Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Muscle Memory” by Alice Fong-Ye Liu. Liu is a Chinese-American author whose writing focuses on identity, growing up with immigrant parents, parenting, caretaking and a career in cybersecurity. Her writing explores vulnerability, trauma and healing, often through food, family and technology. Her webpage is https://alice-liu.com/.
My mom used to rub my shoulders. In college, coming home, feeling lost and alone and unsure of all the decisions I was trying to make, the weight of their immigrant sacrifice bearing down on me, I would sit on the floor by her feet, and her hands would work out the aches in my muscles.
A respite, an island in a storming sea, her hands a healing touch. The magic was only occasionally broken by the replacement of VHS tapes in the elaborate VCR tape-recording station that was continuously playing and recording Chinese soap operas in our living room. The scent of sesame oil and soy sauce floated in the air from our dinner earlier.
My muscles ache for this touch that I will never feel again, as I age and she ages. As her mind slips away to dementia and her hands succumb to arthritis, there is nothing left of her to give, nothing that can comfort me. I settle for resting a head on her shoulder as she nods off. I want to remember the comfort of her mothering touch, but more often, I am just met with waves of grief.
Within two years she had gone from being able to ask me how I was and remembering my response to forgetting how to drive home from the grocery store. It would be another three years before she would progress to forgetting she was brushing her teeth as she was brushing her teeth. When she started to slip away, I had a phase where I sought comfort in odd places, not aware of what I was looking for.
Being a mother was not as straightforward as the world made it out to be. I did not suddenly feel completely fulfilled just because I had children. It was more complicated than that. The first years, I was too exhausted to even know what happened. I loved them with a fierce intensity, but it did not fill the aches in me that were uniquely mine. If anything, it often amplified the things that I missed, though I often felt a deep need to hide that, to appear perfect and in control, instead of fragile and vulnerable.
My own needs struggled to get footing, grasping and slipping from underneath the pile of heavy obligations where I too often chose to care for others more than myself. After all, it was what I was taught to do.
As my mother started to forget where she was and what she was doing, her ability to mother and comfort me was tremendously limited. My need for that mothering comfort continued to get louder, refusing to be easily placated. My husband rubbing my feet was not enough.
In a small strip mall, I searched for comfort. Next to a grocery store, a dollar store, and a Hawaiian BBQ was a door, hidden in the midst of glass plastered with the image of a white woman turned to one side. She was wrapped in a sheet, getting her shoulders massaged, her eyes closed in bliss, as she laid face down on a table. The image darkened the inside, making it unviewable from outside.
I needed a massage badly. My shoulders were aching in pain, but I felt too cheap to spend money on a massage at a high-end spa. There was also something about this little Chinese massage parlor that drew me in, a familiarity, a comfort.
When I opened the door and walked in, I paused to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The walls behind the cash register had hangings of good fortune that look very similar to what my parents had hanging around their house. Bright red and gold weaving in and out of Chinese symbols, symbolizing health, luck and fortune.
A woman at the front desk was short in stature but commanding. I sat on a chair and waited for her to gesture to me. She assessed me with a critical eye that reminded me of when my grandmother, well-practiced at back-handed compliments, would say in Mandarin, “You don’t look as fat today as usual.”
My brain raced as I tried to follow the thread in her mind that was judging me, questioning me.
She calculated my financial potential. I wanted her to approve of how I handled things, but similar to my grandmother, I realized that her approval would never be had. In some ways that comforted me.
My brain struggled to keep up with all the conflicting information. Why did it feel like this place was oddly illicit? Why did my brain automatically skip to the possibility that this place offered “add-on” services? Why was there so much judgment in that? Why was there such a painful disconnect that Asian women were so often associated with overly sexualized racial stereotypes? Why was female sexuality so often portrayed as bad? Why was I questioning whether the old woman with the steel gaze like my grandmother’s might be pimping out the massage lady that reminded me of my mom?
Do women ever ask for special services ever? Or was that almost always men? Once, someone told me that the massage parlors with the white ladies on the window were almost always legitimate. I wish I could just trust that. I felt guilty for assuming the illicit nature, but also wary, on edge that the possibility and the option was possible.
I pushed the thought from my mind. My shoulders ached with tension.
My shoulders had morphed from small rocks into land formations of unmovable tension, a continent across my whole shoulder blade, a solid ridge of discomfort.
I told the older woman that I wanted the one-hour foot massage. The older woman lifted her chin dismissively. I had been categorized, my middle-aged Chinese mom self, relegated to the cheapest service bucket.
There was a moment where we looked at each other and toyed with the razor’s edge of our similarities and our differences, but it passed quickly.
All the services at the place were cheap. Compared to a massage at a non “Asian” massage place, it was half the price.
I had tried the pricier service, getting a full body massage, but they were always variable in quality and often left me feeling less relaxed than when I started.
