Seems that no one ever correctly explains what to expect from your first Asian foot massage. So, year after year, thousands of unsuspecting Americans are duped into shedding their socks for this ancient method of Chinese reflexology.
That’s not to say that I don’t like a good foot massage. But, somehow it’s kinda like all addictions. You probably throw-up or pass out the first time, but then mysteriously want to do it again the next day.
I think that it’s the word “massage” that is initially misleading. When we think of that word in English, we immediately conjure up pictures of laying on a beach somewhere while a gentle Swede slides oiled stones over tired muscles.
Maybe if we could read the Chinese characters “an-mo” plastered on the front of every massage spa, we would understand a little better what we are getting ourselves into. The term comes from two Mandarin words: “an” meaning “to press, push or keep one’s hand upon” and “mo” meaning “until the therapist finds the most agonizing location, at which point they will repeatedly dig in their knuckles until you cry”.
Yes, it must just be a matter of translation.
Multicolored reflexology graphs are your first clue that this is a serious business. Although the diagram is in the shape of a foot, your immediate correlation is of a zoning chart for downtown Cincinnati. If you find yourself with an overwhelming urge to inquire into the heel section as a possible site for a new shopping center, step away, take a deep breath and look for a bilingual chart. There you will see designations for spleens or ovaries, not animal shelters and office complexes.
Your initial attraction to the foot spa is one of two things: the hope of relaxation or the icy, cold rush of A/C that beckons you at the door. Since the subtropics often raises your internal body temperature past the high registry on a meat thermometer, then the cool is likely your draw. I’m pretty certain that the English sign “promote good digest”, actually does very little marketing.
After paying up front for the services, you are motioned into your first chair, complete with a personal foot sink. In the early years, the sink consisted of a plastic “Hello Kitty” tub, but times have changed and now you can only find Hello Kitty on your cell phone jewelry.
While your feet soak, you are given a plastic cup of hot tea, ranging from my favorite (oolong) to my least favorite (roasted barley). Despite the numerous health benefits of barley tea, I’m pretty sure it’s made by steeping a gym sock in the Yangtze River. So, I try to avoid it, despite the subsequent risk of tooth decay or major cardiovascular diseases.
Actually, you don’t have much chance to drink during this time, as they throw a towel over your head and begin a brief neck massage to de-stress you. I rather like this part, as my neck muscles are always tense, but some friends have a definite aversion to an elbow pressed into their clavicle. If this is you, beware of the Guantanamo tea towel.
At this point, you move from your little sink-chair into big, luxurious ones across the room. You know these are going to be comfortable because they are complete with a doily for your head. These overstuffed loungers are locked into a permeant recline position allowing your masseuse the best grip onto anything below your knee.
Odds are that you will be soothed and meditative at this point. That tends to happen when someone else washes your feet. Your therapist slathers your entire foot and calf with a creamy lotion and begins rubbing it in with gentle, rhythmic motions, thus drawing you into the final deception.
About this time, you begin to hum along to the pan-pipe rendition of “Hey Jude” playing in the background. You have little idea what is coming. In fact, you will never hear your masseuse give this warning, “‘Cuse me madam. I now begin to infrict unbelibel pain. Preaze take deep bleaf.”
When he moves to your foot, your mind goes foggy and you find adjectives like excruciating, piercing, and searing, all hovering in your consciousness. To the reflexologist, these sensations reflect a problem with the corresponding part of the body (see chart). But, somehow I never feel that applying pressure to my big toe should remind me of labor pains.
Despite all the pain, I’ve noticed that no one ever goes for a Chinese foot massage alone. I suppose that misery indeed does like company.
On my last visit, I went with my friend, Martha. We’d laughed and connected over take-out passion fruit green teas, when an unexpected blast of cold air caught us off guard on the sidewalk. The next thing we knew, we were continuing our emotional bond in side-by-side La-Z-boy recliners (pronounced “Racy-boi” in Chinese) with two killer knuckles grinding into our feet.
As Martha gripped her armrest for support, I knew she shared my pain.
“This (inhale) reminds me (exhale) of childbirth,” I squeaked through clinched teeth. Alternating between hysterical laughter and Lamaze-type breaths I continued, “I feel (inhale) I should (quick rapid exhale) warn you, Martha” (pant, pant, pant).
“When I felt like this (sucking air now) while delivering Hannah (show steady exhale), I bit the attending nurse.” (Huff, puff, huff, puff, wheeeeeze).
Dealing with her own pain, Martha covered her eyes, clenched her jaws and admitted with tears of convulsions, “I bit (gasp, gasp, gulp) my husband.”
You know how it’s said that labor brings pain, which is forgotten after the birth? Come with me to have a Asian foot massage. It will all come rushing back… the pain… and the joy.