Sunday, October 30, 2005

Ruined stereotypes and female robots

This week, we found out that our company had another guy here for a few weeks; his name is Ruizuan, pronounced Reason-1, like a rapper. This is the best name so far. We grabbed a couple drinks together Monday night and got to know each other. Xinlei worked with him in Mongolia for about a month last year. It was a nice little reunion, these guys get along really well, and it reminded me of when Santiago and I got to spend some time together in Chile. A couple people just click and have a great time together despite the reason or length of their meeting.

Tuesday night the three of us got together for what was bound to be fat dinner in the hotel. Just as we were ordering, Mr. Feng from PetroChina called Xinlei and invited us out to dinner. My response, of course, was ‘Tell him no, we’re already eating.’ Mr. Feng said that the president of his company was in town and wanted to take us (me specifically) out. There was no way out, this guy says jump, we say how high. Neither of us wanted to go out and do anything, we were wiped out and just wanted to hang out with our guards down. I hadn’t showered in two days and was ultra-funky. I’m running out of clean clothes so I’m on about round five on most of my clothes.

This last minute stuff kills me. These guys do it once or twice a week, any time of day, and we pretty much have to bend and put a smile on our faces and get out with them. This is one of my least favorite parts of the Chinese culture. It’s not just me that they do it to and it’s not just dinner. “Xinlei, I need you to translate this 40 page document by lunch.” “Lucas, we need you to prepare a demo for a meeting this afternoon in Beijing.” “We would like to take you to Chendu this afternoon for one week.” I should just learn to expect this kind of behavior but I can’t do it. Plans are spoken and broken, set and forgotten faster than promises of love and forever that are made in the back seat of your parents car on prom night.

I didn't even have proper time to be angry about my short notice induced bad mood because we had ten minutes before Mr. Feng was to pick us up. Quickly and no so quietly, we had to excuse ourselves from Ruizuan, cancel our orders, and sprint upstairs to clean up. This was big-time invitation type of meeting, so we had to be on our best behavior. Dammit, I hate best behavior. It’s always best behavior and it’s a terrible face to wear. Of course, the entire wait staff was standing around watching us freak out, laughing at us, Mu Duo was they’re being extra smiley, so my knees were kind of wobbly from looking at her. This was turning into a shitty night.

Flashes of lights that signify short amounts of time passing has us arriving at the restaurant and being shown to a private room. Mr. Feng said that it would just be the four of us (Xinlei, Mr. Feng, myself and Mr. Young the president). Apparently, Mr. Young doesn't know how to tell time because we waited around for him for nearly an hour before he showed up (we waited for him even longer last week at our company wide meeting).

Dinner was really good. It was on this night where I started to think about how much I really do like the food here. I have painful memories of a childhood when we would eat Chinese food as a family on my mother’s birthday. It was almost a punishment at times, eventually I was able to talk my parents into stopping at McDonalds on the way to whatever funny-smelling Chinese restaurant we were to present ourselves as a loving family at. It’s all very different than food I’ve ever eaten in my life, but it all tastes so good and is really healthy for you. There’s no bread and dessert, there’s vegetables, meat and fruit. I think this is why these guys smoke and drink so much and still live to be old farts.

Mr. Young speaks no English, so it was pretty frustrating for both of us, who really wanted to just chat and be social, get to know each other and stuff. I have a pretty decent personality and when I can communicate, it pulls me through nicely, but when I can’t talk and listen, it’s easy for me to lose concentration. I cant understand him, so the only time I really had to pay attention was when Xinlei was talking to me, but you really do have to pay attention when people speak, regardless. It’s respectful and body language says a lot. Mr. Young is very nice, our limited conversation was great and he has genuine concern for my personal well being while here. All of the questions were such like: Do you exercise? What do you do to relax? Do you miss your family? Is there anything we can do to help you out? All very good and sincere questions that are really appreciated. Even better was that there was not one work-related questions (my least favorite topic).

The reason these guys call me and invite me out all the time is because they’re worried about me. They know I’m away from my family and friends for a long time. On top of that, I cant speak the language, which means I cant do simple things like travel alone, eat at different places, get to know people, really live life. I admit it is somewhat frustrating at times. But when I’m at home in the States, I really don't do a lot of that stuff anyway. I’ve got my friends, but we only hang once or twice a month, I don't eat out too often, I don't travel (other than for work). I’m just me. I read. I write. I think. I spend time alone, whether it’s in a hotel or my apartment, I’m alone, and it really doesn't bother me most of the time.

