Five of us middle-aged academics were leaning back in our comfy chairs with our tired feet on stools, wiggling our well-worn toes in anticipation of some gentle rubbing. We were in Zhuhai, China. The room we were in looked more like an office of a low-level Communist official than a spa, but that didn’t matter. I assumed our Chinese foot massage would be a little like an American pedicure, except with a little more foot rubbing. Ha!
A team of young, tiny Chinese women marched into the room single-file, in unison. They were all wearing the same blue, short-sleeved polo shirts and clingy black capris. They were also all wearing high platform heels, leading to a “clump, clump clump” sound when they walked. I was not sure if they were our masseuses or a conga dance team hired for our entertainment. Everything they need was in unison, especially when they walked in and out of the office. They were quite chatty, but only among themselves—in Chinese, of course.
First they placed our feet in buckets of warm, herb-infused water to soak. It felt soothing, and I started to relax. Not for too long, though, because they soon barked out orders in Chinese to us to sit on the stools with our backs towards them. Of course, I did not understand the orders so I looked around the room dumbly until I figured out what they meant.
I duly turned my back to my masseuse and she started massaging my shoulders and upper-back, which is a routine part of a Chinese foot massage. (Apparently, everything is connected.) Fortunately, clothes are not removed in Chinese massage, even the full-body type. Otherwise, it would have been a little awkward in our mixed-gender group. I’ve had massages in the U.S. before. Usually they feel mostly good, with perhaps a little bit of light pain when the masseuse does deep-tissue massage.
This was different! Since my back was towards my masseuse, I could not believe how much pain this 80-pound woman was able to inflict on my back in the 10 or 15 minutes she spent on it. At one point, I knew she was leaning heavily on my back, probably throwing all of her weight on it—along with the weight of her extended family. (Or at least that’s what it felt like.) Our Chinese companion/translator told us we should let them know if it hurt too much. It definitely hurt too much, but I was determined not to say anything, for fear of being seen as a wimp. The man sitting next to me was moaning and groaning in ways that sounded a little too intimate for my comfort zone. My other companions were mostly taking it stoically, but one person did squeak a little bit, asking for mercy.
Eventually, my masseuse removed the weight of her entire extended family from my back. We were told to sit back on the chair and put our feet up on the stool. It was time for the foot massage. Whew! Now the gentle and soothing part could begin.
Or not! The masseuses spent maybe 30 minutes or so kneading, pounding, twisting, turning, pummeling, hitting and otherwise attempting to mutilate our feet. After that, they spent several minutes massaging our lower legs and calves as well. According to an online source I found, “the massage is often painful, particularly for first timers because it is believed that each part of the foot is connected to a part of the body. If soreness is felt in a particular part of the foot, it is believed the corresponding part of the body has a problem.” Holy cow. If that is true, I must have a whole body full of some serious problems. Click here Nonetheless, I soldiered on, determined not to complain—or call the American embassy to complain that I was being tortured by Chinese commies.
While we were leaning back “enjoying” our massage, the masseuses chatted amongst themselves. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course. I got the impression, though, that they were talking about us in a way that was not entirely complimentary. I asked our translator what they were saying, and she said, “Oh, nothing. They’re just chatting.” I was skeptical, so later I asked a member of our group who speaks Chinese what they were saying. She said they had indeed been discussing us part of the time.
They were complaining about our “thick American feet.” I guess American feet cause them to work a lot harder than do the delicate Asian feet they are used to. At least thy didn’t use the word for “fat”!
I did survive the ordeal. I’m still not entirely convinced this wasn’t just an excuse for the masseuses to torture us, in retaliation for the U.S. being an overbearing superpower. However, I did find that my feet and especially my legs felt much better afterwards. I would definitely do it again and am looking to find a similar experience here in the U.S. I believe the American version is called “reflexology.” I don’t know if the Americans are as hard-core as the Chinese are.
Have any of you tried American reflexology? What was your experience like?