Gail Walter

Shall I say what I mean?
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MARCH 2, 2009 1:10PM

Wife goes for Chinese Foot Massage --No Happy Ending

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I go there now regularly. Every time I am in China I look forward to it but it wasn’t always that way. The first time I took my shoes and socks off and rolled my jeans up to my knees I wasn’t sure I could let myself enjoy it.

A Chinese foot massage, the stuff of legends, right? A friend of mine who blithely goes where angels fear to tread, casually asked my traveling businessman husband:

“So do you get the happy ending then?”

I wanted to close my ears. The question seemed too blatant, rude almost. If he did, I didn’t want to know. We all waited while he wondered how to answer the audacious question.

My husband is a happily married man, or so he tells me, and his actions support his words so I’m not worried, not really, but I was a bit when he first went. Two-hour foot massages were built in to the regular business day and I couldn’t help grilling my husband. I didn’t actually say “happy ending”, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth, but I did ask a lot of questions. A middle aged western woman trying to gauge how much he enjoyed it and if he enjoyed it too much.

Yes, the men he worked with had offered him the option of the “happy ending”. He’d turned it down. He’d tried a full body massage but hadn’t repeated the experience because of the prevailing emphasis on the experience of pain as the sign of a job well done. His Chinese colleagues felt cheated if the massage didn’t force a scream out of them.

Not only is my husband happily married, he’s also fastidious about germs and bacteria and foreign stuff that you catch if you don’t have the immunity. For this I am humbly grateful.

So, we’d talked about it a lot before I actually accompanied him to China, before I experienced it myself. I knew that it was traditionally a very male domain and I felt shut out of something intimate and seductive that I might never share. We talked about that as well. In theory we dealt with it all. We tried to make me feel relaxed about my husband literally in the hands of acquiescent 18-year-old girl-women.

The first time I went took me by surprise really. It was a five day whirlwind tour of the parts of China where my husband did business – mainly southern China in a booming metropolis called Shenzhen. Shenzhen, which you pronounce any other way but the way you would think, is all of 20 years old and the Chinese version of the Wild West. Far away from the sobering influence of Beijing or even the sophistication of Shanghai it provides a dusty home of startling opposites. Glamorous restaurants spin at the tips of monumental glass skyscrapers alongside square concrete hovels that pass for homes, stores and factories.

The night I had my first foot massage was already a night full of firsts. I narrowly missed the glassy eyeball of a very fresh fish but I did not escape many strange culinary delights, which were not yet delighting to my western palate. I had visited the factory where my husband’s products were manufactured and thankfully discovered it not to be one that employed child labor and other archaic practices.

Yes, I did want to be invited into the sensual enclave of barefooted business men but 11pm was also a good time to hit the sack after a long, foreign day. No such luck. It was time to try on my newly acquired somewhat ill-fitting diplomacy and my skills as a generous wife.

We simply walked across from the restaurant where I had just enjoyed a splintered chicken that had evidently been processed through the rotary turbines of an overhead jet engine. I thought we had far to go, as we were not in an area where I expected to find a massage parlor, not even a low-end, happy ending one.

I almost walked passed the entrance, it was so unprepossessing. I wondered why the party of men I was with were ascending a rather barren but sweeping staircase. I followed them through a foyer that seemed as empty as an unoccupied elevator and as cozy, up the sweeping stairs – there was a little fountain tacked on the side like an afterthought. Everything was supersized, even the massages. Two hours is a long time for anyone to pay attention to the things our legs end in. But I run ahead of myself.

Before me loomed an imposing, unoccupied reception desk in cool gray marble. Behind me a woman bent over an ancient instrument that looked like a harp that had fallen over. Strains of spare Zen melody filled the cavernous upper reception area that was carved out of more of the slightly dingy marble type stuff.

I stood around feeling sorry I wasn’t a man and apologetic that I wouldn’t take advantage of the happy ending the restrained but wistful melody seemed to hint at. I privately wondered if I would be thrown out, an interloper, a spy, a wife who could not let her husband get on with his happy ending without her intervention.

I stuck close enough to the back of my husband to pass for an extension of a man which, on this first trip to China, I was beginning to feel like.

Junman, the charming Chinese man, who I am told did not offer my husband the happy ending and is happily married too, said something to a willowy ebony haired woman who seemed to materialize from nowhere. We traipsed behind him into an enclosed extension of the reception room.

