Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It 'aint easy to look this good.

On Sunday, HuYi took me to indulge in a favorite Chinese pastime; a day at the spa. There are beauty and massage parlors everywhere here. Women pass entire days at least once a month being sauna-ed, steamed, showered, massaged, facial-ed, manicured, pedicured and of course, drinking copious amounts of tea. Men do the same thing, though I’m sure the environment is quite different. I’m told they hang out and eat, watch TV, steam in the sauna, drink beer and are propositioned by massage parlor girls (depending on how reputable the parlor is). Anyway, suffice it to say, the spa experience is part of the fabric of Chinese culture, so I was quite looking forward to it.

My skin has been absolutely dreadful since we arrived here. I’ve had the worst breakout I’ve had in ages. I blame the constant and inevitable rivers of sweat that begin the moment you leave an air-conditioned space. On day two of our acquaintance, HuYi said (in her characteristic straightforward and broken English) “I know to fix your American skin. I take you go make facial.” My feelings were a little hurt, but what good does it do to deny the obvious? “Great.” I said “I’d love that!”

So to the salon we went. An unassuming little doorway off a busy street and up a flight of stairs led us to a marble tiled sitting room with pink floral wallpaper and lacy couches. We were greeted by an army of women in loose fitting pink cotton dresses with matching surgical masks. We sat on a sofa and had some tea while HuYi told them what we wanted and they peeked curiously at my terrible American skin.

Suddenly, we were whisked off to a locker room, stripped of our clothes and I was promptly locked into a dry sauna. “Is very good for woman.” HuYi said. Fine and great, but no one told me how long I was supposed to stay in there! There was a stack of Chinese tabloids so I familiarized myself with the love lives of Chinese celebrities and the newest trends in Chinese plastic surgery as best I could by looking at pictures. After about a half an hour I was pulled out, red and puffy, and put into a shower, after which a very bored looking girl blow dried my hair and sent me into the massage room.

I lay there on the massage table being massaged and pounded, smiling to myself and feeling giddy with love for this place where a day at the spa is considered necessary and costs less than $40. Then the facial began.

Now, I have had my share of facials, before our wedding I made a point of going to Aveda once a month in one of many furious attempts to wipe out my “unhappy looking skin”. I’m familiar with the process, and I know it isn’t all pampering. Usually, the extractions are the most uncomfortable part of the whole procedure, but also the most worthwhile. After all, that is the part you can’t really do yourself.

Anyway, I’m lying there blissfully, all sorts of creams and masks have been applied and I’m in a little pleasure haze, when I hear an ominous metal tinkling behind my head. These sound suspiciously like surgical tools. I try to keep calm, and I keep my eyes shut. They know what they are doing, I think to myself, and besides, HuYi told me this would fix my American skin.

Whatever the tool was, it was excruciating, like a series of bee stings in ever pore on the surface of my face. There was a little prick like a needle closely followed by suction that seemed to pull out little pieces of flesh. It was torture, but I didn’t dare to stop her. First of all, I don’t speak Chinese very well yet, and secondly, perhaps this would be the stern punishment that would finally convince my troubled skin to turn its life around. After a half an hour, she was finished with the tools, I sighed with relief when I heard them go back into their little tin. I had to consciously unclench my neck and jaw muscles. The benefits of the massage were surely undone. But at least it was over.

Or so I thought. I heard her plug something into the wall and a new and even more frightening hum began. I heard the clicks and sparks of static electricity. I was starting to feel like I was in a bad Sci-Fi movie. Before I could turn around to see what it was, I felt a hot glass tube touch my face, emitting little waves of static shock. After the extractions, this didn’t really hurt so badly, it was just unsettling and had an odd metallic smell. At last, she finished and unplugged the contraption, but rolled it out of the room before I could get a look at it. A few moments later she reappeared and applied more creams and potions and a mask and left my lying there in the dark for ten minutes or so. And then it was over. She had me sit up and look in the mirror.

I looked terrifying. The extractions had left little red dots all over my forehead and chin and I looked shiny and puffy. The facialist offered an explanation in Chinese, and HuYi came in and explained that it would look much better tomorrow, and of course, I knew she was right. That’s the strangest thing about a facial. Immediately afterwards, you actually look worse than when you came in, but the next day, you look all glowy and fresh. So I got dressed and made my way to the waiting room where I occupied myself with more Chinese fashion magazines until HuYi was finished.

I was hungry and had a little bit of a headache and was eager to get home and tell Eric about my half heaven half hell salon day. Finally HuYi emerged and we hurried out to the street. She said, “I get you Chinese medicine, it will help this” gesturing to my face. “Great,” I said. I was imagining HuYi bringing over a little brown bag of herbs later in the week as I looked for a taxi. “Here, very good.” she said. I looked up and saw a woman sitting at a little card table with an umbrella over her head. She had a series of eight white jars in front of her, a stack of plastic cups at her side and a row of thermoses behind her. It looked just exactly like a child’s lemonade stand.

HuYi began talking animatedly to the herbalist and ever so often they both stole glances at me. I felt more like Frankenstein than ever. The herbalist took a little muslin pouch from behind her counter and began filling it with powders and seeds from the pots. She had little plastic gloves on, and was well practiced in the art of mixing things. Eventually the little pouch was full. She placed it in a plastic cup and reached for one of the giant thermoses. She poured a dark brown steaming hot liquid over the pouch and swirled it around.

The steam was encouraging, it made me feel less like I was about to ingest thousands of parasites with my “medicine”. A thick yellow foam appeared on the top of the brew and she expertly scooped it off with a spoon in one quick motion and plopped the glass in front of me. “Don’t think about, just drink!” Said HuYi . “All at once?” She nodded. “Gung bai!” I said (Bottoms up!) As I gulped it down, I reminded myself about all the mysterious properties of Chinese medicine. Sometimes it cures people and Western doctors can offer no explanation. Perhaps I could join the ranks of those patients whose mysterious ailments could only be cured with thousand year old Eastern knowledge.

When I reached the bottom of my glass, HuYi held out something that looked like a dehydrated mushroom “Eat this” she said. It tasted like candied ginger or orange peel and it certainly did help banish the taste from my mouth. “No drink for one hour. And no eat hot food.” Then she drank down a brew of her own (“Help me sleep.” she said) and ate one of the mushroom things. Then she turned and hailed a cab and off we went into the night. I suppose the moral of the story is that beauty takes sacrifice. And, for the record, my skin is looking better.

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