Sunday, October 7, 2007

Achilles' Heel

There is a new craze in the Chinese community. Foot massage parlors are popping up all over town. Within a half block of a busy boulevard, we counted no less than 3 foot massage joints in two strip malls we visited. I first heard about it from a co-worker who spoke glowingly about his positive experience. Besides getting a relaxing message, the price was supposed to be ridiculously cheap. It sounded appealing, and when two friends of mine visited from out of town for the weekend, we decided to take the plunge.
Two banners hang outside the store front of two competing massage parlors in the same strip mall. The advertised price was identical, $15 per hour. We decided to scope out the place before settling in. The first joint we strolled by looked dark from the outside, and we could see busy massage workers attending to the clients inside. It was nothing more than an office space furnished with cheaply made, out-of-style, couches you typically find for sale at a Chinese furniture store or at your local Salvation Army. We decided on the second parlor, because we liked the fact it had individual recliners. After being seated, we proceeded to take off our shoes and socks and rolled up our pants. The workers brought each of us a wooden bucket filled with lukewarm water to soak our feet. We agreed that the water was barely warm, and thinking back now, I think it was probably more meant for the purpose of washing off the odor of customer's feet than to make them feel relaxed. It was close to midnight when we first arrived, and the place was almost at full capacity. There were approximately 30 recliners in all. Every few minutes new customers came in to get treatment or inquire about the price. It was my first time getting a foot massage. The male masseur first worked on my upper body. He twisted and stretched me in different directions. I felt like a human pretzel. Then he pounded me and slap my back with great force as if he were tenderizing a piece of steak. I thought the experience was quite funny and painful at the same time. I couldn't help myself from laughing and grimacing whenever he rubbed a spot too hard. My squeamish reaction made him laugh, and that seemed to break the ice between us. He joked with me that instead of getting massage next time, I should just get an oil rub down. He thinks the pain threshold level is one I could better handle. Hearing that made me feel like such a girly man. "After massaging people all day, you probably need a massage when you get home," I joked. I asked him how long he had been working that day. "15 hours," he answered. "You see?" pointing to his swollen hands. "No money. Driving truck, make the same." he said. After hearing that, I was swept with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and guilt. In fact, I didn't feel like talking much for the rest of the session. For the remaining hour, I just observed him and his co-working whispering to each other and glancing at the owner surveying the floor, as if they were afraid that the owner would overhear what they were saying. One way I would describe the atmosphere of the place is that it is like a Walmart of massages, a place where cheap prices and profit are religion and the spirit of the congregation is sacrificial offering. When the session ended, I paid the masseur for the massage and gave him a $15 tip.
While walking back to my car, I told my friends that I vow to never get another foot massage again. I too wondered as you may whether the masseur was exaggerating his hardship just to gain my sympathy. Perhaps so, perhaps not. I tend to believe the latter to be more true. My guess is that, at best, the owner probably paid the workers less than half of what they charged the customers. I would be extremely surprised if the workers receive any benefits.
I was talking with my mother the other day when we had lunch together. I told her about my experience and how I felt about the situation. She said that many of the workers in massage parlors are illegal immigrants. Many of them come to the U.S. with tourist visas but they never return to China. Because they could not speak English and don't have green cards, they are forced to do menial labor to survive. She's heard of an owner of a massage parlor who rounded up workers in the morning in a van and then dropped off the same group when the shop closed at night.
I wondered aloud whether my decision to boycott their business would actually help or hurt the workers. Although the work is difficult and the owners may be unfair or even cruel, the workers were able to have a job because the business continues to exists. "If they had better choices, they would not be working there in the first place," my mother said. Maybe she's right. Things may look dark right now, but there may still be hope for them in the future. As long as one can survive in American, anything can happen.

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