I was still feeling acutely womanly and not in a good way. I watched the other men collapse in a long line of slightly shabby cream lazy-boys. They arranged themselves all over them like a mess. I felt conspicuous in my discomfort. I perched on the edge of one. If I leant back I knew my legs would stick out like a pair of abbreviated chopsticks.. I did not want to feel like I was four. I didn’t want to feel like I was 48, which I was. I wanted to feel like I was twenty something in good shape and elsewhere.

Everyone else was so at home that I felt like I was visiting theirs and not welcome. Even my husband looked suspiciously at ease. I tried not to look at him accusingly.

See-ow-lee-den! See-ow-lee-den! (Our version of xiao li yidian – “softly” in Mandarin). We were receiving last minute lessons designed to ward off a brutal attack of our cosseted western feet. We were supposed to hiss emphatically “see-ow-lee-den” and if this didn’t work we were to snatch our feet back, leap to them and yell Junman! As loud as we could. Junman, who would be enjoying a foot massage that would produce the necessary ecstasy and screaming, would then intervene and beg, on our part, for mercy of the traveling feet.

When the girls trooped in en masse I felt instantly ancient. They were all under twenty and some of them considerably. Dressed in t-shirts and sweatpants with running shoes they giggled and virtually pointed at me. I knew it. I was a figure of ridicule. There is only one thing worse than one’s husband enjoying a happy ending at another’s hands and that is being in the vicinity when anything that hinted at it was happening. I got smaller and smaller even with my feet touching the ground. 

After a while the giggling stopped. It seemed they’d had an impromptu meeting of sorts and decided they would pretend I was some sort of sub-male. I was too old to be a woman. I was also not where you would find one, so that’s what I must be, a presumptuous sub-male entity.

The foot massage began with a back and neck massage which would be disconcerting elsewhere in the world. I was gestured at in a way that forced me to relinquish the lazy boy for the footstool. The gestures were helpfully illuminated by the actions of my non- sub-male counterparts who were hunching over on their footstools.

The massages I’m familiar with are accompanied by low lights and soft meditative music. Tibetan bells chime and zithers zither. Here the lighting was fluorescent and the only sound was incessant chatter and a lot of girlish giggling. The girls apparently had numbers and not names. If you liked one you could request her number for next time. If you couldn’t remember the number you’d have to take what you got.

I couldn’t help noticing that my husband next to me was enjoying the attentions of a peculiarly attentive number. My number was attentive too, but not to me. She was heavily involved in an entertaining conversation that involved Mickie the Chinese man next to me and his masseuse.

My number liked talking with her hands, this meant my feet really got in the way. She’d drop them repeatedly and then take them up absentmindedly the way a mother would tend to a bothersome child while she was occupied with more important things.

On the other side of me my husband was enjoying the supplications of his masseuse. I could feel my generosity rearrange itself into something smaller and meaner. I was feeling manhandled by my number while he was definitely being woman-handled by his.

I was getting a hot prickly feeling up my spine. My solar plexus collapsed and burned in on itself.

For my number I was clearly not a true client. Young Chinese women have a peculiar way with older women. In the rural areas they may have some place but they are extremely scarce on the streets of urban centers. You simply don’t seem them. We are just not the movers and the shakers in this society. On the other hand, or foot, men of any age are relentlessly revered even, or particularly, western men.

Several times in the interminable two hours my number would forget completely that she was administering a massage. She would turn away and commit herself to long sessions of animated conversation. The only way I could get her attention was to gesture irritably at her – a very old crone kind of thing to do. Communication was zero otherwise. She would then respond by treating me like a mother she had no respect for, shrugging her shoulders, rolling her eyes and sighing. The experience was not morale boosting.

It was made worse by the fact that alongside me, in the land of youth and happy endings, my husband was palpably having his morale boosted. I felt angry, old and displaced.

While he lay back and thought, probably not of England, I was feeling dangerously out of my element.

Part of the way through my rendering down the girls spoke animatedly to the men and then disappeared, every one of them, and there were eight. I had no idea where they had gone but everyone else seemed okay with it. They returned a few minutes later with something else I was not used to. Each girl carried a plate of thin, white bread, peanut butter sandwiches cut in triangles and a glass of orangeade.

I watched the others carefully for my cue. Everyone said thank you very nicely and then ignored the food. I did the same. No-one was hungry after our imaginative 13 dish dinner.

