This was originally posted on Decomp
Zúliáo (足疗) / A Foot Massage
It’s Nanjing’s winter. Three layers of Japanese-brand quilt-cloth can’t keep me warm. The heaters from the eight million people living within this sprawling city have created a canopy of white static smoke across the sky. Thus, I need a massage.
I toss into a small parlor run by a woman dressed for the Siberian winter, though she is indoors, with the heaters blasting rubber-scented heat. “Wo yao yige zuliao,” I say, asking for a foot massage. She smiles and shuffles me into a massage chair wrapped in a wrinkled red matting. She hands me tea in a glass cup with an old, half-melted plastic cover on top. I hear chemicals dripping plastic into my cup in soft “poits.” The pollution and I meet again as the heater coughs air into my face, as warm as truck exhaust.
“Fàngsōng,” she tells me. Relax.
A man comes in dragging a metal bucket full of hot water that spills bit by bit onto the tiled floor. At first I think he is there to clean up the garbage strewn around the room, the piles of used tissues stuck in the shape of crisp wontons, the sunflower seed husks, the orange peels, the discarded beer cans. Or maybe he’s here to scrub the Mojito-colored grime that frames every floor tile.
The man just stares at me, rubbing his square jaw, and unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a stained tank top. He pulls a cigarette from his front pocket, takes a drag, and blows it in my direction. He assesses me like a piece of meat before tossing it on the grill.
He goes right for my feet, dipping them into the hot water, jolting my legs in strong grips. I give a soft yelp, and he squeezes back, crunching the muscle tissue, hardened from weeks of aimless pacing around Chinese megacities.
“Fàngsōng,” he says. Relax, you dumb shit foreigner.
I nod, feeling blood fill my cheeks. I feel a grinding friction, his mortar-sized thumbs digging into my foot, somehow turning my stomach. I feel his knuckles kneading up my veins, into my hips. He flattens my shins with his palms, pulling my skin back in long, sweeping strokes.
“Fàngsōng,” he says. How dare you come into my country.
My hands clutch onto the red cushion, which tears like wrapping paper in a loud crunch. The man slides his cigarette to the side of his mouth with his tongue, then presses hard into my pressure points. I gasp; my mind flashes in sparks of pain. I could tell him to stop. But part of me feels I deserve it, part of me yearns for this. No more of that restorative health shit, none of that cultivation of sacred gifts and traveling for rejuvenation crap. Here there is no magical land, no sacred culture, no beautiful modality. Here, only flagellation.
“Fàngsōng,” he says, tapping my toes awake. How dare you come here just to write down all the things that you find disgusting.
I feel a brutal twitch in my neck, like a broken nerve, as the man methodically kneads at my ankles. The pain is so unbearable I feel my body will give out, give into death, give into the gas, the shit, the pollution outside.
“Fàngsōng!” he shouts. How dare you come here to belittle us. How dare you travel this far just to pamper yourself with a massage.
Fingers dig into my upper calves, scooping muscle. From deep tissue to shoveling tissue to subterranean tissue. He strips me out like excavating a cavern. It’s invasive, penetrative. I could tell him to stop, but I can’t be a part of a story about an ignorant American. I would rather just take it and get plowed.
“Fàngsōng!” he orders me. How dare you presume you have the privilege to travel all this way, when I would kill to come to America and write shit about your culture. No: How dare you imagine that I want to come to America. Why would I want to go to your shit country, when I love China. No: How dare you imagine that just because I am Chinese I love China, fuck China. No: How dare you presume I am Chinese, you racist American meatbag.
I feel a sharp crack, a thin needle piercing me. My head gives, dismembered, done in. Perhaps no longer human, I go outward, crossing comforts of space. Something hits me, a trigger point, a physical one where emotional ones have failed. I become sensitive to his pressure, I become tender, sore. I begin sobbing uncontrollably, my nose flooded with snot. I close my eyes. I’m thirty years old and I’m still bumming around. I still wear swimming shorts for weeks on end. I came here because I love China, but I spend most of my time imagining that I’m not in China. In darkness I could be in a suburban bungalow, at the end of a Californian cul-de-sac.
I cry thinking of how dilapidated the building is, how disgusting the pollution is, how trapped it all makes me feel, how over a billion people have to live in it. I cry that I have the gall to cry over something like this.
I stare at the items on the ceiling: the half-rusted pipes, the spider webs on the broken fan. Or are those dust cobwebs?
I go over Chinese in my head: zúliáo (足疗), foot massage, literally, foot therapy.
I feel him rubbing my sole like knocks on a distant door, slowly coaxing the muscle back to life. I hear him tapping rhythmically on a body that has gone numb to the touch. The sounds increase in fast percussive movements, chopping, pounding.
Another word: mǎnzú 满足, satisfaction. There’s that zú again. mǎnzú, literally, a satisfied foot.
He pulls on my legs, pulling me back, back to childhood, to being an infant, coddled by another’s hand.
Another word: zhīzú 知足, contentment, to just be happy with what you have. Literally, to know a foot.
My jaw drops like I’m asleep, but I’m not asleep. I’m just ready to give it all up.
zú 足 / feet, the things we stand on, the things that keep us balanced, what keeps us from falling.
“Fàngsōng!” he says again. Relax, if you want the pain to stop.