The night starts innocently enough. Seven of us, exhausted from a dance club the night before and a long day volunteering at a migrant school outside the city, decide to get a 10 PM massage at an “upscale” place in Beijing ($23 / 60 minutes).
When we arrive we are ushered downstairs into the salon/massage area by about 40 too many people. Chinese service industries live by the Powell Doctrine: they throw dozens of bodies at simple tasks. Overwhelming force. Unfortunately, few are trained in the basics of hospitality.
Four of us (three guys, one girl) are put in one room, three in the other. We are given shorts and a shirt to change in to, instead of a robe. There is no locker room or privacy barriers. Nor New Age music playing in the background. Nor even four beds; only one bed and three futons on the ground. The handlers kind of bow at us (Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on the bow) and leave us to change and get ready.
Just as I am about to drop trow, the door swings back open and more maids and managers run about in our room, trying to upsell the 90 minute massage option. We decline and they finally leave again.
I change out of my clothes — in front of the other three guys and one girl in our group, as we’re all in one room — and hide my wallet in my t-shirt and put a water bottle on top of it so noise would be made if a masseuse tries to steal it. The four masseuses enter the room. All are dressed in pink and all are overweight.
I start by lying on my stomach. On a fucking futon. There is no hole near the top through which to stick my head, as is usually the case with bed massages, so my face and nose are jammed into the mattress as she begins to work on my back.
At first it’s the usual Swedish shtick, but it takes only a few minutes to discover the Chinese way is different. No pain, no gain. Tremendous force in all the wrong places. If I spoke Chinese I would yell out for her to stop or ease up on the pressure on my back, but I’m a simple English speaker, and my face is stuffed into the futon anyway.
Every few minutes, she stops inflecting pain on my back and grabs my ass, slaps it, and leaves red marks. It is crazy. Whack, slap, karate-chop. Everything. The sound of slapped skin echoes in the room, as everyone is experiencing the same thing in real time.
Then she turns me over and I lie on my back. She offers me some tea at the halfway point in the massage. Reeling from the pain, I sip greedily, burning my whole mouth.
Then she starts massaging me face-up. She sticks her fingers in my ears as if she were digging for ear wax. She presses on my veins in my arm and stops blood flow to the lower half of my arm. She massages my head by pressuring my sinus area to the point where one friend with me said afterward, “I was worried I was going to have a concussion.” She takes her two thumbs and rubs them together on my hand as if she were rubbing sticks together to try to create a spark for a fire. As I write this, my hand feels like it has been floor-burned.
Then, working recklessly with her hands, she moves to the groin area. It’s an area fraught with hazards. My friend in the futon next to me starts laughing, and the masseuse laughs softly as well out of embarrassment. He has just been violated. The friend afterward confirmed: “Tip and some shaft.” My other friend, in the room over, also reported some foul play in the groin area: “A couple handfuls, at least.”
When the massage ended, the masseuse crouches over me and hands me a feedback form. Huh? 10 seconds after the massage ends I’m being asked to give feedback? No time to relax, I guess. I write, in English, “Nice job.” I hand it to her. She says something to my Chinese friend in Chinese. He translates: She finds it strange I write with my left-hand. Just another day in the life of an oppressed lefty.
We pay the bill, in the immortal words of Randy Moss, with straight cash. In China, you have no choice. Cash is king.
We step outside into the warm Beijing night, laughing and comparing notes, and hail a cab. When I get back to my room, I crave familiarity to recover from the trauma. So I grab my emergency jar of peanut butter.
Culinary knives do not exist in the land of the chop stick. I begin eating the peanut butter straight out of the jar using the handle of a disposable hair comb.