Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Knead to be Needed

Before Seoul Massage

Sonin saihan uu bain, more iin? (What’s new, pussycats?)

If there are any readers left at this point, it must be due to the sheer wonderfulness of intertia, or a certain degree of Pavlovian internet masochism. You are encouraged to cease salivating, for the bell has rung, and after too too long, a new entry is yours for the rumination.

But my oh my modern life viewers. What a tense place it can be, filled with stress and strains, anxieties and pains. And now medical science suggests that such time honoured coping methods as keg stands and Gauloises blondes are actually part of the problem, not part of the solution. Eating your wrinkles away is an option, but how many fudge eating contests can you go to before the fun begins to seep away like so much chocolatey goo? Watching professional sports, picking fights in the street, gambling and psychotherapy all pass the time, but none really reach that deep down fatigue that a body feels at the end of a working week. How to unwind, viewers. How to unwind. The answer is not to try to do it yourself, for you are not a watchmaker with your hands on the springs which make you tick and tock. You need a masseuse. Clearly.

Nestled below us on the first floor of building 37, Chingeltei district, is Seoul Massaj (massage, viewers). During our various travels around southeast Asia, the calming delights of reflexology were explored between noodle dishes and tuk tuk rides, and we acquired a taste for it. Upon our return to the steppe, we decided to sample some of the local fare to see if it compared, and no, it did not. No comparison. It transcended. It was a whole new way of paying someone to beat you up. If southeast Asian massage is a lithe monkey dancing on manicured paws, Mongolian stylee is a mighty great yak with gnarled hooves of power. Bow down in its presence, unworthy ones. One amply proportioned acquaintance of ours described his visit to the ladies of Seoul by saying “a ninety eight pound Mongolian woman took me like it was prison.” A lively description to be sure, but as he’s a human rights lawyer I assume this was a professional assessment of the process.

The foyer of Seoul Massage is a modest affair, no bigger than most department store dressing rooms. A rack of sandals and a matron behind a counter are there, as well as a laminated menu of options. Just as Mongolian restaurants serve both kinds of food (sheep and lamb), Seoul offers both kinds of massage: foot and body (hol and bie, viewers). One price, no fussing. Now get those boots off and get inside. Let’s do a foot massage today, ‘cause these dogs are barking, my verucas are salty, and corns’ coming in by the bushel.

Having removed one’s shoes, you are ushered into the darkened chambers beyond, half of which are equipped with banks of massage tables for those of you who selected the body option (we’ll see you after), and reclining chairs and footstools for the footies. The lighting is discreet and darkened, and a radio burbles out the latest chart nonsense from Asia and the west. Escorted to a recliner, you are presented with your new outfit of striped pajama bottoms and a loose t-shirt (black for boys, orange for girls). While you change from your civvies to your uniform, your captain readies the accoutrements she will require to bend you to her will.

Now as anyone who’s seen Pulp Ficton knows, there are foot massages and then there are foot massages. If Tony Rocky Horror gave Mia Wallace one of what follows, then Marcellus had every reason to suspect that something more than podiatry was going on.

Your massage begins when you sit on a footstool and plunge your feet into a wooden washtub like the ones in old cartoons people used to wear to hide their nakedness. The water is scented with a handful of aromatic herbs to ease relaxation, and is carefully warmed to a temperature somewhere between McDonald’s lawsuit and lava. This tub of water will prove very important for the next little while, as you may frequently need to distract yourself from what else is happening by concentrating on whether your feet have turned to fondue yet. After a few moments to allow your feet to start shriveling down to size three, your masseuse glides into position behind you to begin your foot massage.

Now obviously, a foot massage concentrates on one’s feet. It is thus only logical that this massage starts with your back. As the healing begins, you realize that where southeast Asian masseurs and –seuses spend their days softening their fingers in bowls of jasmine scented oil and drinking mango juice while watching Singapore soaps in air conditioned parlours, their Mongolian counterparts straphang on busted ex-Korean buses to and from a dusty ger where they wrangle with goats and braid rawhide to make ropes to hold the house down when the spring winds hit. These women spend their massage apprenticeship grinding rice into flour in their fists for months before they are allowed near a client. Rumour has it they ran out of rice three winters ago and since then have been using a mixture of gravel and broken glass. By the time you realize how formidable you have been gripped, it is too late and you are no longer holding the keys to the auto of life. These women are small, but they could whup you faster than you could say shiatsu, and that’s just what they’re going to do.

As the pressure exerted on your spine exceeds three atmospheres, another unique element of Seoul massage pokes you in the eye. Hands, which certainly are an important weapon in the available massage arsenal, are only one possible option. Any bit of the body which is bony, pointy, gnarly or strong, can and will be used. And so the moments fly by as you wonder “which bit of you is doing that to me?” Possible answers include elbow, knee, bottom forearm, top of forearm, outer thigh, and foot (it’s a foot massage, remember?). Apparently there is a special treatment which involves steamrolling your body using only the head, but it’s a bit intense.

