“This is the only thing we can do for a living”

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song

The first time I go to a blind massage place in China in 2013 reminds me of all the reasons why I hadn’t been to one of these places for a few months: It hurts like hell and is not remotely connected to what comes to most people’s minds upon hearing the word massage. (If you want to read more about blind massage in China, you’re welcome to read this post that I wrote in late 2012: The torture that is called massage.)

After talking to the masseur for a short while, he says: “When you entered the room just now, I thought you’re still a student in high school. You’re not very old, are you?”
I: “I’m 25.”
He:  “Your voice sounds like you’re only 15 or 16.”

Every 10 minutes, a computer voice on the masseur’s phone tells him the time. Half an hour into the massage, I say:
“The voice speaks really fast. I can’t understand what it says.”
He: “There are voices 10 times as fast as this one. This one only counts as medium-fast.”
I: “Oh, wow. When have you started learning this profession?
He: “When I was in my teens.”
I: “That’s quite early.”
He: “It’s normal for us to learn this profession at an early age. This is the only thing we can do for a living.”

An hour and a half into the massage, the masseur asks:
“You’re not Chinese, are you?
I: “I’m not, I’m from Austria.”
He: “Did you grow up in China?”
I: “No, but I’ve been studying Chinese for four years. Where in China are you from?”
He: “I’m from the north, from Henan. My home town is located in quite a poor area.”

When he is finished with the massage, he starts doing guasha (scraping).
He: “You can also do guasha at home. You can use a simple 1-Kuai coin for it. But it has to hurt and get red like this.”
I point at the thing he uses for scraping and ask him:
“What material is this thing made of?”
He: “This is an ox horn.”
I: “How much does this cost?”
He: “This one is just a normal ox horn, it’s not expensive. If you have a lot of money, you can buy one of the ox horns that have been originally used for guasha.”
I: “How much would one of those cost?”
He: “The expensive ones start from 50,000 Kuai (more than 6000 EUR or 8000 USD). You’ll also find ones for much more than that, a few 100,000 Kuai.”
I: “Wow. That really is a lot.”
He: “The expensive ones are only available on the black market. They come from a special kind of ox that is under national protection because they are endangered animals. Since there are not many left, it’s against the law to kill these oxes and therefore their horns are really expensive.”
I: “In which areas of China do these oxes live?”
He: “They live in mountainous regions where no humans live.”
I: “Like in Tibet?”
He: “Maybe.”

When he is finished with guasha, he says:
“If you don’t dare to use as much pressure when doing guasha yourself, you can still come here and we’ll do it for you. If you do it at home, make sure it hurts and gets red. It doesn’t help if it doesn’t get red.
I, being glad that the pain is over: “Thanks.”

Have you ever been to a blind massage place or tried guasha (scraping)?

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7 thoughts on ““This is the only thing we can do for a living”

  1. so what makes you come again? since “It hurts like hell”.. i noticed you have already hyphenated your last name lol.. it was a pretty nice painting!


    • It does help health-wise, that’s why from time to time I still go there (and it makes for interesting conversations too, but I wouldn’t go there just because of that). I’ll try to add an illustration to my posts whenever I have time to make one in the future. Our wedding is just around the corner, so I thought I could already use my future last name, this way I don’t have to change it for every illustration I publish before our wedding.


      • btw, do you tip them? a lot of times i feel so bad for not tipping them with soooo good services (so often ive been treated so much better in shenzhen restaurants than the ones in the states)


        • I don’t. I’m not sure they are used to getting tipped. I don’t want to force our culture onto theirs and although sometimes at the beginning it felt weird not to tip, I’ve heard that they might see it as an insult if you tip them – because as they see it, this is their job, that’s what they are supposed to do (they are getting paid for it already, don’t they) and tipping might have an air of bribery, which not every Chinese person wants to be associated with. I’ve seen foreigners tip in restaurants and it made the waitresses feel really uncomfortable. In certain situations it might be okay to tip though, like for example if the restaurant has a tip box or if the person is used to getting tipped (like one woman doing massages who I met who said her salary would be really low without the tipping of businessmen from Hongkong). In most cases I guess the service charge is already included in the price.


  2. Interesting, I think it’s uncommon to tip in the restaurants, but for services like massage, there are people who would pay to appreciate their work, and it’s not just people from Hong Kong. The most essential reason that bothers me is that waitresses, say in the States, can make around $2k~3k a month whereas waitresses in Shenzhen make around ¥2k. The cost of living in Shenzhen is very high in China, so a lot of times they can barely have any leftover since the new generation tend to spend money aggressively – the so-called “yue guang zu”. People give tips in the western countries because they feel sympathized are appreciated by the hard work of the service people and they know they are barely making any money. It just feels unfair for them since waitresses here do work very hard and they deserve


      • You’re right, “service” is usually paid poorly here in China. But then, I think the question is if customers should tip them or if their employers should pay them more. Since tipping does not seem to be common here and they often don’t want to accept this kind of money, I would say it would be the employer’s (or in that case maybe the government’s) duty to change this situation. If some of us tip people here, that doesn’t change a lot for most part of the people working in the service industry. I’m not saying that tipping is bad, it might help an individual working in the service industry, but I think this problem runs much deeper and needs a much wider ranging approach in order to be solved. Another question would be what happens if service really does get more expensive. Would it exclude people who don’t earn that much from getting access to certain services because of money concerns?


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