To get a Chinatown-style massage in New York, you don’t actually have to head down to Canal Street. There are countless spas across the city, obscure storefronts you hear about through word of mouth, places sporting familiar signage: BACK & FOOT RUB. They follow a similar business model: no frills, volume, astonishingly affordable.
At the entrance, a worker, typically Chinese, will greet you and ask, “How much time?” Sometimes, there will be a little commotion, whispers and scurrying, as you’re ushered down a dimly lit narrow hall, behind a curtain and into a cramped room with a massage table. There, you’ll find a few wall hooks to hang your clothes. You’ll sense the close proximity of fellow customers, palpable through the thin dividing walls. There’s generally no formal introduction to your masseuse; they often materialize when you’re already mostly naked and prone. The experience can feel dubious, yet painfully therapeutic: For around $50 an hour, plus tip, it is self-care in a tough, expensive city where small luxuries remain elusive.
The night after Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, shot and killed eight people inside three Atlanta-area Asian massage businesses, I met up with a friend. We knew bits of Mr. Long’s story, and some of the victims’ names had finally been released. According to the police, Mr. Long, an evangelical Christian, claimed he had a sex addiction and viewed the businesses as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
My social media feeds lit up with “stop Asian hate” messaging, much as they had in recent weeks in response to the surge in anti-Asian violence across the country. But this time, the focus was even more uncomfortably close: Like me, six of the victims were female and Asian.
I had trouble articulating my feelings to my friend, a Black-Puerto Rican woman born and raised in Manhattan. Finally, I landed on something tangible: Would non-Asian Americans care less about this because massage workers are part of a marginalized subset of the community? My friend, who had never been to one, affirmed my fears: “Aren’t they all sex parlors?”
In response, I described to her the yearlong sabbatical I took from journalism to help open a restaurant, where I also worked as a server, spending a good portion of my cash tips on different Asian masseuses to soothe my aching muscles each week. Their job, like mine, was very physically demanding, helping client after client. With my rudimentary Mandarin, I could only exchange a few words: My back hurts a lot. That’s fine. Thank you. When I spoke to them in Chinese, I could sometimes sense a softening. But ultimately we remained alien to each other. “Who gives these women massages at the end of their shifts?” I wondered. It is low-paying, grueling work done mostly by immigrant women, often middle-aged, who, in my experience, have never exhibited an inclination to play the temptress.
In Asia, massage is legal, normal and necessary. In America, it’s stained by sexism, imperialism and sex trafficking. Now I’ve learned from news reports that trafficking in illicit parlors pervades thousands of locations around the country. The masseuses earn only a fraction of the service fee; most of their money comes through tips, which is used to pay off debt.
I’m a Gen Xer originally from an upper-middle-class Southern California suburb, a veteran journalist trained to compartmentalize feelings from fact. I’m also a Chinese-American woman long inured to being accosted, assaulted and attacked in public, often with racist and sexual overtones. People don’t expect me, an Asian-American female, to be angry. They expect me to embody the clichés: submissive, quiet, inconsequential, dutiful, exotic object of fetishization.
The day after the shootings, Pim Techamuanvivit, a Thai restaurateur in San Francisco, tweeted, “I can tell you the best way to see the insidious prejudice against Asians, especially Asian women, is to come spend a service with my Thai host, then come back the next night to see my white host working the same position.” The tweet seemed to suggest a social experiment of sorts, one where only minorities know the result.
In fact, the past 12 months have been a big, ugly social experiment. What more racist violence would have transpired if we weren’t so isolated? My difficulty, or reluctance, in speaking about my anger isn’t because I’m not infuriated. For self-preservation, I’ve been trained to suppress my rage, a multigenerational, cross-cultural habit of millions of broken hearts.
In a recent interview about her role in the Oscar-nominated film “Minari,” the 73-year-old South Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung said of her generation’s immigrant experience in the United States: “We expected to be treated poorly, so there was no sorrow.” These days, younger Asian-Americans have transformed our community’s voice: They won’t stand for the abuse. They speak up with passion.
Growing up, I observed white Americans belittle my family; the experience rearranged my perceptions of authority. I learned not to waste time engaging with the frivolous and ignorant, but to focus on the best revenge: success. My parents didn’t make it to this country and work tirelessly for their native English-speaking children to become victims of systemic racism — to fail.
There are two Asian-Americas: one that is invisible, the other marginal. Unlike the massage workers, I am perceived by society as a model minority, representative of successful Asian-Americans. But that alone, I have learned, does not constitute power or freedom.
Since returning to full-time journalism in 2016, I have rarely gone for a massage. In the past year, I often have wondered what has happened to these women. How are they paying their bills? Who is helping them heal? Who is recognizing their humanity?
Claudine Ko is the culture editor of T Brand at The New York Times.
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