Search ‘massage’ on Google and you’ll find pictures of beautifully relaxed people. Massaging, as a verb, means ‘to treat flatteringly’. But the Western notion of massage is limited. Chinese massage is different, and its name (按摩Ànmó) more honest: press stroke.
We went to a Chinese spa for the latter, but I still had the former in mind. We were guided to our rooms and into baths filled with hot water. We were bathed like babies, water thrown over our backs and herbs pushed on our skin. This was rather relaxing, but it was all deception. More hot water was added, and slowly — but then all at once, a threshold was passed. This was no longer relaxing. As the staff wiped the sweat off my face, I realized my heart was thumping and my chest felt heavy. She gave me tea to drink to replenish myself, and I told myself I could stay a bit longer, just five minutes. When I finally lifted myself out of the bath, I felt I was going to faint.
We laid down on the hard beddings, staring at the golden chandeliers on the ceiling, as my eyes and eyebrows were massaged. This was relaxing, ok — but then her thumbs pushed into scalpel and tried to pull it off my head. I closed my eyes and saw colors instead of darkness.
Was it the herbs that made me dreamy? Fǎn guòlái, or turn around, and as I laid face down my shoulders were massaged. To the Chinese notion that is: press stroke. Dreamy — I was no longer in that room. I was in a forest and two huge bear claws on me. I felt the blood moving to the end of my arms and heaping up. Her thumbs dug into my shoulders. Téng? Does it hurt? I will never admit that. The pressing on my legs felt like the midnight cramps I sometimes have.
I walked home with my tissue feeling readjusted around my skeleton, painful in some spots. Chinese massage isn’t relaxing, but like a day that is too warm, a meal that is too spicy, or a beer that is too bitter, it can still be just exactly what you need.