Relaxing in China part 1: Massage

Picture a quiet room that smells of essential oils, maybe tea tree or lavender. The lights are dim, and there’s a candle or two flickering in the corner. The background noise is either a small burbling fountain or a CD of monks chanting. A masseuse expertly spreads warm, fragrant oil across your bare back while you accidentally fall asleep….

Cue needle-ripping-off-of-record sound — this is China, baby. Pretty much everything here (dinner, strolling in the park, a visit to the acupuncturist) is accompanied by noise, groups, and fluorescent lights, making what North Americans normally consider “relaxing” experiences worlds away. Massage is no different.

First, toss away that quiet, private room. Oh, and keep your clothes on for goodness sake — there are other people in the room with you. True, your masseuse is likely to be blind, (blind folks are considered disabled and therefore unable to work in very many occupations), but still. They’ll cover your body with a sheet and massage you through that. Next, bring a couple of friends — getting a massage is an excuse to be social, after all. Enjoy your cup of green tea during a foot massage, or maybe watch the big-screen TV while the masseuses gossip with each other.

%Gallery-92547%A massage in China ranges from full-body (they even rub your face down), to my favorite, a foot massage. Generally you can choose what kind you want, though some places are geared towards one or the other. You’ll find a massage joint on every street; because it so cheap (anywhere from $3-10 US) it’s possible for people to enjoy a regular rub-down.

So what can you expect with a massage in China?

First, anticipate the usual bright lights and crowds. I did some spa research for hot springs outside Kunming and saw rooms with 100 chairs for foot massage. Expect noise — whoever is pressing their hands into you will likely be chatting with their friend across the way, or occasionally answering their cell phone. A full-body massage will require the same kind of table you’re used to, with a hole for your face. However, no oils or lotions are used; instead a sheet will be placed over you and the masseuse will work through that.

If you go with friends, you can expect the masseuses to work in unison. It’s odd at first; the massage is a well-timed routine, and you’ll hear rubbing, popping and slapping at the same time across the room. There’s no real individual treatment, unless you ask for it. Everyone is treated the same – you know, kind of like in communism.

A foot massage is a fun, social activity since you can sit next to and chat with your buddies, rather than have a muffled conversation while face-down on a massage bed. My favorite type of foot massage is a medicinal one: you choose a scent from a menu, and a wooden bucket lined with a plastic trash bag is filled with almost-too-hot water. Then a packet of fragrant … stuff … is added, which turns the water into a jelly-like substance (it feels great between the toes). After a few minutes of soaking, a “magic” powder is added that turns the jelly back to liquid (see gallery). After a few more minutes of soaking, your bare feet will get a thorough rubbing. Often your back and neck will get some attention as well.

High-end spa treatment it ain’t, but a thrice-weekly after-dinner activity with your friends it is. Once you adjust your cultural expectations, it becomes a Chinese experience worth repeating.

Read more about my life in China here.

Far West in the Far East: My Chinese apartment

In mid-November I set up camp in Kunming, China, in order to study Mandarin. I didn’t want to live at a hostel for several months, so I perused the classifieds at GoKunming (no Craigslist here) and found a room.

Following is a highlight of all the quirks of my apartment, but I want to stress that this post isn’t a complaint — my apartment is luxurious by Chinese standards and I’m very grateful for it. I simply want to point out the differences in standards between China and the US.

First, I have four doors to get through to get inside. I live inside a gated complex, complete with uniformed guards, and I use a card to open both the gate and the door to my stairwell. I live on the 6th floor (though in the States it would be considered the 7th), and there is no elevator. The lights inside my stairwell operate on a sort of “clapper” system that registers the sounds of footsteps on the cement and turns the lights on. I usually have to stamp a foot at least once on my way up to turn a light on, an act I still take incredible delight in even after nearly two months — it makes me feel like a little kid. Once at my apartment, there’s a large metal door to open and then a regular wooden door to go through. I’m not sure why there is so much security, as I’ve always felt relatively safe in Kunming, but perhaps I have the four doors and the security guards to thank for that.

