Language Lessons & Lounging Ladies: Shijiazhuang Spa Spectacle

For certain I can tell you two things….one is that I am quite ill-equipped to learn Chinese, and the other is that I will likely never become a person who frequents spas. This day in Shijiazhuang is a little more relaxed, shall we say, consisting of Chinese language lessons, some shopping, a visit to a spa, and is finished off with a Chinese massage. Now, probably to most people that sounds pretty awesome, but for me….I dunno…..I am not a shopper, and I have never learned to love spas and massages and all that kind of girlie stuff. In fact I would not be the least bit offended if I were called a Tom-boy. My nickname at school when I was a kid was Kaija-boy, which I don’t suppose was too far off the truth.

In the morning we eat breakfast pancakes, which Tara picked up from the street vendors. While we eat Tara gives us some lessons in Chinese lettering and language at their language school called “Urban English”. Tara is an excellent teacher, and makes it look easy to learn Chinese! The lesson ends up being a three way language session with Finnish and English and Chinese. I can handle the Finnish and English no problem, but forget the Chinese! My brain can’t absorb anything anymore, so I just observe from the sidelines. I will leave learning Chinese up to the more intelligent people whom I have the pleasure of having as travel companions. I am far too dumb to figure out what squiggles and circles and lines and zigs and zags mean. My head spins just looking at it.

After the lessons we head over to the shopping plaza, but not before we meet some neighbors who are swooning over Jules. Much to my surprise I see a baby with a bare butt. You have to know that here babies are potty trained really young! Disposable diapers are prohibitively expensive for most people, so they just have their kids wear pants with holes in them. Apparently they teach the kids to do their duty when the parent whistles. Can you imagine how much our landfills would be spared from if we adopted this practice in America?

I know you don’t believe me. Kids with holes in their pants? Okay, whatever! When we get to the mall I find another. There! Do you believe me now? Just watch where you sit because there may be some baby do-do there!

I would be remiss if I didn’t show you my least favorite thing about China….it’s the public bathrooms.

I think my shopping partners agree.

I know I have told you before that I am not much of a shopper, so I break my Cardinal travel rule…..I need some coffee and there’s only one place in the mall…..Starbucks! I sit down and work on my blog…..shame on me…..

I decide that maybe I deserve some interesting Chinese ice cream. Somehow I order this very dangerous looking concoction. It even has a syringe of the dangerous looking yellow syrup! Trust me, I did not add it into the cup. Even so, I think I might glow in the dark tonight. My kidneys and/or liver will get a work out today.

I make a run into the Carrefour grocery store that’s in the basement of the mall. I think grocery stores are interesting in foreign countries. Yeah, I know that’s strange. You may know that this is a French grocery store, although this one seems pretty Chinese to me. Most Chinese people don’t shop at grocery stores like this, however. They usually purchase their food staples from small shops in their neighborhoods or from street vendors.

Carrefour stores are of particular interest to me, because 16 years ago when we travelled across Europe by motorhome we stopped often at Carrefour stores. You may be like me when you travel in a foreign country. It is hard to know what stores are grocery stores until you get inside. When we went into the first Carrefour in France we loved it immediately. It was big and clean and had tons of selection….I could even read most of the labels since I know a little bit of French from my studies as a kid in Canada. So we bought lots to stock up our fridge and freezer for our trip.

Needless to say about 3 months later there was this health crisis in Europe called “mad cow disease” or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. You may remember that if you ate cow meat you could contract this disease that would attack your brain.  It’s a disease where a prion attacks your central nervous system and it is ultimately fatal. I guess it can take up to 10 or more years after consuming contaminated meat for humans to show symptoms and become ill…..which for me would be right about now….Believe it or not, it ended up being they discovered that the Carrefour stores in France were selling contaminated meat at the time we were shopping there, which means that we were definitely at risk because we bought lots of ground beef from there. Ground beef of course is high risk because of the potential of brain and spinal cord bits being processed into the meat.
Anyway, keep an eye out on me if you see any weirdness…..well, unusual weirdness…..

The afternoon we plan to spend at a spa. On our way over we see some pretty little peacocks. I hope after my spa treatment I look as pretty as a peacock…..not so likely…..

