Holiday in Harbin

Leah’s twenty-second birthday is January 6. We have been in China for two weeks when the date finally arrives. Dr. Zhou has been very secretive about what arrangements have been made for the celebration.

The day starts out with its usual chill. Northern China is freezing this time of year. My younger sister Leah and I are in China for three weeks to become acquainted with Traditional Chinese Medicine. I am learning acupuncture and Leah has come along to study tuina–Chinese massage. When we initially arrived, we did the tourist things and climbed the Great Wall (my knee hasn’t been the same since), saw the Imperial Palace, and went to other attractions including castles made entirely of ice, which are beautiful and amazing.  We arrived in Harbin one week ago, and our days have been spent at Heilongjiang University for Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are two other students in our group. George is not a medical practitioner but is interested, and is a nudist who does past life regressions. Elliot recently finished his training in acupuncture, and is a short fellow enthralled with the Chinese women. They in turn, are enthralled with his American passport. Dr. Zhou, who practices Chinese Medicine and tuina massage, arranged the trip and is acting as our guide. He works in Madison, WI, where he was my qi-gong teacher. Leah and I round out the troupe. She is in her third year of college studying philosophy, and I finished family practice residency two years ago and have been doing locum tenens in Wisconsin for the last few months.

We are staying at the dormitory for foreign students. The accommodations are fine; we have the usual dorm room with two twin beds and two desks. The only hitch is that hot water is only available two hours every evening from 5-7 pm. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that we have dinner invitations nightly–usually right at 5:30. Cold showers aren’t my favorite and the constant frost in the air makes them even less attractive. Leah and I have gotten adept at showering quickly, sometimes together, in order to take advantage of this precious commodity. We had some funny, awkward moments until we finally gave in and admitted that joint showers were the only practical solution.

We often eat in the dormitory dining room and have been pleased with the food selections. Leah is a vegetarian, and we both have multiple food allergies (including MSG) and dislikes. Despite all these factors, we have been well fed and have enjoyed the traditional fare.

After a day of observing the “Master Practitioners” put needles in patients to treat various maladies, we meet briefly with Dr. Zhou and Nee, our local guide, to find out what festivities are planned. We are instructed to wear something nice for dinner and be ready at 5:45. Another night of racing through our ablutions!

We meet downstairs, ready to go out for our dinner. Everyone looks nice, with hair still wet from showering.            We are informed that we’re going out. One of the doctors from the hospital has set up a dinner party at an upscale restaurant, and we will be his guests for the evening.

At the restaurant, we are greeted by a horde of beautiful smiling women in traditional satin dresses and ushered upstairs to a private room. Several waiters and busboys are already in the room, and they help us off with our coats before showing us to our seats. We are joined by the host doctor and his wife, as well as Moo, Dr. Zhou’s brother-in-law who has been acting as another companion and guide during our stay. He has a crush on Leah. A tiny man who makes scrolls has also come, and a couple from the university round out the party.

The waiters are ready to serve the tea. The teapots are different from anything we have seen before–the spouts are very skinny and four feet long. At our bemused looks, Dr. Zhou explains that this is the sign of a fancy restaurant. It takes a year of training to be proficient in pouring from these teapots, and most establishments cannot afford to hire waiters who offer this skill.

The serving of the tea is an experience in itself. The tea cups are lovely white decorated porcelain with covers to keep the tea warm. In order for the tea to be poured, the lids must be removed.  On more than one occasion the recipient of the tea is not the one expecting it, and the other one is left with nothing but a lid in her hand. This causes raucous laughter, and the party is off to a good start.

The food is copious and delicious. There are dumplings, many stir fries, silk worms, and other dishes. There are so many dishes that they are piled on top of each other after the table’s surface is covered. In some spots the dishes are three high. Rice is not served, which we have found to be common during our stay. If one specifically requests rice, it is brought at the end of the meal after the entrees are finished. Usually there is no starch at all, but tonight noodles are served. This particular type of long noodle is traditional birthday fare to ensure an equally long life.

When we first arrived in China we did not understand the customs, and as a group we would struggle to finish the food that was served. This was stressful and always impossible, because no matter where we were, huge quantities were prepared. On occasion, one of us would manage to stuff herself with the last few bites of a dish, only to have a steaming full new plate brought out. We questioned Dr. Zhou, who finally clued us in. If one finishes the food on a plate, it signifies that you are still hungry, so the host must provide more. Leaving food means you are satisfied, and that is the end of it. Since we learned this, we just enjoy the food and try to taste everything. We marvel at the variety of dishes and the huge quantities of food, but we have gotten over our “Clean Plate Club” training, and stop eating when we are full.

The beer is flowing freely among our hosts, and the party is getting lively. The ever-present Karaoke machine is turned on, and our hosts start to sing and dance. We are repeatedly encouraged to sing, but the machine doesn’t have any English selections, and our hosts reluctantly allow us to decline.