Once inside, I step onto large, shiny tiles, though my bedroom has wood floors. But let’s start with the bathroom, since Chinese restrooms are notoriously… simple. My bathroom is a mix of Western and Eastern — in fact, it appears as though it was originally designed to be a basic Chinese bathroom but was “upgraded” with Western facilities. The result is a leaky mishmash; it would’ve been better to have just stayed Chinese. There’s a Western toilet, which is nice (though I personally prefer the Chinese squat toilet), a sink and a shower. The shower head is installed on the wall, and the stall itself looks to be a later addition to the room. It leaks all over the floor and the shower drain backs up, leaving me ankle-deep in bathwater. It would have been better to have left the stall out and let the water drain into the floor like it was originally intended to.

There’s a washing machine the size of a bread maker, rising to just above my knees. I can do about one load of underwear at a time in it. To use it, I have to plug it in and stick a hose into the drain in the floor. I don’t find it inconvenient at all, especially considering that Wal-mart still sells blocks of laundry soap for the many people who wash their clothes by hand. There’s no clothes dryer, of course; all laundry is hung outside no matter what the weather. And, keeping in tune with Chinese plumbing, all toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet.

Next, the kitchen. Again, the sink has a hose that drains into the floor, rather than plumbing that’s all attached and out of sight. There’s no oven, and a small refrigerator is actually outside the kitchen in the eating area. A stove, which is very similar to my parents’ two-burner propane camp stove, is what all the cooking is done on. Only one burner works, and the non-functioning hood is covered in grease. No oven, no microwave. My Chinese roommate has a giant jar of MSG, which I’ve seem him sprinkle liberally onto his meals. Like the washing machine, the counters are only thigh high. And as you can probably guess, there’s no dishwasher.

Finally, my bedroom. I have a luxurious queen-sized bed that I share with my laptop (there is a slow wifi-connection). The window doesn’t seal, and the China soundtrack of motorbike alarms, cell phones, and loogie hocking winds down around 11pm and starts up almost exactly at 7am. Even though I’m way up high, there are metal bars on the windows, though there’s a plan in Kunming to remove all the bars from city windows — a massive project.

In general I feel very comfortable where I live, save for one aspect: no central heating. When the temperature dropped below zero last month, it was nearly impossible to get comfortable. My exhaled breath hung in white clouds, and if I wanted to type I would have to warm my hands under my covers every other sentence. I have two quilts and my down sleeping bag, plus a small electric blanket that thankfully I haven’t needed recently.

For all of this, I pay less than $200 per month, and that’s actually a large sum here. I’m in a great neighborhood, on a tree-lined, boutique-filled street about two blocks away from a couple of streets filled with Western-style cafes and bars. A small market across the street sells everything I might need, from oranges to live fish and chickens to noodles to cuts of meat. Down the road is a large park where I can meander and watch the Chinese dance in sync.

To read more about my life in China, click here.

Far West in the Far East: Twenty-four hours in Xiding

On my trip to Xishuangbanna a couple of weeks ago, I was able to time a trip to Xiding with its weekly Thursday market. A vibrant, colorful affair filled with photogenic Hani women, various animal parts, string tobacco, and pretty much everything else under the bright morning sun, the market was an obvious draw to the town. But Xiding is also a great place to hike around the rolling hills, as there are many minority villages in the area.

On the map, Xiding is very close to Menghze, where we stayed the night before. We caught an early-morning bus, bumping along a dusty, flat road in the midst of dormant rice paddies. After a completely straight thirty minutes, our bus hit the mountains and started climbing. I had no idea Xiding was in the mountains, so it was a pleasant surprise to measure our progress by the views we were gaining. The bus twisted up hillsides for another 30 minutes, finally reaching a sunny, thin-aired Xiding.

We saw only one hotel, which cost my friend and me each about $2.50 for a shared room. The bathroom was in a back courtyard, next to the smokehouse. We weren’t to have electricity until much later that night, so using the windowless bathroom was an exercise in bravery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was traveling with a friend who was researching the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. We decided to follow the dirt road that continued out of Xiding in the hopes that we would come across a minority village, and after two hours of walking along the cultivated hillsides, we found what we were looking for. Shaded by thick growth, a small village full of wood homes with thatched roofs sat quietly, looking at the same view as Xiding.