A couple years back when my inner-self was recovering from a traumatic break-up, I was asking myself fairly common questions about myself, each one starting with ‘why’ or ‘what’. Why do I feel empty? What makes me happy? Where is the remote control? I began to come to the harsh and painful realization that my priorities may be a little off, a little off-center, a bit out of whack. I realized that what’s truly valuable to myself and the people I love isn’t working 65 hours a week, it’s not knowing the spread on the Packers game, it’s not on an online video game, it cannot be found in man-made happiness, it must come from homemade happiness. I needed to get to know myself better, I didn't know what was really important to me, I was quite sure it wasn't the thing’s I’ve surrounded myself with in the past (television, unhealthy food, cheating girlfriends who value the mirror more than me). But how will I crack this case? How can I possible chip away at my chocolate exoskeleton to my inner nougat? What tools will I need? How safe is it to be real? The real world can be a dangerous place for people with generosity and a caring nature; I must first arm myself – to the teeth. First thing was to get rid of the negative and un-useful, get myself back to a reasonable fighting weight; the unhealthy appendages of my lifestyle (the drinking, the horrible food, the extra weight) must be removed. Physical heath, while absolutely boring to attain, is important unless you want to die when you’re 35.

Secondly was to find out what was going on inside my head. Why am I such a bitter person? Why can I not get close to people? Why do I dream about things, and hate them the minute I get them? Why are sins such as envy, greed, and sloth so prevalent in my life? My life has featured one intense hobby after another, but I’ve not been able to sustain any one of them for more than a year. I have the attention span of a child on an ether binge. I decided to try something crazy, I abandoned my television and sports withdrew myself into a world of books. Books are timeless, but you have to read and desire to understand them to realize their timelessness. Start with the golden oldies, Dumas, Verne, HG Wells, Hugo, all the books that I should have read in my life but never did. There are hundreds of books that are considered classics that I’ve never even thought about before (which I found somewhat embarrassing). Then find books that mean something, not sci-fi books or comic books, but books about people whose eyes have seen and whose fingers have done. People sharing their experiences are so important (Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac, Rollins, Wolfe, Ginsberg etc). I had no idea how to learn about myself, but there were things in these people that I could relate to, things that I could see in myself, things I liked, things I didn't like, many things I didn't like. I realize that I’m not the only person like this, that I’m not the only person laughed at for caring out loud. I’m not the only person to abandon the life of people for a life of solitude because of a broken heart. Read, read, read, book upon book upon book. Stick to reading with the energy of a benny addict. Books started piling up in the corners of my room, it’s was an immediate obsession. I truly love it. I look forward to three-hour layovers where I can knock out a couple hundred pages of my book. I take three books with me everywhere I go. I’ve brought about 60 books with me to China. What do I do with my free time? I read my books. I’m happy. I’m learning.

In recent times I’ve applied a dose of writing to my time. It’s much more difficult and much less rewarding, but I have been able to realize that seeing the words of my soul can be helpful in strange ways. It doesn't all come out like a unicorn at sunset or a description of a fall day, but I can do it. It must be pursued.

This is part of my life that people don't understand very well. It’s hard for people to accept that I enjoy my time alone. The people here in China understand this even less than the people in America. I think the communication gap plays a big role in that, but I also think it has a lot to do with the sheer number of people over here. Chinese people are never alone, you see cars with seven people in it, public bathrooms with zero privacy, ten people in an elevator, everywhere you turn there is someone standing or sitting. You cant put a billion people together and expect them to understand what it is truly like to be alone, it is a meaningless word here.

Mr. Young made sure that Mr. Feng knew that part of his job was to make me comfortable and get me out of the hotel. This isn’t a bad thing, it shows that they care and it does do me good to get out, but I try to keep my off-hour client contact to a minimum (I hate ‘best behavior’). Over the course of dinner, Mr. Young assigned Mr. Feng with several tasks; buy me a basketball, include me on the PetroChina staff activities and invite me to his house. He asked me if I’ve had a foot massage since I’ve been here, which I haven’t. This is another example of how they take everything to heart; no sooner had the words fallen from my mouth, Mr. Young called for the bill, paid and took all of us to get a massage.

