I know that I suffer from a severe case of liberal guilt and that’s why I don’t think I can truly relax in places where there is a clear demarcation, often times physically, between the privileged and the underprivileged. You can accuse me of being a hypocrite if you want. I would not know how to defend myself. So there.
I am in Shanghai now on a business trip. I never feel truly comfortable when I am in China because people mistake me easily for a local (I can fake a Beijing accent when speaking Chinese vs. my natural, Taiwanese-accented Mandarin Chinese) and yet they could tell that there is something off about me. They’d ask me where I am from. When I explained that I grew up in Taiwan and now live in the US, inevitably there would be lots of questions about the comparisons between Taiwan and China, the US and China, and the topic always leads to, uncomfortably at least for me, how I have a much better life.
“You went to good school.” They’d conclude with regret or longing or something in their voice, if the person I’m speaking to is from outside of the upper-middle class.
The hotel I am staying in provides massage services until 2 am. It sounded like an awesome idea: travelers with jet lags will LOVE to be able to get a massage when they have trouble going to bed anyway. So I called the extension and booked a 60-minute acupressure massage session in my room.
“So where are you from?” My masseuse asked as she tried to figure out in which direction I should lie on the bed. I was still confused because she had come in with nothing. Where’s the oil? The lotion? The blanket? The towel?
“Taiwan? Wow. It must be a lot nicer over there.” I tried to deflect the conversation by suggesting that people love coming to China nowadays because of the opportunities.
“Yeah, you know. More land. More people…” My voice trailed off as I backed myself into a corner. Sure enough, she told me that she’s not from here. “We came from [another province].” Instinctively, I understood that she’d meant “we, the masseuses working at this hotel”. She was here, like many other migrant workers from rural China, by herself leaving behind two children and aging parents.
She told me about the farms back home, how before she got married at 23 she was already considered to be an old spinster, how massages were unheard of because god forbid if the neighbors got wind that either you got a massage from a man or you gave a man a massage.
She said that she wished she could visit Taiwan some day. I suggested jokingly that perhaps she should visit other places before Taiwan if she ever has a chance. “But when will I have a chance to visit another country? It costs so much!” I simply forgot how much it costs to travel, to fly on an airplane overseas. My plane tickets to Shanghai cost almost $2000 USD, which translates roughly into 4 months of her wages if she works every single day.
Finally came the question I dreaded the most, “How much are you paid over in the US?” (Yes, people do ask you this question sometimes.)
I gave a lame response of how salaries may be higher in the US but our costs of living are higher and also we have to pay more taxes. Lots more. She didn’t seem to mind my not answering her question.
“I am paid 100 yuan a day. I did so many massages today but I will still get 100 yuan.”
I was surprised. And embarrassed somehow. In my panic, I also wished that I had pretended to speak no Chinese. Then I felt extremely guilty and ashamed of myself.
“You know, you are smart [why’s she so sure of that?] and you went to good school [ibid]. Me? I don’t know how to do anything. No skills. No brains.” She said, matter-of- factly.
Fortunately for me our conversation veered off when she got to my derrière. She said jokingly, “You look so thin but oh your [backside] is so big!” I was not offended the least because I was so relieved.
“Hey. That’s what they call Son-bearing hip, ok? All the grandmothers loved me when I was young. They know I’d be popping out boy babies.”
“Oh, my butt is huge too.”
We bonded over son-bearing hips. And thick thighs. Yes, once I turned to lie on my back, she was surprised by how “there is no meat on your face”. She proceeded to wonder out loud how it’s possible that I could have such thick thighs since my arms and my mid region looked great. I wanted to hug her for the compliments. These were sincere and not backhanded at all.
By the end of the session, I had determined to give her a great tip even though tipping is a complex matter in China. Yes, hotel workers cater to Westerners may have come to expect tips, most Chinese are not accustomed to it. Some people actually resent the thought that “foreigners are training workers in China to expect tips from all”.
“I don’t have the exact change. How about you bring these to them and keep the change. Will they let you keep the change?”
She looked utterly confused. “Don’t you have exact change?”
“No. I am sorry. That’s what I meant though: go downstairs with the money, and keep the change. If I give you these bills, will the change go to you at all?”
“Oh no. No. They’ll never give me the change.”
“Ok, here’s what you are going to do: Give them the bills. Tell them I asked you to bring the change up to me. But then just go home.”
Now she looked scared. “They may catch me leaving with the money… I will bring the money to your room.”
As she hurried out, it dawned on me that this might not have been the best idea because what was I trying to prove? What was I trying to do to this poor woman so I could feel better about myself?
A knock on my door.
“Hi. Good evening. Here’s your change back.” Standing there, holding out the money was not my masseuse but a better-dressed, more cosmopolitan-looking young woman.
Somehow I was not surprised. Of course they wouldn’t allow her to bring the change back to me. I was saddened, imagining my masseuse’s disappointment caused by me.
Why did I try to meddle in somebody’s life?
Another knock on my door.
“Oh, I was so scared! Did she bring you your change?” Now she’s embarrassed. “I just want to make sure that you’ve got your change. They told me that I could leave. So I made a turn when nobody’s looking and came upstairs.”
Giving someone a tip should not made either the giver or the receiver feel as if they’re having an illicit affair. I was really upset at “them” by this time. The irony did not escape me of course.
Her eyes widened as I pushed the change into her hand. “What are you doing? You are nuts.”
“Well, you know. I used a coupon and I think you the person who did all the work should enjoy this reward and not me.”
It’s now past 3 am here. I am not sleepy at all. I don’t know what I am trying to say by recounting my encounter with my impotent conscience.
Maybe I am hoping that one of you will call me out on it as an atonement.