Now, I will tell you that I don’t really go to spas, but when you are with the girls you got to do what girls do. When we arrive there I am pleasantly surprised. It looks pretty fancy!

And so it is that we decide to proceed ahead with this Korean scrub, or is it Taiwanese, right when we arrive at the spa. Now remember, hardly anyone here speaks English, and we certainly don’t speak Chinese. We don’t really know what we are supposed to do, so we have a little note that has a couple things translated on it, one of which is “body scrub”. When we motion to the workers that we want it right away, they look a bit shocked. Well, we were next to be shocked. They pull out these gurney-like tables and set them up right in the middle of the walkway in the public shower area. You know, you might think there is a private room for this, or something, but no such luck. I grab my camera to take a photo, but a woman rushes at me waving her arms frantically! I guess you aren’t supposed to take pictures in here. I mean it makes sense…’s a public shower and there are undressed women showering…..duh…..

The women motion to us to remove our clothes, right there in the middle of the room. This is very strange for us. The woman who is going to do my scrub grabs what appears to be used towels from a basket and lays them down on the gurney. She motions for me to lay down. As you can imagine I am horrified. I start to protest, but to no avail. It’s not just the dirty towels, but also my strict aversion to gurneys. She is viciously swinging her arms indicating that I am expected to lay down. Yeah, right there! There we are completely in the buff lying on these tables in the middle of the women’s showers……I am very self conscious of my cellulite….I don’t think Asian women have cellulite…..I am sure they are horrified at the sight they behold….

Then out come these scrubber mitts. And then the scrubbing begins. I swear I think my skin is going to come off completely. I am secretly hoping that she could scrub off my cellulite, but I guess it doesn’t work that way. Nevertheless, when I look down on the towels I see lots of disgustingness of which I don’t need to describe, other than to say that I think that my tan has come off completely. Sometimes I flinch and sometimes I squirm and sometimes I yelp a bit as the little powerhouse of a woman scrubs me skinless. It reminds me of a new potato that is plucked from the ground early… know when you scrub it and the peel kind of rubs off….

Once that torture session is over, and a shower to remove all the remainders of whatever the heck she scrubbed off my skin, we head out to the hot tubs. There is not a very strong chlorine smell out here. I find myself wondering what they use to keep the water clean. My newly scalped skin is sensitive to the warm water, but I have no idea what is to come.

We decide to head over to a Korean sauna. Well, imagine our surprise when the spa workers rush to our side and make us put these strange disposable undergarments on. They are made out of the same material as the hair net/caps that we use at the hospital. Trying to get them on without ripping is not the easiest task. Maybe they should have given me a size XXL. Oh well, but the true fun beings when we have to put on these Kung Fu pajamas. What? Pajamas for a sauna? This is so strange!

Then the spa workers show us the way to the sauna. You enter through this low door and proceed into this hot room with these strange stone beds in it. My feet are burning on the hot floor, so I keep shifting my weight from one foot to another restlessly. My newly scrubbed feet are super sensitive.

Okay, so what are we supposed to do? What? You’re supposed to lie down on the hot beds of rock! Well, it is pretty tricky to get down into this pile of hot stones! I imagine myself being a homeless person in Phoenix on a hot summer day. What if I had to lie down to sleep each night on a hot pile of concrete or rocks? Imagine how uncomfortable?

My skin burns more intensely as I think about all the homeless people back home. The temperatures in Phoenix are soaring upwards of 120 degrees this week (48 Celsius). I shift my weight from side to side, rolling gently, rocking to and fro. I wonder if I were homeless if I would just quit shifting my weight from side to side. Perhaps I would not care any longer, and I would eventually just stop moving. Or maybe I would simply be so exhausted that I would fall asleep and not remember to move. Then I would get large burn marks and sores that would heal slowly because of my poor nutritional status. People would walk past me, avoiding eye contact and ignoring my plight. I would plunge further into despair, unable to so much as rise.

Ouch! I am not going to stay still on these rocks for very long! Looks like one of the ladies did and look what happened to her calf! I hope those indentations go away soon. And man…..we are sweating! I think my synthetic underwear are fused onto my butt by now.