With your back now living in jelly, it’s time to get on with your foot massage and start agitating your….head. Yep. Can’t just make a beeline for the piggies. Gotta walk the whole course before you race the hounds on it. And so begins a bewildering process somewhere between phrenology and trepanning, whereby your poor old scalp that never hurt a fly becomes the venue for such double fisted techniques as When Elephants fight the Grass is Trampled, Mother Spider Defends her Nest, and sometimes, just sometimes, Joe Pesci’s vice trick from Casino. While all this is happening, in a hopeless effort to escape, you crumple over your knees until you’re hunched like Gollum contemplating your visage in the steaming puddle where your feet now live. In sympathy with your plight, your masseuse starts touseling your hair affectionately, like Dennis the Menace used to get when he’d crash his boxracer into Mr. Wilson’s new mailbox. Whatta scamp. And so, thinking it all nearing conclusion, you begin to extend your neck from beneath your shell. More fool you. What may seem like a friendly touseling between friends is in fact an expert winnowing, whereby weak follicles are being separated from the strong. By the time you realize your predicament, she’s grasped a hold of all the runts straight along your centre part and YANK! She pulls you up to ramrod straight using only ten hairs, Gollum banished forever. Who is in charge has never been more clear. All hail the new queen in town.

By this point, your overheated and puckered feets are quite convinced that they’ve been lied to, and they’re not going to the amusement park after all but are on the way to the doctor’s for a booster shot. They are not wrong. With the back and noggin threats neutralized, our new ruler can finally turn her attention to those neglected..arms. Oh well, at least they’re a limb, so we must be getting closer. At this point the Seoul method becomes slightly clearer- moments of reassuring gentleness are interspersed with sudden, unexpected violence. It’s like how someone once (erroneously) described rolfing as talking about a traumatic experience from your childhood and then having your therapist punch you in the face. It’s sort of like that. Gentle strokes down the bones of each finger, the joints of which are then popped so hard it sounds like timber being felled. But before you have time to muse on this too much more, you are treated to such anatomically impossible feats as the whole arm reverse rotation body pop (whereby your fully extended arm is lulled into such suppleness that your elbow joint is popped upwards), and such symbolic positions as the Figurehead of HMS Victory (fingers knitted behind head, elbows pulled back until almost touching, knee in middle of the back) and the Dying Swan (hands held at wrists, pulled back as far as they go, outer thigh shoving back straight). Another domino of resistance falls, and your entire upper body is now under the flag of Seoul massage.

Your feet breathe a sigh of relief that they have, despite the name of the procedure, escaped with little more than a robust stewing. But your masseuse sees all, hears all. Your feet are finally withdrawn from their solution, and quick as a flash are bound tightly in white napkins lest they try to escape. The washtub is withdrawn, and your reclining chair is stretched out to full flat. Lay your weary and beaten self down on it while she drapes a sheet over you to keep you warm. Since you know what comes after gentleness by now, you instinctively tense up as you assume at least a charley horse or nuggies comes after the comfy blankie. But no, it seems that your feet have finally moved up the queue, and it’s time for them to get manipulated. Surprise and fear are legitimate at this stage. Let them flow, it helps to cleanse.

What happens next is not so much an anticlimax as such a relief that it’s all you can do to stay awake. In keeping with tradition though, your foot is defined as starting at the knee and all points south. You lie under your blanket as your feet are jiggled and your toes are individually fibrillated until you are lulled into a reverie involving mermaids, unicorns and rainbows. After a bit, you realize that for the past five minutes she’s been folding your whole foot over on itself, top over bottom, left over right, like a floppy bit of dough. Whether or not it’s relaxing is no longer of issue, as you lost the ability to form opinions other than ‘owie’ or ‘no owie’ some miles back.

Things are winding up. Your sheets are swaddled up around you like a mummy, and your legs are spun in huge circles over your head like in the halcyon days of breakdancing. Your feet are replaced in roughly the location they started in, and then it’s over.

Like hitting yourself repeatedly with a hammer, the reason to do it is because it feels good when it stops. You are given all the time to convalesce that you need, before you change back out of your scrubs and into your skin. If you are of a hirsute nature, proof of what you have done can be found on your calves, where little snarled clusters of hairy dingleberries have sprouted where your legs were so vigorously kneaded.

As you emerge dazed into the world outside, the sun’s a little brighter, the birds are chirping a little more chirpyily, and the cracks in the pavement seem that much more calm and ordered.

Exhausted but elated, you trudge home a hero, for you have completed your quest and lived to tell the tale. Years from now, your grandchildren will gasp as in wonder as you rhyme them the ballad of the massaged man.

On which mighty note we shall close. I shall end by mentioning that 200 hours of painstaking fieldwork went into researching this article. I hope you realize what lengths I go to on your behalf.

Saihan ahmraraa (have a good rest, viewers),


After Seoul Massage

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