Just like that, a quick dinner has turned into an entire evening.

Before describing the actual experience, let us explore my mind to see how I picture the traditional ‘foot massage’: I walk into a room of pillows, softly burning candles and fair Chinese maidens, all beautiful and disease free. The massage chair has been prepared with the finest silken linens from all the land and resembles some sort of body transforming machine where you can go from sitting to laying down with the flick of a wrist. Upon sitting down, five beautiful women each grab an appendage and start rubbing beautiful honey and flower scented oils into my skin, one on each leg, one on each arm and the one with the largest breasts lovingly caressing my head, shoulders and back (where else would she massage… perverts?). Over the course of the massage, the pile of clothes in the corner continues to grow until all of the women are wearing only their soft skin and dangerous smiles, each pointed lovingly at me, the guardian beast who will protect them and provide them a wonderful life. The camera slowly shifts to the candles flickering, focus shifts and blurs the edges of reality until we have faded to darkness. The morning brings a return to the light only to see the sun slowly peeking it’s face through the window, the rows of candles burned to their lovely extinction to see the six of us eating grapes and saying a tearful goodbyes to each other.

That was interesting; it was also disgusting and successful in fulfilling quite a handful of sick stereotypes that reside in my head. That said, here’s how it really went down.

The four of us walk into the lobby of a building about the size of a small restaurant. We were shown by a couple of people to a couch where we were asked (told…) to take our shoes off. Our shoes were whisked away on an adventure of their own and we were presented with a kind of plastic bathroom slippers. Then they saw my feet. The old man gasped and grabbed a pitchfork and held it to my feet like Frankenstein, his wife held a tissue up to her forehead and passed out. The son, trembling with fear, ran to a bookshelf, pulled a couple books and a secret passage opened up, backlit forcing me to cover my eyes from the brightness. He disappeared and returned some time later with the holy grail of bathroom slippers. These things looked to be about a size 18 with cracks along the sides from ages of disuse.

Panting out of breath and knocking dust and cobwebs out of his hair, he bowed and presented me with the wondrous shoes. I felt as though I had just fulfilled some sort of legend. “On the Fifth Year of the Snake, a giant man with a pale face and strange beard will appear on the steps of a massage parlor. He will require the ancient shoes of the Yeti and will deliver us from the evils of pollution and unknown ailments that inhabit the earth.”

My Yeti slippers broke in half by the time I got to my next destination where we were shown into a room with four chairs, four beds and four sets of gowns to change into. I was slightly worried because there was about a 99.9% chance that these things would not fit me and it would look like I was wearing flannel tights and a skintight halter-top. Plus, I’m not all that excited about dressing down into my nothingness in front of my Chinese boss and the presidents of large companies. Luckily, they were optional and no one changed into one.

We all grab a chair and sit waiting patiently, this is when I first began to feel haunted by not going to the bathroom before coming here and you can bet your ass that I’m not walking barefoot into any bathroom in China. In front of each of us was placed a wooden tub of hot water that fit Chinese feet perfectly. When I put my feet into it, my toes looked like cypress roots growing out of a swamp. Then someone appeared in front of me with a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Awesome! I love Kool-Aid hook it up dog! Then he poured it into my wooden foot box and it was piping hot. Maybe it’s Jell-O, I like Jell-O too, I’ve never had it form around my feet, but I’m in an experimental mood, so bring it.

Xinlei saw me grabbing for a spoon and informed me that it was actually a mixture of foot medicine and ancient foot cleaning agents, disappointment. Then a guy came in with a hot water jug and filled my tub up until it covered my toes, each drop hotter than the first, finally once I had tears of pain in my eyes, he stopped.

Then, like the beginning of a movie, the lights were turned down and the Hi-Fi was turned on and four people came in. None of them looked like fair Chinese maidens (especially the two guys), but the boiling foot torture wasn't in my dreams either. One of the two girls lined up behind me and started to go to work.

Many people are uncomfortable having a man massage them, but not Chinese people, and not me really, it’s not that big of a deal, as long as he doesn't kiss my neck (too itchy….). Just let the masseuse cards fall where they may. I was expecting a nice relaxing massage and the girl behind me started with my neck.