The meal winds down about eleven o’clock after we have sung happy birthday in both English and Chinese, and eaten from a large traditional American style birthday cake. The cake has thick butter cream and is served in six inch square pieces. Dr. Zhou and Moo are excited that they have gotten their hands on it, and provided Leah with an “American” dessert.  The Chinese twist is that once the cake is cut, everyone takes one of the huge hunks with their chopsticks. The cake is eaten suspended in the air with the chopsticks.  It is kind of dry, but Leah wisely thanks our hosts profusely and chokes down some cake before resting the remainder of the massive portion on a napkin and declaring that she is full and unable to eat another bite.

Somehow, talk of massage arises. Massage is an integral part of Chinese Medicine, and very common in China. Dr. Zhou announces that we should go have a massage. Leah and I are doubtful–it is the middle of the night. Are there reputable places that are open now or is he drunk and talking crazy?

Once the decision is made, the party is quickly wrapped up. Goodbyes are made, along with repeated thanks for the lovely evening. Those wanting massages load into two taxis which quickly head off into the night. At the first salon we get out and look around, but it is judged to be unacceptable by the group leaders. We shiver as we climb back into the waiting taxis and head off again. In the distance we catch sight of the ice castles, lit up for the night, and smile at the memory of their beauty. The night is dark, and we enter a business district. Leah and I start to get nervous when our cab occasionally loses sight of the other one, but we eventually catch up with them in front of a large office building. There is a wrought iron gate with one small pedestrian door that is open.

Leah and I remain in the cab with George and Elliot as we wonder what is going on. This is obviously not a massage parlor, so perhaps one of the doctors needs to check on something.

Dr. Zhou comes over and pulls open the door. He is flushed and happy, obviously feeling the effects of the beer he drank.

“Come on, come on, what are you waiting for? Get out of the car, let’s go get massages!”

He sets off in the dark night toward the building. We look at each other and scramble to catch up. I fall behind, limping from my knee injury on the Great Wall.

We enter the building. There is no sign of life. Most of the hallways are dark, and the lobby is only faintly lit. Dr. Zhou confidently opens a door, and disappears through it.  I wonder again if he is drunk. Where can we possibly be going?

I struggle to keep up, but I fall behind despite my efforts. The door opens into a stairwell with a long flight of stairs. The light is dim. As I enter, I hear steps above me, and then a door slams. This unnerves me, because I don’t know how many flights Dr. Zhou went up, and I don’t want to be wandering around a deserted building in the middle of the night. I don’t have any choices at this point, so I sigh and start the painful walk up. At the third landing there is a door with a sliver of light showing underneath. I open it into a well lit room with several people standing around, including Dr. Zhou, Elliot and George.

“This is the school where the students from the University do their massage practice. They are required to spend time working here before they graduate. It is open all night.” Dr. Zhou finally explains where we are. It all makes perfect sense once you know where we are!

Two thin, young Chinese women separate me and Leah from our male companions. We call goodbyes to each other as they take us down a long corridor. We pass many doors. Most are closed, but some are open and reveal curtained cubicles with massage tables. We wonder where we are going, because we seem to be passing all the massage rooms.

At the end of the hall, our guide smilingly opens a door and we follow her into a large room. There are several couches and comfortable padded chairs. There is also a large TV, which is off.

She turns to us and speaks for the first time.


She leaves the room quickly, pulling the door shut behind her with a snap. Relax? Is that what she meant to say? For how long? What is she talking about?

Leah and I tentatively sit down on an overstuffed red couch and look at each other. Our grins reveal that we are both thinking the same thing.

“Well… we are relaxing. What now?”

The door opens after a brisk knock.

“Come.” A different young Chinese woman beckons us.

We look at each other. I guess we were only supposed to “relax” for two minutes. Good thing we are quick!

We follow the woman and her companion down a narrow circular staircase into a dark basement. We come out into a narrow hallway lit with yellow lights, and lined with grey metal lockers. There are several thin Chinese women milling about. Most are employees, as noted by their uniforms, but there are a few nearly naked clients walking around with towels around their bodies and hair. At the end of the hall I can see several tubs filled with what looks like yellow-green water. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Our guide stops in front of the lockers.

“Take off clothes. Put in here.” She gestures to a thin locker on the top row and looks at us expectantly.

“There is no way I’m getting undressed in front of all these skinny women.” Leah’s reaction is immediate.

The local women, who had all already noticed us, are now watching us with interest. Leah and I, two Jewish women, do NOT blend with this crowd.  Physically, we are both very different from the Chinese. In fact, on more than one occasion since we got here, I have been stopped in the street by local people who wanted to take my picture. They always say that it is because I am so beautiful, but I am convinced that it is just that they have never seen boobs or hips before, let alone ones as large as mine. Leah is taller and thinner than I am, and her height of five-nine often causes comment. She is also more self conscious, so she takes her things and heads off to change in the sauna. The watching women titter amongst themselves. As I watch, I make a decision. What do I care? Let them enjoy a show!

