Although small, Taffin & Mara's apartment uses space very well - this is the living room

Although small, Taffin & Mara’s apartment uses space very well – this is the living room

I know this is probably a very strange title to this blog post. But I have had a couple of massages since I have been in China and have learned some really interesting cultural differences between the US and China, and I think after reading this post, you might better understand the title. It never ceases to amaze me where I learn about health beliefs in China. I learn about them most frequently in unexpected places.

When we were in Shanghai, all of us except Bill had a foot massage. Bill and Kathy’s son, Brian, knew of a reputable massage chain that has several locations around China. Most of us decided to do the upgrade from the basic massage and had oil used during our massage. The price was 188 RMB, which is about $30.50 USD, for an hour massage. The massage started out with the masseuse putting our feet into buckets of hot water. Then they massaged our necks and backs. It felt so good after our long plane rides. After our backs were done, they massaged our feet and legs. At the end of the experience, I was so relaxed…it was a wonderful experience. As we were exiting the spa, the students and staff at the spa were getting their pictures taken together. It was a really fun way to end our night. We found out from Brian that many companies support massages for their employees. They believe that massage is an excellent way to preserve health, so some people in China will have massages weekly. I think I could really buy into a weekly massage!

As we were walking through Shanghai, I noticed that there were some store fronts advertising blind massages. I asked Brian what this was all about. He said that in China, it is very popular to have a blind person be the masseuse. The thought is that because these people cannot see, their sense of touch is much more sensitive and they give even better massages and are more in tune with your health needs than sighted masseuses.

When we came to Hangzhou, we met up with Mara and Taffin. They are very good friends of ours that we met at the University of Evansville. Taffin taught Chinese at UE for a year and he brought Mara, his wife, with him. We developed a very close relationship with them while they were in Evansville. During our first week in Hangzhou, Taffin told us that they could not meet with us because “Mara was on her period.” When we were hiking up a mountain with Mara and Taffin, Taffin and I discussed our plans for the rest of the week. During our conversation, he said as long as Mara is not on her period, we should be available for anything this week.There were times when they lived in Evansville that Mara would cancel an activity she had planned with us for the same reason. I am not sure if it is common in China to talk so openly with friends about your menstrual cycle or if this is just something unique to Taffin and Mara and their personal cultural beliefs. But I do find this openness about a woman’s cycle to be much different from the US. Typically women in the US might say they don’t feel well or they have cramps; we just have a different way of expressing this.

This is Mara's kitchen - this is a typical apartment in China for young couples - it is about 900 square feet and has 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with washing machine, a kitchen and a little great room with a balcony

This is Mara’s kitchen – this is a typical apartment in China for young couples – it is about 900 square feet and has 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with washing machine, a kitchen and a little great room with a balcony

On our hike up the mountain, Mara mentioned to Kathy and me that she is teaching a blind masseuse how to speak English. She then asked if Kathy and I would like to try a blind massage – after our experience in Shanghai, Kathy and I were ready for the experience :)

We walked into a neighborhood and through some alleys and we finally came upon the massage parlor. The room was large enough for 5 massage tables – there was very little room between the tables. The tables were pushed up against a wall and there was just enough room for one person to walk at the head of the tables to get from the front to the back door. In other words, the massage parlor was very small.

Our massages were wonderful. Kathy and I asked the guys doing our massage if they wanted to come home with us. They chuckled and said they would really like to come with us but they had to stay in China. During the beginning of my massage, my masseuse asked Mara a question which  Mara then asked me. He wanted to know if I was having trouble with my neck. I told her that I was having trouble getting comfortable in the beds here as they are harder than I am used to. Also, I told her I always do a lot of typing because I write and because of my job and I often feel a strain in my neck. She then told me the gentleman doing my massage could tell I was having trouble with my neck.

A little bit later, I heard my masseuse ask Mara another question in Chinese and then Mara asked me if I was having my period. I thought to myself, this guy must be really good if he can tell something about a woman’s menstrual cycle just by touching her. I told her I was as I am always honest, and the next thing I heard was all this exclamation in Chinese and my massage stopped. I looked at Mara and asked her what the problem was. In Chinese culture, it is not considered safe for women during pregnancy or during their menstrual periods to have a massage or do any exercise of any kind. She said it would make you bleed more. You also are not supposed to eat cold foods or have cold drinks during this time. I told her in the US we don’t have this custom – typically women are encouraged to stay active throughout the month and during pregnancy unless there is a medical reason or health risk that would make this too risky and that we are able to eat and drink cold foods.

After much discussion and debate in a language I could not understand, it was decided that my massage would only focus on the upper half of my body just to be on the safe side. I apologized to Mara and told her I never would have thought this would have been an issue. At the end of the massage, Mara said to me that my masseuse could not figure out why I would come to have a massage at this time of the month. I reinforced to her that since I was healthy, there would be no reason not to have a massage according to US culture.

We made our way back to Taffin and Mara’s apartment where Mara proceeds to tell Taffin the story of our massage – nothing like talking about your monthly cycle with friends just before dinner J I must say I have never had a discussion like this in mixed company before – only in China! This story then led into a very interesting discussion where we talked about the differences between Chinese and US beliefs about issues surrounding women’s health (Kathy Lever would be so proud of me :)). Taffin and Mara were amazed I run, swim, and exercise all month long. I explained that I am too busy to let anything really slow me down. Kathy and I also explained that even pregnant women are encouraged to maintain their exercise routine throughout their pregnancy. We explained to him that we believe that exercise keeps a woman healthy. At times you may have to slow down or alter your activity, but for most women, staying active is very important to health. Our discussion actually ended up being a very interesting learning experience for all of us. We learned more about the Chinese beliefs about women’s health and Taffin and Mara better understood the US beliefs.

As we continue our adventure in China I continue to be amazed by how similar yet different we are. I really seem to find more similarities than differences. And just when I think I am finally figuring it out, I find some traditions and beliefs that are very different from ours. I can’t wait until I have my next “aha” moment about health beliefs in China! Heaven only knows when and where it will happen next :)