After about three seconds, I realized that it wasn't a woman behind me at all; it was actually a Chinese made female robot with steely fingers and a grip like a metal vice. Those hands moved from my neck to my shoulders and it felt like she was trying to touch her fingers to each other below my shoulder blades. White-hot pain, bright lights flashing behind my eyes, the Hi-Fi is not very relaxing but suddenly Death Metal, I think I’m going to pass out….. I tried to glance around the room to see if everyone else was being tortured so cruelly, through the tears staining my eyes I could see that everyone was in deep concentrated relaxation. What the hell is wrong with these people? Do Chinese people not have nerves in their bodies?

Finally she moved off the shoulders and started punching me in the back of the head. I could hear that we were all getting our heads punched. But this actually felt good compared to my new pierced shoulder, they used the little slightly opened fist that makes their hands pop a bit and, other than catching me off guard at first but felt really good.

After punching me all over my back, head and neck, she started giving me a scalp massage. This was totally awesome, she kept sticking her steel fingers into pressure points around my head and releasing. Next was an earlobe massage, which made me shake in ecstasy (good thing it was the female robot instead of the male robot, because that may have made me gay). Then she put her finger in my ear and slapped her hand, it was kind of like driving a railroad spike into my brain, but louder.

After about 30 minutes of white-hot searing pain mixed with head slaps and loin quivering ear massages, the massage robots left the room for some reason. After a minute or so they came back carrying sacks of, what I just assumed were some sorts of weird sex toys and they showed us to our respective beds. By now, I’m praying that my dreams of a Chinese foot massage are wrong because I would probably be sick if I had to watch Xinlei get some man-love in the bed right next to me.

Of course the beds are meant for Chinese people, so my feet hung over the end by about a foot, which everyone thought was really funny. Out of the sacks they pulled out hot sand filled weight lifting belts that were placed below our lower back. It’s already pretty warm in there, plus they’ve been feeding us warm water beverages for the last 45 minutes with our feet sitting in boiling Jell-O foot medicine water, needless to say, I’ve got a good sauna sweat going. Oh yeah, I still had to really go to the bathroom. They also place a hot sandbag under our necks and a thick beach towel over our whole body up to our chins, haven’t these people ever heard of ice packs? Damn.

Once our body temperatures were safely raised 110 degrees, they made little booties out of washcloths and wrapped our feet in them. Needless to say, they had to get a couple beach towels for my feet.

Then they set to work on the left foot, took the bootie off and gave my doggie a nice lotion rubdown and started in on the actual ‘foot’ part of the massage. It felt awesome, rubbing, hitting pressure points, giving each of my little piggies it’s well earned attention, slapping my feet, punching my heels, they even snapped my toes, which made me break out in a laugh.

It was a well-rehearsed procedure, every time they started in on the slapping or punching; all four of the robots did it in unison, like a little foot marching-band cadence or heavy rain in the springtime. They did my left foot for 30 minutes then did the exact same thing to my right foot for another 30. It felt amazing, Xinlei was asleep, I would have been too, but I was afraid that I would piss my pants if I fell asleep with all the warm water in the room.

After finishing with our feet, they did a couple minutes on each calf and thigh, which included a little rubdown and some slapping. It felt really good until my robot slapped me right on the tip of my mushroom tip. My girl-like scream signaled the end of the massage experience.

After the robots marched out of the room, they left us alone for about 15 minutes to wake up and reorient ourselves with the world of reality. When we went out to the lobby, our shoes were back from their journey into the unknown and we paid and left. Total cost for a Langfang 100 minute foot massage and shoulder piercing: $55 RMB, or about $7.00 US. I’m coming back to this place for real.

Mr. Feng and Mr. Young asked me how I liked it, and my sleepy yawn and affirmative headshake told them the story. All in all, a very nice evening with very nice people. It more than made up for the short-term dinner notice I got three hours prior.

That night I slept like a rock and every muscle in my body hurt like hell for three days. Xinlei decided to wait until we were outside to tell me that it’s ok to tell them they are rubbing too hard, and then he laughed at me for about three minutes. Thanks dude, you’re a real Jim Dandy.

I think the most surprising thing about the foot massage was that I was totally non-sex related. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but I’ve just gotten so used to everything here turning to a request for money through the channels of sex that this caught me off guard a bit. The foot-massage industry is a prime candidate for intercourse requests, but there were none. It’s a bit worrisome that I’m getting so used to this kind of environment because it’s very harsh and sad.

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