I preferred the less vulnerable but soothing “foot massage” that started with massaging the feet but also included a full body massage that somehow worked your muscles around and through your clothes.
She called over the available therapist I requested from the time before, saying “foot massage” in Mandarin. Feeling a bit like an undercover spy, I feign cluelessness, listening into their conversation, unable to resist the curiosity to hear if they start talking about me.
My Mandarin has always been rather limited, especially my ability to speak it. It only really works if I don’t think about it, and just let it flow out. My understanding, on the other hand, was pretty strong, earned from a childhood of interpreting what my grandmother was screaming at me.
I had been drawn back to this place. It was oddly comforting hearing the Mandarin spoken around me. Having tried other places where they spoke Cantonese, I kept coming back to this one and the one massage person that reminded me of my mom.
The first few times coming in, it felt slightly edgy or dangerous, but it wore off after awhile. My life in general was pretty risk-adverse, a product of nature and design. A suburban mom of two, this was it, along with trying different flavors of fizzy water.
The hairs on my neck would still raise when men came in, as I waited to see what they asked for. Straining to hear the staff discussing, wondering if I would understand any illicit agreements. It dawned on me early on. that I didn’t know any of the words for anything illicit. I didn’t even know any curse words. My worst Chinese phase would be calling someone a “stupid egg.”
My one-hour “foot” massage in the front room was a massage of legs and arms, neck and shoulders, though you were fully clothed the whole time. Assigned a crate to put all my belongings, I started the process of stripping all the excessive material from my body, to allow the soothing pressure of the massage to smoothly run its course. My purse, my sweater, my expensive wedding ring tucked neatly into a pocket in my wallet.
The quality of massage varied dramatically with each massage therapist. Some were ruthless and pounding. Others felt like they were just lightly rubbing the surface of my skin, leaving my knots and my brain frustrated.
The one that reminded me of my mother had a soothing touch, working deep into my muscles without causing pain. The odd cantaloupe-`smelling massage oil filled my senses as I breathed into the release of my muscles.
My body would relax slowly, the anxious thoughts drifting away. Sometimes I would drift to sleep. The hardness in my muscles gave way to the faint echo of a maternal touch. Waves of emotion released when she pushed into the knots, gently working them loose.
There was a yearning for this comfort that quelled the ache in my chest. It quieted for a moment the pain, the loneliness of being human and in many ways, motherless.
Why, in the search for relief from my aching shoulders, in search for some comfort of no longer having a mother to mother me, was I stuck in the awkwardness of the distortion that touch always needed to be potentially sexual and exploitable?
That these women that offered massage were possibly trapped. That at best, they were there voluntarily working a barely livable wage, at worst they were trafficked and unable to get out, trying to make a living in the convoluted chasm where the distorted images of overly sexualized Asian women drew men that would pay more to exploit them, though always less than what they would pay a white girl.
I think of my early dating years, feeling out if the person had a fetish for Asian women. I mean, you want them to be attracted to you, but there is a difference between being attracted to you, versus being attracted to the idea of someone that looks like you. Those two often contradicted each other. Why does being a woman feel like a constant case of defending yourself?
This conflict ricocheted in my head every time I went, eventually becoming too much. Even with shoulders solid as rocks, I stopped going, because my search for comfort left me feeling even more out of place and awkward.
It reached deep into the displaced part of me, the daughter of Chinese immigrants in the United States trying to forge her own path but feeling constantly out of place somehow. That the American Dream I was trying to live was not the box I would ever be allowed to fully inhabit.
One night, when I couldn’t sleep, the eerie blue light of the tv filling the dark room, I watched a Lisa Ling “This is Life” episode about illicit massage parlors. The special said one in six women that worked in a massage parlor were forced into it by traffickers, that there were over 1,000 illicit massage parlors in New York, 1 for every 3 Starbucks. How was I supposed to be able to tell what was legitimate and what wasn’t?
The worry of contributing to exploitation made me unable to relax. Unable to make peace with not being able to figure out which businesses were illicit, I just stopped going.
Some part of me has always been drawn to giving money to immigrants, to want to help them get their feet on the ground. Some karmic gesture to help people like my parents out as they are newly arriving in the United States. But it felt wrong if they couldn’t keep enough money to build a life. The push pull of “a good deal” and exploitation drove me away. I would instead pay more to a massage place that called their staff “therapists” but paid them a livable wage and benefits.
My massage continued. She asked me to roll over onto my chest. I gently turned over, concentrating hard on not rolling off the table. I carefully placed my face on the paper with the hole that was set on the face hole built into the chair, wondering about how much overall hygiene that thin sheet of paper added. The paper stuck to my face as I readjusted.
