Entry 4

Today brought a bit of melancholy. I knew this would happen. My husband flew off to Changsha, in Hunan Province, for work. So, I’m here alone. Not lonely, but alone in the sense that I’m without my team now—my danwei, or “work unit,” which in the Communist days was the all-purpose organizing unit of life. In our own little danwei, we prop each other up; when one is down, the other will be up. Maybe it’s also because Thanksgiving is next week, and I’m thinking about friends and family back home and wondering if we could be looking at a main dish of turkey feet here.

Doldrums aside, I marched off to my Chinese class, and we pounded away at a lot of adverbs and a lot of conjunctions. Distracting, but not an effective way to raise spirits. So, I decided to do something this afternoon that I had been planning on for quite a while: get a Chinese massage.

A massage-parlor sign

It’s impossible to overlook the temptations for spiritual and physical relief in China. You can walk by a dozen hair salons within a few blocks, and in each one you’ll see much more head-massaging going on than haircutting. And you’ll pass just as many signs for foot massage—with inviting pictures of lovely feet resting in oaken buckets, amid purple orchids. The nail salons are everywhere, too. A young Chinese woman I know summed up all these offerings: Shanghai is a great city for girls.

I had been looking around for massage parlors for a while, to be ready when I really needed this kind of pampering. It’s a difficult search. I have yet to crack the code of the massage-speak going on in the advertisements. What does this mean to you? “Here to relieve you thoroughly from daily stresses. We will satisfy all your needs” or “Ready to offer you most professional service to relieve your body.” I could guess at some of the wink-wink meanings and tried to separate those from a plain old shoulder-rub.

In my first encounter last summer, when we had barely arrived, I went for what I thought was the totally safe road—to a shop in a high-end indoor shopping mall that featured manis, pedis, facials, and massages. I asked for a pedicure. Then I was led to a small back room, lit only with candles, New Age music playing, dark walls, purple gauzy fabric draped from the ceiling like mosquito netting. They told me to lie down on the massage bed. This was a pedicure? It did turn out to be a pedicure, and a very good one at that. It was all very benign, just a lot of good service. At one point, as I was lying on the bed, at the very edge of sleep, there were three technicians working quietly on my toes.

Flower-painted fingernails

I have since found a favorite and more modest nail place. It’s in a little corner of a beauty-products stall in the market, hardly a salon. I like it because it offers more of a language and culture lesson than a manicure. The woman who “owns” this space works together with her niece, and they chatter away to me in Chinese. The girl sometimes insists on painting little flowers on my nails. Not quite my style, but the last time it happened I didn’t have words yet to object. It’s also an exciting place. On my most recent visit, the police came by to “inspect” the beauty products (which were all brand-label products—Burberry, Lancôme, Ralph Lauren) and then simply walked off with a carton of them.

For my massage today, I finally chose a place, mostly for the nice music on its Web site. It’s called Dragonfly, and it was lovely. When I walked in, the receptionist hesitated a little and asked if it was OK if “a boy” did the massage. I said sure and thought, if her English was a bit off, how funny my Chinese must sound to her. My boy, who looked to be about 25, was great. He spoke only three sentences: “Please change your clothes;” “Excuse me; turn over;” and “Your massage is finished.” That was fine by me. It wasn’t Canyon Ranch, but for an hour of rearranging my qi on a Thursday afternoon, at a cost of 120 yuan (about $15), it was definitely a deal.

Oh, my fake-goods guys. They reappeared after their mysterious absence yesterday and started in again with the “Lady, watch! Bag!” As soon as I began my mantra—”Yesterday, don’t want …”—they immediately stopped, looked, and finished off my phrases for me: “Today, don’t want; tomorrow don’t want.” We’re all learning together.