%Gallery-80168%Within minutes, a man invited us to rest in his home with a cup of tea. He chatted with my friend, while his wife and grandchild looked in, sunlight illuminating them in the doorway. From there, we followed a path between homes and came across an old woman weaving on a giant bamboo loom, a good fifteen feet of thread stretched out in front of her. A young man probably in his early twenties and dressed in a suit was the only person who spoke Mandarin. He translated for my friend, who asked about the the woman’s weaving: Did she spin her thread? Yes. Did she dye it? Yes. Who did she sell it to? Other Hani people. He opined that the older Hani were stubborn and backwards, because they refused to wear modern clothing and were very poor. He was on a visit from Shanghai, where he had been working for a year, and his feeling of superiority was obvious in his clothing choice.

After taking photos and watching a giant pig snuff around the dirt yard where the woman stood weaving, we set back to Xiding and arrived starving, just before dark. No electricity, so dinner was a candlelit affair, and afterward we wandered around the dark village trying to spot constellations. My friend is from the East Coast and has only seen the Milky Way twice in her life; I live in Alaska and am used to star-filled winter skies, but on this night I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in China.

We got up early the next morning to experience the market, which was filled with photogenic Dai and Hani women. The typical produce, meats and baskets of bean curd filled the sidewalks, but there was also a street-side dentist, hill tribe clothing (I bought legwarmers, which caused a bit of a stir when the women insisted on tying them on for me), angel-haired tobacco, and cheap knock-off clothing. The Thursday market was obviously the place where villagers came to do their one-stop shopping.

Since there was only one bus out of town, we bought our tickets early, boarding at noon, and then headed back down the way we came, the bus threading through steep hillsides covered in rubber trees.

To read more about my life in China, click here.

Far West in the Far East: Christmas in Kunming

It’s Christmas day here in China, but only Christmas Eve back home. I know the rhythms my friends and family are settling into in the States: the quiet streets, busy homes, smells of spices and baking, and the building anticipation of opening piles of colorful presents. Just writing that makes me feel a bit homesick, but thankfully Christmas is not a big deal in China so I don’t feel as lonely as I might if I were alone in a country that celebrates the holiday as fiercely as America does.

In Kunming, I’ve seen some half-hearted attempts at decorations, with lonely strips of tinsel tossed over a counter, or a cardboard Santa taped to a window, or restaurant employees wearing Santa hats, but in general today is just another weekday. I don’t have class, but that’s really only because my school caters to Westerners. The universities are open, though the Western instructors and students I know seem personally affronted by that. However, I think the Chinese are probably baffled by what a big deal we make out of Christmas.

With no religious connection to the holiday, I am actually a bit relieved at escaping the consumer hype of it. I think I’ll celebrate today with a walk in the sunshine, a hot white Russian, and dinner with my Jewish friend.

Far West in the Far East: On learning Chinese characters

Ostensibly, I’m in China to learn the language. There are many other reasons for being here, but learning Mandarin gives me both a focus and a distraction, and I’ve found the most mental stimulation and solace in learning the characters.
Right now, I know about 150 of them. In order to read a newspaper, I’ll need to know between two and three thousand, so I’ve a ways to go. However, I’m learning between eight and ten new ones per day, and slowly the gibberish around me is taking on form and meaning.
The repetition of writing the same characters over and over into thin-papered books with large squares meant for third-graders to practice in is oddly satisfying and meditative. Often when I close my eyes at night, characters scratch themselves onto the insides of my eyelids. I feel like they are a code that I need to crack, and indeed as I learn more of the basics I’m able to understand other characters more rapidly. .

There are many brilliant compounds that I delight in: the character for crisis, for example, is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Star is a combination of “sun” and “birth.” Man, “strength” plus “field.” Of course, for every thought-provoking compound there is an equally puzzling one: the symbol for sea is simply the character for “constant” with a water radical added on. I like to think of something poetic-sounding such as “the constant sea” to help me remember it, but how it evolved I don’t know.

For now, occasionally when I walk down the street I feel like a series of lights pop on – each light a new character I understand. Pop! “Day.” Pop! “Hot.” Pop! “Milk” (the character for cow, plus a combo character than includes the symbol for female). It’s like a scene in some grammar nerd’s personal musical. Of course, there are other times when I look at the seemingly endless variety of unintelligible characters, and I feel very, very tired.