I Understood The Massage Therapists Talking About Me and My Husband, Leading To My First Real Cantonese Language Victory

"You know the words! Not so bad, Chinese girl."
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Louise Hung
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"You know the words! Not so bad, Chinese girl."

From time to time, my husband and I treat ourselves to a professional massage. It's one of the few luxuries we're really willing to spend money on wherever we live, and Hong Kong is an ideal place to indulge in such luxury. 

Once you can differentiate between a regular old deep tissue massage and a "sexy-good time-happy ending" massage (unless you're into that, personally I'm not — a happy ending for me is going home to sit on my couch and watch something on Netflix involving time travel or true crime or time traveling true crime), Hong Kong has no shortage of cheap but great massages. So for my husband's recent birthday, a massage was the highlight of our day. 

I found a place that got rave reviews across all the online forums. While the reviews warned that it was "no frills" and not to expect a lot of "chit chat" if your Cantonese wasn't great, everyone agreed that it was a great price, the space was comfortable and clean, and most of all they gave excellent massages. Perfect.

On the day of the massage, my husband and I arrived on time to the small, nondescript shop space in an old office building. Aside from the cheery yellow sign on the front door that advertised the "spa" and its numerous services, the entrance to the massage place looked nearly identical to the exterior of my own apartment. Heavy metal gate over a plain white door surrounded by decades-old gray tile on the hallway walls. Typical Hong Kong. 

We knocked on the door and were greeted in accented English by a short, smiling man. Not wasting a moment he asked, "You're Louise and husband? You're here for deep tissue massages? Yes? OK, thank you. Go in that room and get undressed."

He pointed across the sparsely decorated but tidy room — all I saw was a white couch, some bamboo plants, and a refrigerator — to an even smaller dark room in the back. 

Handing my husband what looked like soccer shorts he said, "You put these on," then to me, "You leave your underwear on, everything else off. The ladies will be with you shortly."

All right. Off we went to the small, dark, back room. Pulling the sliding doors shut, my husband and I couldn't help but laugh as we clumsily attempted to navigate around the two giant massage tables that barely fit in the room, all the while trying not to elbow each other in our tender bits as we undressed. 

No sooner had our heads nestled into our massage table face-donuts, when there was a gentle knock on the door and two middle-aged ladies came in. They greeted us in simple English, made sure we were comfortable, then set to work. 

As I lay face down on the table, my massage therapist wasted no time seeking out the knots in my back, I noticed that unlike some of the "fancier" massage places I'd been to, there was no music, no "soothing tones." There was just the hum of the air conditioner and the whispered conversation between the two women. 

At first I was a little surprised that they were having a casual conversation as they worked on me and my husband, but the massage was so hurts-so-good wonderful, that their soft voices just became white noise. 

Until I realized that I was the topic of conversation. 

"This one doesn't understand Cantonese," I heard my massage therapist say in Cantonese as she went after a juicy knot in my shoulder. 

"I think they're both Americans," the lady working on my husband responded, also in Cantonese. Then, "Look at his tattoos!" referring to my husbands arms. The women shared a soft chuckle. I almost joined them. 

"Are they tourists or do they live here?" my therapist wondered aloud. 

"I don't know," her friend responded. "She only speaks English."

From there, the conversation switched to future vacations, then petered away to silence. I wondered if I should speak up and let them know that I did understand them, but then the lady found a spot on my back that made me wonder if I was going to pee, so there went those thoughts. 

About three quarters of the way through my massage, my therapist had me turn over onto my back.

After working on my neck for a bit, she moved on to my arms where she let out a little "Oh!" of surprise when she saw my little Chinese character tattoo. While at first glance my tattoo looks like something you'd choose off the wall of some tattoo shop — something that means "harmony" or "toothbrush" — it's actually quite personal. They are words my mom chose for my tattoo, and carefully wrote with ink and brush for the tattoo artist to transfer to my arm. I love that her handwriting is on my arm forever. 

But seeing the little tattoo on my inner arm, the massage lady was suddenly fascinated. 

"You have a Chinese tattoo!" she said to me in Cantonese. Then after examining it, "Wait a second...are you Chinese?"

Smiling sheepishly, I said in the best Cantonese I could muster. "My mom is Chinese, she wrote those words. I'm Chinese from America. I can understand Cantonese, but I speak very poorly."

My massage therapist and her friend erupted in laughter. "Her mother wrote this! She IS Chinese!" the woman laughed. 

"So you understand me?" my massage lady asked. 

"Yes...I'm sorry!" I sputtered. "I just speak so badly I'm embarrassed!"  

Patting my arm and getting back to my massage, she just said, "You're a Chinese girl...Ha!"

As the massage continued, the two women asked me questions from time to time. "Is that your friend? Your boyfriend?" my massage lady asked, referring to my baffled husband. 

"He's my husband. He's an American from New York. He speaks Japanese but not Cantonese. That's why he has those tattoos." I responded. 

Again the women laughed and the woman working on my husband held up the hand with his wedding band, and chided her friend, "Ay-yah! Don't you see the wedding ring?" 

At one point the lady sat me up on table and stretched my arms every which way. I am naturally very flexible and have really open shoulders, so when she gasped at the extreme stretches she could shape my arms into, I couldn't help but laugh. 

"What is wrong with your arms?! Look at this!" she called over to her friend. 

"Waaah! Her arms can bend so far! Why is that? Are you a gymnast? A dancer?"

"I used to dance and I do a lot of yoga," I explained. 

"Can you do the splits?" she asked. 

"I can."

"Ay-yah, it's always the dancers," her friend said and the two exchanged knowing smiles. 

When the massage was over, the women sat my husband and me up simultaneously and said, "OK!" in English. I thanked them in Cantonese and they laughed some more. My massage lady said, "You know the words! Not so bad, Chinese girl." And she walked out of the room still talking about my arms. 

"What just happened?" my husband asked from his post-massage haze. 

I explained to him that I had struck up a conversation with the ladies — the tattoo, him, my arms. But really it was so much more than that. "Chit-chatting" with those ladies felt so familiar, so normal. 

I felt embraced by the massage ladies in some small, generous way. We're not pals, not like me and the security guard in my building, Mr. Yue. But for short while they gave me the gift of feeling like "just one of the gals." 

I felt a glimmer of connection. Not just speaking the right words, not just conveying basic meaning, but communicating

lou at the lights carnival

Nothing that interesting to see here.  Then I open my mouth. 

So often in Hong Kong I feel like a confusing caricature. The stiffness of my Cantonese words don't match the Chinese-looking woman people see before them. My speaking is often all black and white, no nuance, just GETTING THE WORDS ACROSS. 

But talking to the massage women — the laughter, the surprise, the silliness — I felt like I was communicating in full color for the first time in ages. I don't know if it was the camaraderie of women or just plain old friendliness, but those wonderful women gave me such a boost in confidence. Communicating in Cantonese seems a little less impossible now. 

I'm learning that a large part of my Hong Kong experience is finding the guts to reach out to people. Every time I open up, I'm a little better for the people I meet. The massage women were no exception. My body felt great after my massage, but really it was my head and yes, my heart, that felt invigorated.