I have the most tender feet of anyone I’ve ever met. I never went barefoot as a kid, and I can’t tolerate anything between my toes, not even those sparkly, cute flip flops that are so popular in Florida.
So why did I think it was a good idea to get a traditional Chinese foot massage? I’m not sure, but let’s just say it was one of the most memorable things I’ve done so far in Beijing.
I guess it was curiousity that drove me down a dark corridor in the building across the street. There was a small sign advertising foot massage and bone setting, whatever that is. So last Saturday my husband and I ventured in.
”Hello, you want massage-ee?”asks the man behind the desk. Yes, we nod, pointing to our feet.
My husband and I part ways, and my masseur leads me to a recliner and fills a little foot bath with hot water.
“Ni yao zhe ge ma? San shi wu Kuai.” He offers me a whiff the optional herbal sachet he wants to add to my foot bath. I take a sniff, expecting a relaxing lavender scent. It smells like hay. For five bucks extra? I’ll pass thanks.
“Ni bu yao?” He seems puzzled by my refusal. Clearly I’m missing out but he shrugs and walks away, returning with a half-filled water bottle containing something that looks like motor oil. He’s saving the good stuff for foreigners I think, as he dumps the brown liquid into the steaming foot bath.
”Cu,” he says with a smile, offering me a sniff. It smells familiar. Like vinegar.
”jiaozi!” I reply with recognition. Dumplings! My feet are soaking in dumpling dipping sauce, sans the chili oil.
I wiggle my toes in the hot water and toss the word “jiaozi” around in my head, thinking the word “jiaozi” (dumpling) and “jiaozhi” (toe) sound remarkably similar.
After a few minutes when my feet are sufficiently cooked, my masseur fishes them out of the broth. He takes my right foot and wraps it neatly in a clean white towel, sealing the ends just like a dumpling wrapper.
He focuses on my left foot, massaging it between his open palms with the same force a Boy Scout would use trying to start a fire without matches. Iron Hands (I’ve renamed my masseur) generates such heat I’m wondering if it’s possible for my foot to spontaneously combust.
We are only about 10 minutes into a sixty minute massage when I realize this isn’t a “feel good massage.” This is a pain inducing, “let me fix your feet at all costs” massage. There’s no turning back now. I’m glad my right foot is blinded by a dumpling wrapper towel so it doesn’t see what’s coming.
Next Iron Hands works on my shin with closed fists, pummeling with the strength of a butcher mincing pork with a cleaver. I can hear loud flesh-thumping sounds from the room next door. Apparently my husband is enjoying the same treatment. I wonder what fantastic shades of purple and blue my lower leg will be tomorrow.
While he works on my shin, I wonder what I should be doing. Iron Hands is watching me watching him, and it’s a little bit awkward but I’m not relaxed enough to close my eyes.
He finishes my shin, splashes it with dumpling sauce and grabs ahold of my foot. He flings it up and down rapidly, causing my whole leg to undulate like a noodle. I’m beginning to think Iron Hands might have been a noodle puller or dumpling maker in his previous lifetime.
Next he moves on to my kneecap, which actually feels quite good. I’m starting to relax when works his way to my jiaozhi (toes, in case you’ve forgotten). The pressure on the tip of my big toe near my toenail is so exquisitely painful I yelp out loud. Is this what the splinter-under-the-nail torture feels like?
”Tong ma?” Iron Hands asks, sensing my discomfort. Yes it hurts, I nod. I’m sure he think I’m a big sissy.
He pulls out his phone to show me a reflexology chart of the foot. He points to the spot on the chart where he inserted the red hot poker. It’s the pressure point for my brain. So, I’m getting a lobotomy thrown in for free?
He resumes, toning down the pressure. A few minutes later, he scrolls through his phone with one hand, massaging my foot with the other. How rude, I think. Is he ordering a pizza? Then he hands me the phone.
I realize he’s calling his boss who speaks English.
“So how is the massage going? How are you feeling” she asks.
”I’m ok, but it’s a little bit painful,” I admit.
”That’s because you have some problems with your feet and he is a very old massager,” she explains.
I look up at Iron Hands with his boyish face and chubby belly. I’d place him in his early 20s. I think she means experienced, not old. I assure her I’m fine and we hang up.
My left foot breaths a sigh of relief as Iron Hands wraps it up dumpling style in a clean white towel.
My right foot knows what’s coming, but doesn’t complain much until we get to a particularly painful spot on my outer sole.
“Liver,” Iron Hands says, pressing on the painful spot for emphasis. My poor liver must be overworked from processing all of the strange food I’ve eaten since I arrived four weeks ago. Who knew too many pork stuffed buns and spicy eggplant with garlic could make my feet hurt?
Iron Hands goes through the same routine, and I try to distract myself by looking around the room. There’s a wolf pelt on the floor next to me and a leopard skin slung over a chair nearby. No wonder he’s out for the kill.
One last dip in the dumpling-scented foot bath and we are on the home stretch. He soothingly pats my feet as he dries them with the towel. Maybe he’s apologizing to my jiaozhi.
Now that we’re finished, I have to admit my feet feel invigorated and my skin is very soft. I realize I’ve worked up quite an appetite. Pain can do that to a person.
I’m not ready for a steaming bowl of dumplings, so we head to an American-style barbecue restaurant for dinner instead. Given enough time, I’m sure I’ll regain my craving for jiaozi, and I might even work up my appetite for another vinegar-infused foot massage.