I get uncomfortable when people do things on my behalf. I'm notoriously bad at taking compliments, receiving gifts, or asking for favors. It's not that I'm not grateful or that fiercely independent; there's just a part of me that winces at the thought of being appeased or pampered. As a result, in the states I had little interest in ever getting a massage. However, when I came to China and heard people talking about the benefits and astonishing economy of Chinese massage, I eventually acquiesced.
My first foray came last spring. Anne, Lynn, Maggie, and I hopped on bikes and plowed our way through sloppy road construction and bifurcated street crossings to the far edge of town. Lynn had been going to the same blind massage parlor for two years running, and it was, according to her, the best place in town. We slipped passed the thick plastic coverings hung like seaweed over the door and walked into a dimly-lit room with twelve massage tables, all placed within two feet of one another. The storefront could have moonlighted as a homeless shelter, so long as the inhabitants didn't mind sleeping with a 16-inch diameter incision at the top of each table to be used as a head rest.
The process of fire cupping, used as traditional medicine in many cultures, including China (photo courtesy of One Inch Punch).
I quickly learned that pain is par for the course. It is said that if a massage isn't gut-wrenchingly painful, it isn't worth the money. Unlike Western massage, you are supposed to come out of Chinese massage feeling battered, wilted, and thankful for it to be over. Another difference is that there is no direct contact with the skin—customers are fully clothed and the masseuse drapes a sheet over any exposed parts before practicing. It is not uncommon to hear shrieks coming from the opposite side of the translucent curtain used to separate customers. The supposition is that it has deep-set benefits—that over time the result of all that kneading and pounding will show with the increased resilience of your body and the lesser likelihood of that pain to resurface.
In that way, it's perhaps more similar to bodywork in all respects except price. Whereas an hour can cost you upwards of $100 in the states, 60 minutes in the hands of a blind masseuse will run you less than $5 in Taigu. It's true that labor is cheap here, especially for the blind masseuses who are trained specially in the art of massage, but it gives them a liveable income and provides a valuable service to the community. The massage starts with the back, then moves to the shoulders and the neck, before flipping over to the head, arms, legs, and feet. My legs are always the most cringe-worthy, a combination of standing for four hours in the morning during class, doing heavy weight lifting in the afternoon, and sitting down for most of the evening.
At the end of the massage, Lynn opted to have baguan, or cupping, done. In traditional medicine, cupping is used to dispel stagnation and increase qi flow to treat respiratory diseases. The masseuse uses an open flame to heat the insides of glass cups and affixes them to soft tissue primarily on the back, neck, and shoulders. As the air inside the cup cools, it contracts and draws the skin toward the surface, resulting in bulbous red and black skin markings after the cups are removed. Lying on the table, she looked like a Christmas tree covered in glass ornaments. After the treatment, we biked back to campus; me, more than a bit sore, and Lynn, her back still raised and warm to the touch.