Tug Of War Over My Underwear

This post is for everyone who has ever been jealous of the fact that I can trot down to the Lao Red Cross and get one hour of massage for five dollars. You may be both entertained and a tiny bit gratified to know that these adventures in massage can sometimes go quite wrong.

Down a road about a four-minute walk from our gate there is a sign pointing up a dirt alley to an old wooden house. The sign advertises traditional massage, and the other day Mike told me that these massages were provided by blind men.

This sounded perfect to me. Blind men, I figured, may have compensated for their lack of sight by developing extra-perceptive hands. I imagined oil, a masseuse who could almost “see” my sore muscles with his talented touch, and no possibility of being ogled while I was relaxing into the experience.

It was a lovely vision, and Saturday afternoon I handed the baby to Mike and went chasing this vision.

The first hint I had that all might not play out according to the spa script in my mind came when I followed my fumbling masseuse into the back room to see three mattresses lying on a cement floor, no privacy curtains, and a tall, half-naked, white man being enthusiastically pummeled.

I was momentarily taken aback.

But then I thought about how, after giving birth, stripping down to my underwear in front of some old man I’d never see again was a walk in the park. So I took off most of my clothes and lay down on the threadbare sheet my masseuse had spread out for me.

It quickly became apparent that whatever other skills this man had developed to help compensate for his lack of vision, good massage technique was not among them. There were no sensitive, skilled hands. There were no smooth, tension-taming, muscle-stretching strokes. There was no oil. What there was was a lot of deep-pressure pressing with thumbs. I’d just resigned myself to a wasted hour when I became aware of small faces peering in the window above me – the neighborhood kids coming to check me out.

My blind masseuse must have realized what was going on, because after yelling at them a few times to go away, he got up, felt his way to the window, and closed it.

That shut out the faces and the giggles, but it also shut out all of the light. As the window swung closed I suddenly became aware that I was mostly naked and in a dark, locked room with three strange men.

I had just reminded myself that it was highly unlikely that two blind Lao men and some random tourist would take it into their heads to gang up on me for the purposes of assault, when the man massaging me put a hand somewhere south of the equatorial bellybutton border. Somewhere that, in all my years of being massaged in various countries around the world, no masseuse has ever before ventured to approach.

I was rendered immobile by the shock of it all until he grasped the waistband of my underwear and tried to pull them off.

I put my hand on his and said “bo dai” [cannot] at the same time he said “dai” [can].

He gave another experimental tug.

“Dai?” he said again.

“Bo dai,” I said firmly. “Khop jai.” [Thank you].

I remain puzzled even now as to what I was trying to communicate with this thank you. I would like to think that it was something along the lines of, “I am so in control of this situation that I can still afford to be polite.” However, deep in my conflict-hating heart I suspect I was also trying to shrug it off to put him at ease. Even as I said it I wondered whether I’d gone too far, whether what I had actually inadvertently communicated was something more along the lines of: “Please don’t feel at all awkward about the fact that I’m telling you not to take off my underwear. It’s not that what you’re doing is making me very uncomfortable. It’s more that I’m not in the mood.

After this exchange I perhaps should have been expecting it when, fifteen minutes later after working his way up my arms, the masseuse reached out and gave one of my breasts an experimental squeeze through the tee shirt I had draped over my front.

“Dee?” [good?] he asked.

“Bo dee,” [not good] I said, putting a stop to that immediately.

I have a baby, I explained in my broken Lao. The baby eats a lot. That makes a lot of pain.

This last bit was a total lie as breastfeeding no longer hurts, and you might wonder why I didn’t just get up and leave instead of going to all the trouble of inventing and then trying to communicate an actual reason why I wasn’t interested in having my breasts massaged, before enduring the last five minutes of an experience I was not enjoying in the slightest.

Yes, well. In retrospect I wonder this, too.

I think, though, that I didn’t leave because I couldn’t figure out what was really going on. Was he coping a feel for kicks or was this a standard part of his massage routine? Had I somehow inadvertently signaled a desire to be fondled in such a manner?

If this had occurred in a Western context I would have known that nothing I had done justified his behavior, but here I don’t live in a western context. I live in Laos. And men in Laos typically treat women with great respect, even deference. A Lao man usually won’t even presume to shake my hand upon meeting unless I offer it first. This is a gentle, conservative culture, and for all I knew, I realized as I lay there last Saturday, locals don’t typically undress for traditional massage. The masseuse may initially have been just as confronted by my actions in casting aside my jeans and tee shirt as I was by his suggestion that I ditch the underwear as well.

This small seed of doubt in my mind was enough to keep me on the mattress for those remaining few minutes. If he wasn’t putting sleazy sightless moves on me and I got up and walked out without being able to communicate why, I’d leave him wondering where he went wrong. I’d hurt his feelings. And only a loser hurts the feelings of a blind person if they can help it.

Or should that be, instead: Only a loser endures unwanted physical contact to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

I’m still not sure. I am, however, sure that from now on I won’t be exploring any traditional massage parlors I find down dusty side streets. At least, not alone.

What’s the worst massage misadventure you’ve ever had? And, have you ever been unsure as to whether you were being taken advantage of or whether you were just hopelessly mired in an unfortunate cross-cultural miscommunication?

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13 responses to “Tug Of War Over My Underwear

  1. in a village in Kyrgyzstan, my back was slathered with honey and napkins were placed on top, so that they stuck. The, the masseuse started beating me and after a while said, “you aren’t crying yet? So many others cry by now”. After the “massage”, i had to get the stuck-on papers and honey off in a sauna because there wasn’t running water in the village. Not nice.

  2. I don’t have a very exotic story, but near the city I grew up in there are a couple of small towns in the rocky mountains that are rather known for overflowing with people from all over the world who’ve come to live and work for a time in the mountains. One particular day, while on a retreat weekend in one of those towns, I went swimming with a friend’s children in the hotel pool. While playing on the waterslide, one of the kids accidentally broke MY nose. That afternoon a friend and I had arranged to have massages. Turns out that the masseuse struggled with English. After laying face down for a while, when she had me roll over, my poor abused nose started to bleed again. No big deal for me, but try communicating that with a language barrier, to a masseuse who is convinced this is her fault. I’ll never forget the comedy of trying to assure her that this was not her fault, nor was it really a problem for me, but would she please hurry up and find me some tissues before I bled all over the nice white sheets!

  3. Well. This experience doesn’t quite compare . . . but once I (unknowingly) let a woman massage the poo through my intestines. As I was leaving she said, “How far away do you live? If it’s more than 10 minutes you might, like, want to rush home. Fast.”

  4. Oh… bugger. It would have been fantastic if you had five dollar “spa” around the corner!

    So far my massage experiences have been only good…. but your story does remind me of the late night phone calls you get when staying in a hotel in China… When you pick up, they answer with “Do you want massachee?”
    I have this healthy doubt if those “massachees” are massages or if it is a different kind of body service… 😉

  5. Oh Lisa – I cried with laughter reading this! I can relate to the dilemma of whether to risk offending someone or risk being taken advantage of – it makes living in other cultures so interesting because you don’t know what’s “normal”! My weirdest massage was in Aceh, Indonesia… it was a “cup” massage – the masseurs place drinking glasses on your back and light a little fire inside. As the air cools, it sucks up and lifts your flesh and (supposedly) releases toxins, but you end up with large round red welts all over your back that last for days!

  6. Oh my word, funniest post and comments that I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for the laugh. This one, I’m sure, had Leah crying! 🙂 It makes me very thankful for Seattle massage culture!

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