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.