While teaching English in central China, I spent much of my spare time wandering the city by foot. Each day I’d go for a walk, often times for hours on end. My feet began to ache and although I had experienced several incredibly invigorating Chinese head massages, I still had yet to treat myself to a legendary Chinese foot massage. Perhaps it was just the thing I needed to sooth my tired, sore, aching feet. There seemed to be massage establishments on every block, every corner for that matter. Unsure of a suitable one I asked my Chinese friend and co-worker Lily, who usually accompanied me home. A few blocks from my residence was a clean, reasonable establishment for thirty yuan, so Lily translated the information I needed to return for a massage later. Upon my arrival I was escorted to a small room and seated in a large comfy, heated lounge chair. Not another customer in sight and no one spoke English, which meant any translation taking place would be in the form of body or sign language – It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Relaxed in my lounge chair, pampered with a hot cup of green tea to sip on while waiting, my masseuse entered the room carrying a large wicker bushel basket lined with clear plastic, half filled with a hot concoction of Chinese medicine, an orangey brown mud mixture to soak my feet. Ah, now this was heaven. Although extremely soothing, I was anxious with anticipation for this wonderful hour of marvelous relaxation to get underway.
As my feet soaked in the mixture, my masseuse motioned me to stand, turn to face the lounge chair, and sit on a small footstool in front of him. Gently, he began massaging my shoulders, neck, arms and back. Now this is the life, I thought. Just then he began altering his technique. Suddenly my interpretation of relaxation had transformed into a rigorous procedure involving knuckles, slapping, chopping, pounding and the clucking noises. Good god! What one earth had I gotten myself into? I suddenly began to have an epiphany of what torture must have felt like to the peasants who wouldn't follow orders in ancient China. Please make it stop, I thought, wondering how far my eyes could actually roll back into my head. Glancing down at my watch to find I still had much of the hour remaining and could only hope that during my foot message any further pain would cease to exist.
Under some misconception that my prayers had been answered, I was gestured by my masseuse to sit back in the lounge chair before he disappeared to replenish my tea. Upon his return he sat on the footstool facing me, lifted my left foot out of the bucket to dry it off before massaging it with cream. Continuing to massage, it became apparent he was trying to tell me something in regards to my big and middle toe, yet I couldn't comprehend a word. Shrugging my shoulders, I smiled and he continued.
It wouldn’t take a genius, or anyone else for that matter, long to realize the upper body massage was simply a warm up exercise in comparison to what followed. A routine exercise to limber up his hands perhaps, as I underwent what seemed like a ritual that could have resulted in a motionless mamby pamby doll springing to life, sprouting wings, maybe even teeth for that matter, as some form of retaliation.
If one was to compare such an experience to a three coarse meal, the thumb and hand actions alone sufficed as an appetizer. Bizarre as it was, the most exquisite entrée arrived consisting of the most unorthodox slapping back and forth of my toes with the palms and backs of his hands. Main course followed with a delectable pushing of the knuckles up and down, back and forth on the bottom of my foot. Grinning from ear to ear, fantasizing it was the most revitalizing experience I had ever undergone, uncontrollable tears suddenly began streaming, as my eyes simultaneously bugged out of my head.
Waiting with anticipation for what tantalizing, mouth-watering dessert lay in store, I would not be disappointed. As pressure was placed on the under sides of my toes, I attempted to shift my palate of concentration from the excruciating pain and turn my focus to an Asian Television soap opera behind my masseuse. Perspiration oozed from every pour in my body as I casually reached for my tea, clutching the cup with an unsteady hand. What an exuberating experience. What does that actually mean, I thought wondering when he would change feet.
Sipping my tea, suppressing the tears, I was left to conclude the expression of “No pain, no gain,” should never be in the same phrase with a Chinese Foot Massage.
Suddenly, the term foot massage took on an entirely new meaning, as my masseuse drove his knuckles into sections of my heel almost catapulting from my chair. Prodding the same tender, now painful spot once more, he nodded, scrunched his face then crossed his arms resting his head on them to indicate his findings were associated with sleep.
Following a rigorous circular turning motion of my foot, several encores of toe slapping transformed into a refreshing knuckles punching technique on the base of my foot, creating the most peculiar clacking noises. Although intriguing, one might presume by his actions my masseuse had aspirations of becoming a drummer one day. The grand finale entailed pounding my ankles and calves before repeating the entire outlandish nightmare on my other foot.
Without a doubt, this was the longest hour of my life. Perhaps to endure pain of such intensity during a Chinese foot massage is a sign that one is in serious need of one and perhaps there is also truth to the relaxation element of this seemingly prehistoric custom. However, that day I would not discover it.
As someone has since pointed out, one bad experience should not be a reflection on that entire profession, or industry. Although my initial visit was not such a great experience and my sign gesturing was lacking at best, I did return for a second session with someone who I could communicate with a little easier. My return session was not as aggressive, but like any type of body work, such as, massage therapy, chiropractic, or acupuncture, it can sometimes take a lot of experimenting to find what works for each individual and personally, I have found acupuncture to work best for me.