She reached under my shirt and unhooked my bra, her hands precisely pushing underneath my shoulder blades. I winced a bit at the pressure, but I knew this pain was a necessary hurt. The only way to release what had built up. She managed to keep the pressure at just the right delicate amount without tipping into a massage that left a bruise.
Many times that I went to this place, I would go to the bathroom as the massage person filled the bucket to soak my feet in with warm water and fragrance. Each time, I would catch a glimpse of the backroom as I walked by. Small white porcelain bowls with blue patterns, just like the ones at my parent’s house. Some with mounds of rice in them, others with stir-fried veggies with slivers of meat. It smelled like home. A blend of steamed rice, soy sauce, garlic and miscellaneous vegetables, a touch of sesame oil lingering across the top.
I wondered where my massage person slept. I wondered what her life was like outside of this place, or more precisely if she was allowed to have a life outside of this place.
Did she have a daughter? Was she too tired to rub her shoulders when she got home?
After my massage was finished, I give my massage woman a large cash tip. I had made sure to get it beforehand, though I see the woman at the front counter looking over, and I wondered how much of it she would be able to keep.
I stopped going long before the Atlanta shootings of the Asian massage therapists.
Black Lives Matter had happened, Me Too had happened, and I was between hopeful that change was happening and resentful that so much was still so broken. It re-emphasized that racism never stayed neatly in its own column and that ignoring it was not the answer. That hate toward one minority quickly spread to hate towards others and as people, we needed to keep uniting to use our voices together, even if it was uncomfortable and often felt unsafe.
When I saw the news report, I couldn’t stop thinking of when I used to go. Even seeking an innocent comfort, my world was impacted by the not-so-subtle racism against Asians and Asian women in particular.
I read an article about the sons of one of the victims, Hyun Jung Grant.
The two of them repeatedly explaining, justifying, ‘She just gave massages. Nothing creepy.”
How she would tell people that she worked at a make-up counter so she didn’t have to explain her job.
This killer who said he was “removing sexual temptation” had distilled and targeted his anger and self-loathing onto Asian women. The reality of this hate turned to action came from the unspoken that we all knew was there but was so often dismissed and used to undermine.
My heart broke that these boys, soon to be men, would be without their mother, would be without her touch, her comfort, and her guidance the rest of their lives.
Donating money to them felt capitalistic, but it also felt good that I could help. It felt good to do something. I talked about it, a lot. To anyone that would listen and sometimes to people who wouldn’t.
How different were we really? My massage person and me, my massage person and my mother? One generation? Education? Someone exploiting them? A man with money that fetishized Asian women and was ok with treating them like commerce? Parents that worked endlessly to give me a better start? A system and a society that judged and limited them for their race? What was that line? It felt enormous yet tenuously thin all at one time.
I made dinner for my parents. At 99 Ranch, the Chinese version of Costco, I acquired some beef tendon and banana shank and braised them slowly for hours. The mix of soy sauce and Shaoxing wine and five spice, ginger, daikon and carrot, meld together, filling my home with their aroma. This smell brings me comfort. It reminded me of the hours my mom and grandmother had spent creating this dish for me. It hit me in my epigenetics.
I envisioned my small, judgment-filled Chinese grandma, smiling on me from above. That I, with the magic of the internet and some form of magical absorption that occurred watching her and my mom cook, was now almost able to replicate her stew. She would have laughed and told me, “Man hao” which is, “Pretty good.” or more like, “Close enough to good.” Which would have been the highest compliment she could give.
Letting things cool, I sliced through the shank, laying it onto a plate, sprinkling green onions and drizzling sesame oil over the top.
Taking the plate over to my parents, I set it on the table. My dad brought over a bowl of white rice. The scent of soy sauce and sesame oil mingle with the aroma of the steamed white rice in the air. I was home.
Walking behind my mom, I gently rubbed her shoulders, coaxing them to release. As her mind has continued to slip from me, I ache for her conscious touch, her comfort, but I take some relief that I can give some of that comfort back to her.
My mind was lighter as I remembered that these hands of mine are what they are from the thousands of shoulder rubs, the caring touches that she gave to me. Her love was stored in my muscle memory also, underneath the knots and aches. This painful bittersweet of love and loss that circled around me with its complicated intensely human dance as I swirled in the middle of it.
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Goddess, that was beautiful! My mother had Alzheimer's for five years before her death but she always loved having her hands massaged with lotion. I look down at my 67 year-old hands now and realize that they're her hands. She sacrificed for all five of us in countless unglamorous ways and I miss her every single day.
Beautiful essay by Alice Liu. Thank you for addressing the sexualisation of Asian women in America and the exploitation of many in illicit massage places, carefully woven into such a poignant family story. My aunt who raised me used to rub my back every night, something I missed terribly as an adult and miss to this day. This was a great comfort to me, so I related well to your essay.