I take the offered cloth gown, and decisively start to take off my layers.

The air is warm, with a smell of humidity and something else that I can’t identify. It may be the herbs in the mineral bath. Who knows? The whole experience feels surreal.

I undress and defiantly try to wrap the towel around my midsection. As expected, it only covers about half of me, leaving one hip and half of my left breast exposed. I try to act casual as I throw my clothes into the locker and shut it. I turn to my guide. What next?

“You want bath?” She gestures at the tubs filled with the unidentified green liquid. Leah has returned and we look at each other dubiously. I am not sure if that is clean water or if it has already been used. I am also not sure what has been paid for and arranged by Dr. Zhou. We decide to play it safe, and decline the bath.

“Now you shower. Take.” A package of trial size bath supplies is thrust into each of our hands. Our guide tosses her head to gesture to the showers. We obediently head over to wash our dirty Caucasian selves. The shower thing seems strange, since most of the massages we have been involved in here don’t even require the removal of any clothing.

After I shower and come out, I am wrapped in a gown and led back up the circular stairway back to the long corridor. There is no sign of Leah and I don’t know if she is lagging behind or has already gone ahead. My guide ushers me into a room with 10 curtained cubicles, and gestures that I should lie down. This escort doesn’t seem to speak any English at all.

I am somewhat nervous as I comply. My experience with massage so far in China has been that it is extremely painful. Since I have an injured knee, and have had bronchitis since I arrived, everyone I meet wants to treat me with some Chinese modality. I have been given horrible, bitter herbs that were in a bottle with a lid that had to be removed with pliers. They tasted awful and choked me, but the worst part was that they affected my mood and I frequently burst into tears for no reason at all. The bronchitis was treated with back massage which made me feel bruised, and for three days I was unable to lean back against a chair without discomfort. My knee injury was massaged, but I have not yet agreed to acupuncture. The needles here are much larger than American ones, and they are autoclaved and reused. That massage mostly consisted of the Professor identifying the most tender spot on my knee and mashing on it while casually chatting with another man, not even glancing at me. I writhed on the table and tried not to yell throughout the entire treatment. The Chinese are not into privacy or “political correctness” during therapy. Treatments are done in front of other waiting patients, and on occasion when a particular needle, usually through a cheek or eyelid, causes a tear to escape from a poor patient, the others laugh and point, enjoying the spectacle.

I lie nervously on the table, trying to stay covered. I catch a glimpse of Leah being led into the room through a gap in the curtain, and we acknowledge each other with a brief greeting.

I do believe in the healing power of massage so, with trepidation, I point to my knee. If the massage is going to hurt, it may as well do some good. My therapist tries to question me in broken, unintelligible English. We try for a minute or two to communicate, but then give up. I figure she will do what she does.

Indeed, that is what happens. The massage is very stressful for me. I am unable to relax. Massage in China is not meant to feel good but to cure all sorts of ailments, and it is usually fairly painful. I spend most of the treatment braced for the next searing pain. When on occasion the treatment feels good for a few seconds, and I am lulled into a false sense of security, the smiling masseuse grabs me in a vise-like grip on some acupuncture point or other, and I have to fight not to leap off the table from the pain. This goes on for some time, until I am exhausted from the ordeal. She does pay some extra attention to my injured right knee, and I regret mentioning it.

I am led back downstairs to the locker room to dress. I think all of the good she did by working on my knee is undone as I circle down those steep steps. I dress quickly; glad to have the protection of my clothes again. My companion waits while I dress, and escorts me back to the “relaxation” room. She turns on karaoke machine on the TV, hands me a microphone, leaves the room and shuts the door.

I look around. I am alone. What should I do?

The answer is obvious and I start to browse through the available selections. Aha! “Footloose”! A favorite!

I start the machine, waiting for the words to appear on the screen. I start to sing, and quickly get caught up in my fun. “Footloose, Footloose, everybody get….”

The door opens and Leah comes in. She starts to laugh as she quickly takes in the situation.

“Just what is going on in here?” She faces me with her hands on her hips, and tries to sound stern. She doesn’t fool me. I know she wants her turn.

“Singing. “Footloose.” Come on, sing!” I pass the second microphone to her.

She takes the mike from me, and we continue to sing loudly. Leah, loosened up from her massage, dances around, waving her arms in the air as she sings. Dr. Zhou wanders in, picks up a mike and joins in, reading the words off the monitor. He doesn’t know the song or the tune, but that doesn’t faze him. He sings with us for a while, then puts down the mike and wanders back out. Leah and I continue singing raucously. It’s the middle of the night, in the middle of winter in Northern China.  This evening we have been fed good food, relaxed, and been massaged. And now we are gleefully singing together. Birthdays just don’t get any better than this.