Getting a Blind Massage in China
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who enjoys getting a massage. It’s what easy-going, mythically under-analytical people and sports people do. Just as, to some, a bath evokes such pleasantries as rejuvenation, cleansing steam and painfully delicate bubbles popping on rose or other-scented skin, massages sound potentially more substantial than mere luxuries. They sound like something I should wish to incorporate into my monthly or even bi-yearly serious adult life-schedule.
In my experience though, unsurprisingly enough, baths haven’t ever been anything more than sweaty, anxious pee-floating endurance missions. Everything in the bath with me is gross. I am gross. There’s hair that’s not mine, there’s floating traces of mystery oil, it’s too hot, the bath salts itch, my book pages are curling, I’m going to drop technology into the water, and so on. To extend the potentially frustrating details of banal anxieties, I’ve also set my watch to beep on the hour, every hour for the last three years to make sure I know how each one passes and to act as a reminder of the importance of breathing. You’ve gotta be able to rely on something in this world.
So, there’s no great need to extend the description to the topic of a massage. However, let me indulge you. A) when people touch my knees, I know the caps are going to slide out through the skin. B) when the masseuse gets right in there on a tendon and kneads it like a white-flour bap on a Sunday morning at Baker’s Delight, every roll of their soft, brutal hands sends a hot flush to my stomach and I envision spewing straight into the head-hole. Then, most likely pretending it didn’t happen until the smell has wafted around the entire room and is painfully obvious, like an 18-year-old’s first early morning cab ride from Oxford Street. This is what was running through my mind when my friend Leah and I decided to get a “Blind Massage“ on a rainy Monday afternoon.
For some reason, what I’d imagined when a few people had mentioned their experiences with Blind Massage was a dank alleyway, some white-haired women in long robes sitting on tiny bamboo chairs, bashing away at my back with their eyes closed and thoughtfully twitching deep creases in their tanned faces. They’d try to sell me joss sticks and beads while steam rose from the manholes in the road around us and the fat rain dropped on our heads unceasingly. There should probably be a guqin being plucked away ominously from an open window, floors above us. I’d try arrogantly to decipher a mysterious art that took them a lifetime to perfect and scream silently when they hit that tendon. I’m realising now that it’s merely my mind’s need to categorise ideas that project many Chinese traditions as anachronisms. Or micro images from Mulan.
When we approached the massage house, it was a neat and welcoming medical facility far more legitimate than the alleyway fantasy situation. I walked in and greeted the receptionist who pointed at a wall of passport photograph faces to our left. Each had a number below it. My two friends waited for an explanation of the process but I just stared at the images on the wall. I laughed kind of pathetically – the way polite white people do when they fall suddenly out of their comfort zone – and sat quickly on an opposite chair. The 20 faces on the wall were for us to select the “best” looking masseuse. They were the faces of men and women my age with varyingly obvious degrees of blindness. There was a young woman with an eye bulging out of its socket, another with wide, completely milky-white eyes, an albino man with his eyes closed and another with what looked like fat stitch marks across his eyelids. One’s eyes looked in completely opposite directions and another wore thick bottle rim glasses. Some were smiling, one wore black shades, and they were all ready and waiting for us down a corridor and around a corner.
I sat back in the chair with the same stupid grin and attempted to air the awkwardness amongst the three of us by choosing the first woman I saw and announcing my selection to the receptionist: number 6. She was unavailable. I sat back down. Why did I chose that particular woman? I looked into her young smiling face. The only thought I could gather was that you couldn’t tell superficially that she was blind. The realisation made my skin crawl slightly. What are we doing here in this (now sterile-feeling) place if not to get a massage? What barrier has been broken that suddenly makes this such an uncomfortable experience, other than the aforementioned anxieties of vomit-sprayed masseuses and deathly pain? This is the embodiment of those anxieties and it is a much more insidious fear. One that all consumer practices in the West operate to conceal.
As I waited for my head to catch up a little, I thought of a Hot Pot restaurant in Tiyu Xilu a few months ago. We flicked quickly through the menu and, once again unsure of the protocol, searched around the room for cues. The table next to us had just ordered so I listened in and observed their request. A woman dashed around the place, gathering all the equipment and ingredients required for the meal: ladles, mushrooms, tofu skin, okra, chili, bowls, tea, beers and lastly, a big, black-shelled turtle. I’d seen turtle on the menu and we are in Guangzhou so that wasn’t the shock.
The shock was the presentation: the turtle was completely intact – one whole unadulterated turtle. The men gently lifted the shell to reveal that this was not true: the head, legs and tail were reassembled but in fact, the raw translucent flesh was a mush of tendon and fillets. It was my first understanding of the importance of honesty in consumer culture in China. You order a turtle, you want to know its a turtle. Far from the packaged, bloodless, non-animal looking meat consumption of the west, I didn’t walk past a pet store for weeks without wondering how one turtle ends up there and the other squirming around a bucket in the market.
So here we are again, facing the reality of consumer choice. The reality is that subconsciously, I didn’t want to see the face of the person who would be pampering me luxuriously, because their disability was only a part of the product I was buying into as long as I could remain detached from it.
How could I lay, languid and dreamy with the graphic image of bulging eyeballs personified as “number 7” in the room with me? For the west, this confrontational situation is undignified. For China, it’s honesty.
So of course, as all people who can’t handle their discomfort do, but also partially because I sadistically revel in the fringes of my own comfort level, I chose “number 7”.
Words by Stephanie Cobon.