Once the feet had received adequate attention, an elaborate and rather intimate thigh massage followed. At least that’s what my husband got. My girl didn’t know what to do with female thighs. Of course, my husband’s number appeared to know exactly what to do with manly thighs. She did it in a way that suggested she knew exactly what to do with other manly things. To do this she had to straddle his legs in a way that I could only describe as highly suggestive. All of this would not work for me. My masseuse primly skirted around me, her attention momentarily focused away from the conversations and on the delicate matter of avoiding the inappropriateness of my female thigh.

There is something surreal about hanging out with someone where you can’t exchange a single word. It is amazing how language provides the connective tissue that allows two ‘others’ to bridge the gap. Without it there is a bleak rather barren nature to the experience. You try gesturing, this is normally followed by more gesturing, giggling and shrugging of shoulders. In the end everyone lets their eyes slide away because it’s so hard to look at someone when you cannot respond appropriately.

If you’re having a massage in a western country you probably won’t be called upon to converse. In China it feels different so the absence of a common language feels particularly uncomfortable if you’re a square peg woman in the round hole of a Chinese massage parlor. If you’ll pardon the expression.

Anyway, abruptly it ended. Hot, heavy bean bags were ground into the calves, the neighboring masseuse got off my husband and an odd thing happened. Another one. Everyone offered their numbers the peanut butter sandwiches.

Suddenly I was reminded of just how young they were, younger than my daughter and son. They accepted them jubilantly and proceeded to stuff them into their mouths with one hand while they worked at tidying up the place with the other. They looked less like sultry underage girls on a saucy website and more like a team of softball players after a hot, sweaty game.

Did I have a lovely foot massage? This was my husband’s easy innocent question. Well….I managed to keep my cool for the walk across the parking lot to the hotel. I was quiet in the elevator but behind the hotel room door I began bouncing of the walls.

I don’t know what had irked me most, the sense of being a second class citizen at a massage parlour, my husband’s obvious enjoyment, the young girl astride him, the young girls astride everyone.

I wouldn’t, couldn’t, come down until he grabbed me by the shoulders and held me still. For a while my arms still flew about. They had their own momentum. I’d never felt more dispensable. All my efforts to be a good wife, a good lover seemed so patently un-exotic in the face of this unfair competition. I felt so at sea, less irked than plain fearful, afraid the way a species must be shortly before extinction. My survival felt monumentally threatened.

What had they done with all the middle-aged women? Why weren’t they out on the streets? Why were the streets so unrepresentative of life? Why were there rivers of young perfumed girls out there instead?

“It’s all just surfaces,” my husband said. He spoke about all the sparkle surfaces can have, especially the young, apparently flawless ones. He spoke about how he was not taken in by them. I just stood there flawed and waiting for it to feel safe again, feeling old and foolish. In a war of surfaces who wins?

Well, fortunately, I’ve been back enough times to see through the surfaces now. I’ve even had a few reasonable massages and seen Another Woman in the massage parlor. Perhaps the trend is changing. Perhaps one day older women in China will dare to come out and play. In the meanwhile I am learning that foreign is not necessarily exotic. I’m holding on to the comforting idea that even middle-aged women are here for a purpose and hell, sometimes we deserve a good foot massage too.

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China seems so mysterious to me. I hope to someday go. Your perceptions of the absence of an entire generation or two of women are disconcerting. Where are they?
My question is the same as ablonde's. Fascinating story.
In my line of work I spend many, many hours on my feet and I have often fantasized about a long slow sensual foot massage where the only happy ending is having the balls of my feet rubbed. Really well written post.
Wonderfully written journey into a wayyyyy different culture. We could use more posts like these since they pretty much own us now.
Really interesting post. My dad worked in Shenzhen for about a year. I'm going over to dinner with my parents tonight and will have to ask him about foot massages.

I don't know about older women, but he worked with a large number of younger women - all the translators were young, pretty girls. Did you guys not have a translator who traveled with you?
Yes, we did have a translator hence the "softly, softly". Both Mickie and Junman acted in this capacity. Thanks for the comment. Maybe you shouldn't ask your dad about the happy ending!
Foolish man give wife grand piano. Wise man give wife upright organ.
What an interesting story. You do a nice job of describing the whole scene, and your reactions to it. Glad you've had some better experiences since then.
Great visuals.... Did you go shopping? Did you buy pearls? Purses? Shoes? Did you have any clothes made? China is a whirlwind for your senses is it not?

