Massage as a cultural experience

Posted: June 08, 2008

I love the private treatment you get at posh spas. But the Chinese movie The Shower, which made Chinese public baths look like a culturally rich experience, piqued my interest.

Since China began its zealous modernization, most apartments have showers or tubs. Public baths are disappearing, but we found them in dusty Xian.

Our guide, Jing, takes us to the King Care Hotel, where I am escorted upstairs to let it all hang out, literally. Everyone is buck naked. So bathers won't have to look at my body, which is equivalent in size to three Chinese women, I grab a towel.

"There are three massage choices: honey, milk and salt," Jing says. "Which would you like?"

I choose honey, which Jing tells the manager before leaving. I look around. The clean, attractive bathing area has a wall of showers, large soaking pool, sauna, steam room, and side rooms.

Skinny ladies watch. Because I am Caucasian, I am an attraction. Even in the steam room, there are eyes staring through the window.

The brightly lit treatment room has several adjustable lounges. My masseuse waters down a lounge and lines it with plastic wrap. She hands me a package that looks like Barbie-size underwear. I think it is a covering those tiny ladies use, and I can't wear it. I am depressed and hand it back. Turns out it's a mitt. As if sanding a piece of lumber, my masseuse rubs my body with it. Skin falls to the floor. Then she washes me down as though I'm a dirty bathroom.

Next, I head to the chalkboard. My masseuse reads each Chinese character and explains them to me - in Chinese. She tries hard to please. Since my Chinese consists only of "please" and "thank you," I politely nod.

Back to the table. Using a combination of reflexology, stretching and pounding, she covers my body with slightly diluted honey. I am now a fly magnet. If a bear should happen by, I am dead meat. Out comes the hose. It is like being in a car wash.

Now it's sauna time. I sit there thinking that this is a way of life for many Chinese. They come here to spend time with their lady friends and relax.

Soon, I notice a shiny patina forming over my body. If I stay much longer, it will take a chisel to remove the honey. Eyes follow me. Everyone snickers. I shower, pay my $13 fee, and leave feeling very well scrubbed.

Though baths are not frequented by Westerners, foot-massage parlors are. Sanyetang Foot-Bath Club uses "foot reflex therapy, which is part of Chinese yin-yang theory and the overall Western neural control theory for the theoretical foundation," the brochure says. With such a treatment, how can you not be cured - or confused?

My husband, Lou, and I are taken to a bright room with reclining beds and a giant TV. We are handed a remote. I find a Discovery-type elephant program. After those skinny Chinese ladies, I need this to feel small and to restore my self-esteem.

The treatment consists of foot soaking, a knee in the back (to help the spine), back rubs, stretching, arm massage, and the foot thing. In no time, Lou is snoring like a train. The foot massagers giggle. Afterward, I am relaxed, as is Lou, thanks to his nap.

Still, honey traces remain. After three days and three shampoos, flakes still fly out of my hair. When I put on an earring, my finger sticks to my ear, which makes me remember the massages - and smile.

Roberta Sotonoff lives in Glenview, Ill.

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