest. Not mean or ill-intentioned, just factual. And when the masseuse’s hands are assessing every inch of my body’s “relaxed muscle”, well, let’s just say any related comments that pop into her head are probably not going to be the nicest.
With this context provided, it is now time to share with you my two favorite massage stories (all conducted in Mandarin):
Always This Fat?
She shouts across the room in Mandarin to the English-speaking hostess that greeted me at the front door a few minutes before. “How long of a massage does she want?”
“One hour”, I respond directly to the masseuse in Mandarin, to cut to the chase and end the three-way dialogue that will otherwise ensue.
“Oh! You speak Mandarin!” She grins eagerly. Her boring, monotonous day of rubbing expats in silence has now been brightened by the opportunity to talk with someone who understands her language.
We chat about this and that – standard topics like how long I’ve been in Hong Kong, where she is from – only to be interrupted by the typical massage jargon of “does this hurt?” or “oh wow, your muscles are very tight” as she jabs an elbow into my shoulder blade.
The conversation lulls after a while and I zone out, attempting to relax as she begins smacking the back of my knees really, really hard. There are a few minutes of silence while she works my legs, until she asks out of the blue in a very casual tone,
“So, have you always been this fat? Or did you get this fat only when you moved to Hong Kong?”
Thinking to myself, “this is actually the lightest I’ve been in the past few years,” I realize the only way to accurately answer her question the way she asked it is to respond,
“No, I’ve always been this fat.”
“Ah yes, you are very fat in the legs. And in the butt.” This observation is accompanied with a smack and jiggle of each respective area, in case I wasn’t sure where my body stores its fat content.
Big Butt Means Three Sons
Before I moved apartments, I frequented a different brothel, I mean parlor, and befriended a masseuse there named Lisa. She once asked to take a selfie of the two of us after the massage as proof of our friendship. In my opinion, this was the least opportune time for a photo shoot as my face was creased from lying face-down on the crinkled sheet of a massage bed, but I agreed to her request and she quickly whipped out her flip-phone to snap a pic of the two of us. Within a few hours, she texted me the photo, as well as two other versions of the photo, with an added caption “we can stay forever young”, filters, hearts, and neon pink streaks. (Why yes, of course I had given her my number).
After meeting with Lisa almost weekly (my back was really hurting at the time), she warmed up to me quickly. Masseuse-customer dynamics quickly went out the window and soon, she was freely answering her cell phone during our sessions, holding the phone with one hand, and rubbing my back half-heartedly with the other, shouting loudly into the mouthpiece at her son or whomever had called. (It was getting time that I found myself a new masseuse.)
One day, she announced to me, while forcefully pressing her thumb into my lower back’s pressure points, “You have a very big butt.”
“Yes, I know,” I mumbled into the headrest, trying not to cry out from the thumb-jabbing pain.
She continued her train of thought, sharing “In China, we have a saying: ‘big butt, three sons.’ ”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I responded politely.
“Yes, you see, I have a very small butt.” She paused the massage to show me her hindquarters, not continuing the massage until I lifted my head up to look. “I was engaged to a man, but his mother did not like me. She was afraid I could not give him any sons because of my small butt. So she made us break our engagement.”
“Oh… I am so sorry,” I awkwardly replied.
“No, no,” she chuckled. “The joke is on him! I moved to Hong Kong, married a different man, and now…” she paused dramatically, “I have THREE sons!” And with that announcement, she slapped my butt!