But, don't get me started on American businessmen traveling and living in Asia.. it wouldn't be pretty. Or the American men who meet these poor unsuspecting women on the internet and end up here married to slime balls.

One woman I know was here for two years before her husband decided to take her back. Apparently after two years he can get a divorce, saying he had been abandoned, and how would they ever find her? Only he had met a woman in Japan instead of her country, so he dumped her with $200 and left her there, in Japan. LOL Funny thing, she somehow got her hiney back to the airport and told the airlines what had happened. They flew her back to Chicago FREE! She ended up at his mother's and was waiting there when he returned from Japan. SURPRISE!

The world is a crazy place! Foot rubs do help sometimes.
It's possible that they just may solve everything. I am now a 'foot rub' addict. Every time I go to Asia I arrive hungry feet first. In a good way.
The very first thing on my mind whenever I visit either China or Southeast Asia is a massage. I have neck and back problems and long flights and little sleep don't help. It's always a huge relief for me to get rid of all that muscle tension. Neck, feet, back - bliss! Usually the massage includes pressure points that are painful - which is okay with me, because I know that I'll feel better for days after. I certainly could use a massage like that right now!

I took a close friend along to China one trip - she was shy & reluctant to try massage at first but quickly became as addicted to them as I. It's unfortunate and inexcusable that you had an inattentive masseuse - I've never had a bad experience in the dozens of massages that I have enjoyed!
Belated and feeble attempt to answer the question: where are all the missing middle-aged women? I understand many remain in the rural areas and those that live in the urban centers are constrained by societal expectations that keep them in the family home going about the daily chores. But here I risk trying to sound like an expert, like I have an answer when really, all I have is the question.
This was beautifully written, and frustratingly felt, dammit. Well done.
Yikes! That's intimidating to me! And I live in NYC where you'd think you'd get used to overt sexuality. Or maybe I'm (we're) looking at it the wrong way... maybe it's not intended to be sexual but more playful; and an expected way of providing male customers some "innocent" enjoyment? I'm trying to be open minded here... having a hard time. Well-written and fascinating!
I live in China although I am an English woman and I am virtually the same age as you. I felt so sorry that your experience of foot massage here was negative and damaging to your self-worth. It should be so different from that! It is a great pleasure for for my husband and I to go together for foot massages (sometimes also head and shoulders) and I have always felt valued and pampered and treated with huge respect and friendliness. It was a Chinese business-woman friend who introduced us to the practise - her treat the first time - we have continued to go as it provides a fantastic (though sometimes painful!) way to relax for very little outlay. During the massage, sometimes it IS almost painful but afterwards we both feel as if we are walking on air! Wonderful! Please do not imagine that every place where this fantastic service is offered is the same as your unfortuante experience. And I feel so sorry that instead of it making you feel wonderful, your self-worth and happiness were somewhat dented :( I hope one day you will thoroughly enjoy a foot massage here in China with none of the negatives you describe. p.s. sometimes it is older women, sometimes younger women, sometimes men who carry out our foot massage. Like all over the world, I suspect ther are very different forms of 'massage parlour!'
It seems so odd to me this story, as my experiences of massage in China have been markedly different (though I am a man).

The massage girls in the spa I work in are all in their late 20's through to their mid 50's. The woman who gave me a massage last week was nearly 60.

I must be the only Western man in China to have married a woman older than him too, and my wife and her friends (who are mainly of a similar age) are always present in my life.

So the "missing" generation, are alive and well and working hard.

It's worth noting though that many Chinese women look substantially younger than their Western counterparts (a friend of mine mistook my 40 year old wife for a fourteen year old not so long ago) and the price for this elixir of youth appears to be a kind of instant deterioration into a bag of skin and bones at the age of 60. So you might find that many of the girls you saw were much older than you think.

But... if they were all very young, then it's not a proper massage parlour but a "happy ending" establishment. Because unlike Thailand for example, the vast majority of Chinese spas and massage parlours only sell massage and they prefer to hire experience masseuses for this.
This was so interesting to read. It's fascinating to hear how such a universal activity, massage, could have different social messages depending on the place and who is receiving the service. Check out Massage Therapy Training for more information.
Wonderfully written, thank you for sharing!
I'm glad you got better massages after this bizarre one. It's amazing how cultural differences can affect our self-perceptions. It's really the same in this country. When some people aren't kind to you, that is no reflection on you.