Seeing Past Appearances: Lessons Learned in a Chinese Spa
Posted on May 9, 2016
“Bryan, you’re more Chinese than me.”
We locked eyes; his blue, mine brown. The moment concluded in an instant as we burst out laughing.
“Yes. I am.”
Here we were, two waìguórén (foreigners) sitting in an opulent dining hall wearing our respective blue and pink bath robes, exchanging stories about life abroad while we munched on pickled cucumbers, tofu noodles, and slices of watermelon. I looked more the part, with my jet black hair and almond eyes, pitted next to Bryan. But after one week in China, I could still barely mutter a xièxie without feeling like an impostor. Bryan had three years on me. He’d mentioned some of Guilin’s local attractions during one of our lunch breaks at the Chinese Language Institute, and I’d been itching since to investigate this fabled “Chinese Spa”.
For journalistic reasons, of course.
To date, I’ve lived in Southeast Asia for 4 years. Dodging traffic and eating questionable street food rarely warrants novelty anymore, let alone an upset stomach. It has become a way of life. But walking off the cobblestone streets of Guilin and into one of the town’s most luxurious hotels for a night at the spa was almost…otherworldly. I had spent a week sightseeing around this “small town” (a small city by Canadian standards). But it hadn’t yet struck me that this was really it: The ‘REAL’ China, I’d set out to look for.
Beyond the deceptively small lobby was a grand labyrinth of corridors lined with glistening chandeliers and marble(?) pillars that reminded me of a Las Vegas interpretation of Versailles. My “wows” quickly turned to “Whuuuts” as I fumbled my way around the women’s changing area, clumsily trying to open my assigned locker with the wrist device they had given me. I scanned the available amenities and found everything one might expect from a high-end spa in an emerging Chinese city: personal hydro-massage capsules, individual bathtubs, a sauna, a steam room, and a single squat toilet.
As the attendant handed me my garments, I frantically scanned my brain’s limited Chinese vocabulary (one week’s worth, to be exact) on how one might ask, “Where is the change room?” But a quick glance to my left confirmed, oh wait….that’s right #CulturalDifferences #WhenInChina #DropYourReservations #AndYourDrawers
I made my way out towards the dining hall in my pink two-piece spa suit and cushioned rubber slippers, passing others donning the same uniform. Garish, yet practical, I decided, which felt to be the right words to describe the spa’s overall vibe. Hallways winded in all directions, every inch flecked in gold, while staff dressed in spiffy outfits eagerly greeted me around each bend.
It felt almost comical wandering in such an elaborate space while shuffling around in flip flops and loungewear. Like a living fantasy, I was fairly certain I would turn a corner and stumble into a ballroom hosting a black tie soiree—whilst appropriately clad in my bathrobe.Could this perhaps be just a dream? Or my worst nightmare come true?
We passed multiple private rooms containing an assortment of large Asian men (Chinese, if I were to assume) splayed against reclining seats. Our final destination—thankfully—was a little more intimate: two massage beds lined with hospital gauze linens set against a backdrop of a bold hue of fleur-de-lis wallpaper. We switched on our personal television set until we found a channel broadcasting a national billiard tournament, figuring this qualifies as “white noise” in a Chinese Spa.
The massage itself was firm and tender all at once. A healthy dose of pressure. Like a Chinese Mother, if you will. Some may call a Chinese massage a bit clinical compared to the sensual rub down we might be accustomed to in western spas, but if we’re comparing a hot stone massage at the Shangri-la to China’s 2,500+ year-old history of traditional medicine, seaweed wraps can’t hold a candle.
After we sighed our ways through some “tough love” dished out by the spindly hands of our Chinese masseuses, we made our way back to the dining hall for a second round of fried noodles, pickles, grass jelly dessert, and pineapple. Bryan had tea.
I had seen a special room in the women’s facilities which piqued my curiosity. Bryan taught me two words that will be seared into my Chinese vocabulary bank forever: cuo zao.
Now I’m no stranger to body scrubs. I’ve had my share in Turkey, Canada, and most of Southeast Asia. But there was something that felt a little less ambient about this scrubbing facility. Like it was a room you could have just as easily stepped out of with a typhoid vaccination. Or a bag of Chinese herbs.
But as I prepared for my body scrub (with Bryan’s coaching, of course) it all finally hit me:
I am really here. In China. I came to study Mandarin for two weeks. I came to track my family ancestry. I feel more out of my comfort zone than I have in a long time. I am Chinese. I am Canadian. I am lost. I am finding myself. I am a stranger. I am home. I am–much more literally than figuratively–about to bare myself.
All these thoughts raced through my head as I stripped down and prepared for the scrub of my life. My attendant pulled out a rag that looked like it was used against a wok in a former life. And as she slapped hot water against my well-travelled skin, I felt it all come off.
Like a lizard, I emerged new. Revealing a skin that was hiding underneath all this time.
All images were shot by Devon Wong. This short story also appears on Schema Magazine.