I guess you can order some hot tea to drink while you are laying on the hot rocks. I am tempted to order some ice water, but you know……ying and yang…..or whatever.

If you get too hot you can lounge out here with a stunning view of the city. It ends up being that this sauna is pretty awesome and I begin mulling in my mind how I can make one at home. Then I remember, duh….. I live in flippin’ Arizona! I can just go lie outside in the crushed granite wash behind my house and it will have the same effect….just need to watch out for rattlesnakes! Hopefully whoever was lounging in these rock piles before us didn’t have some kind of open sores or infections….

Well, I realize now that maybe we should have had our bodies scalped after the Korean sauna. It is time to move on. We had a hilarious time. I don’t think I have laughed this much in a long time. Maybe I should become more of a spa-type of gal!

I guess it is compromise time, since we have had Chinese for dinner every night it is time to have pizza. It’s Papa John’s, to be sure! Charles brings us up to his latest business venture where we will eat the pizza. He is starting a sushi restaurant high atop the city of Shijiazhuang. It’s getting close to opening. I did tell you that the views are incredible! The craziest thing about China that I have experienced is how many apartment buildings there are. Everywhere you look there are absolutely humongous apartment complexes! I don’t know how a person could not be impressed with this incredible concrete jungle!

We end up discovering this cool spot in the “sushi-restaurant-to-be” where I take a few photos. Smile, everyone!

Charles’ business associate is super friendly and generous to us. He is eager to have a photo taken with his new westerner friends.

Once again the day is drawing to a close, but not before we go for a massage. The wedding is tomorrow, and we all need to relax a bit, I guess. I already told you that Tara is not “bridezilla”, but rather the antithesis known as “chill-zilla”. She is going for a quick shoulder massage, but the rest of us decide to sign up for a 90 minute massage. It is quite late already, but I think Charles has made a special arrangement for us to get a massage at this late hour.

I don’t know if you have ever had a massage in China, but it is kind of full of surprises, shall we say. First of all they bring us into these dimly lit rooms that all have 3 massage beds. We all end up getting paired in groups of two, so I am with my friend Andrea. I am not sure why the third bed is left empty, but whatever the case may be we won’t be inviting any strangers in. The massage beds are kind of like a ginormous lounge chair/bed. They bring in some tea and some snacks.
Then we have to change into these lovely Chinese clothes. Now, I don’t really understand the clothes. The material is rough and kind of thick and has no malleability whatsoever. Kind of like putting on a cardboard box for a massage except it’s kind of itchy fabric. Cardboard would at least not be itchy. The massage therapists speak absolutely no English, and obviously we speak no Chinese, so this is where it gets interesting.

A woman comes in with a box full of tools and pulls up a stool by Andrea’s bed/chair. She has her sit up on the end and begins massaging her shoulders. Now, we have paid for 90 min massages each, and we have almost come to the decision that perhaps the 90 minutes will be split between the two of us. The reason I say this is because I don’t have a therapist, and Andrea is almost 10 minutes into her massage.  I am almost glad, because I am not much of a massage person. I have had a massage only two times in my life, really. The first time was after delivering my twins when my neck and shoulders were so sore I thought I was going to die. I had a massage done at Massage Envy, which as you may know is a place that hires newly graduated therapists, and perhaps many not so talented ones. About a half hour after that massage my head and neck were so sore that I literally thought I was going to have a massive stroke. All I could do was sit on my bed and cradle my neck and head in my hands, and rock back and forth as I cried out loud for hours. I feel like I am being brave by coming to this massage here where I can’t even communicate with the therapist.

Just when we were convinced that I didn’t have a therapist after all, I find out through a convoluted google translation on the manager’s cellphone that my therapist will be arriving in about 15 minutes. So I relax and chat Andrea’s ear off. As I am chatting with her it occurs to me that maybe my blabbering is irritating her as she is trying to enjoy her massage. She doesn’t show it if she is. The therapist now has Andrea lying flat on her back and has positioned herself on a stool at the foot of the bed. There she is vigorously rubbing Andrea’s feet. The therapist reaches down into her box of tools, pulls out two small glass containers. She sprays something inside one container, and before I could even focus she grabs a lighter and …POOOF!!!!! The little glass container is on fire!

I will tell you a little secret about my friend Andrea. She is very cautious with fire. She had a situation as a child where the woods behind her house caught on fire, which was quite a traumatic experience for her. When the flames leap out of this little glass container, she has the most shocked expression on her face, but before she can respond, the therapist sticks the burning glass container onto the bottom of her feet.  The flame instantly is suffocated and it extinguishes. Meanwhile the glass container is stuck there, and the therapist moves it up and down along the bottom of her foot. We are laughing hysterically now. Even the therapist is amused by our amusement. Soon the therapist is working on Andrea’s back with hot rocks and beating her with these oversized chopsticks.

Finally my therapist arrives. She has a good firm hand, and when she massages my neck and shoulders I am enjoying it. My neck has been messed up ever since I got into a head on collision with a drunk driver when I was 18 years old,  which by the way partially explains my aversion to alcohol.

Now I don’t know about you, but I feel like my feet are kind of a hands off place. I don’t like people touching my feet. It tickles as much as it hurts. Well actually. It hurts like a lot!! I don’t want to be rude, nor would the therapist probably understand what I am saying, so I say nothing. Just grin and bear it. When it comes time for my feet to be lit on fire I cringe. Just as I suspect, the glass containers stuck to my feet bottoms hurt so much I want to scream! My toes curl tight like might happen if you have a septic abdomen from a perforated bowel and someone is pressing on your belly. When she moves the containers they pop off my feet instantly, and then she relights them. Every time she moves the containers on my feet bottoms the pain is unbearable! It feels like knives slashing, or stepping on a bed of nails, or 100 Legos on the floor when you walk to the bathroom at night in the dark. Just when I can stand the pain no more it is over.

That’s when my back massage begins. Soon I feel like I am being mutilated. The massage is very heavy handed. Now I will tell you that the therapist seems to be very capable and skilled in her work, but every time she pushes down on me it seems like every last bit of wind gets knocked out of my lungs! Finally I say thing like “ouch” and I cringe and flinch……I think it is pretty obvious that I am in pain, but who knows….maybe in Chinese “ouch” means harder, because that is what she seems to do. I seriously feel like I have been beat up.

Lastly the therapist massages my head. I try to relax, which probably is a mistake. All of a sudden the therapist cups both hands over my ears. Before I know what is happening, she smacks her hands quick and hard against my ears. Both my ear drums pop and a searing pain in my ears is my only experience. I see stars. In the starry fog I realize that she is about to smack my ears again, and I sit bolt upright and scream, “No! Please!” That’s the end of the massage.

I know tips are not customary in China, but I hand the woman $10 in US currency. She is happy. I am happy….the massage is over. I guess I am not going to become more of a spa-like lady after all… least not in a place where I can’t communicate effectively.

And sure enough, I am not lying when I say that the next day I discover that my back is black and blue from bruises. I am afraid that I might get rhabdomyolysis so I drink a lot of water to spare my kidneys. My kidneys are at enough risk after a I ate that poisonous looking ice cream sundae earlier. At least my neck and shoulders aren’t sore. My ear drums are still a little achy, the searing pain having subsided to a tolerable level. Later when I tell my Asian friend about the painful massage she asked me if I got bruises. When I said that indeed I had, she remarks, “Good! That means all the poisons left your body!”

Lisen, our lovely Swedish friend, has a massive headache for a day or so. I guess her massage therapist had smacked her repeatedly so hard in the head until her head started aching. Lisen had to ask her to stop. Lucky for Lisen she speaks some Chinese because she used to live here. Otherwise maybe she would have probably gotten her ears boxed, too, like me!

Lisen and I grab a taxi back to the apartment. My bruised back hurts when I lay down to sleep tonight, but just for a second. Before we had arrived in Shijiazhuang Tara and Charles bought a nice memory foam mattress just for us, and the bed is plenty comfortable. I allow it to cradle my aching hide. When I am sleeping there is no pain. Night night.