Friday, January 16, 2009

All Grace

Shanghai is the business and industrial capitol of China, and it shows. There are certainly enough impressive office towers and walled-off factory compounds to go around – they loom on every corner, with bored guards lounging in shacks by the entrances. But driving down the street, you’re likely to see just a few basic kinds of establishments: restaurants (of every shape and kind), shops selling 80’s-style clothing in appropriately tiny sizes, shops selling mobile phones, street vendors selling counterfeit DVDs, shops and street vendors selling bottled drinks and snacks, and places offering massages.

I was a little suspicious of the latter when I first arrived here in China. I’d been raised to believe that “massage parlor” was just a polite way of saying “brothel” (although I knew that there were legitimate masseuses out there; there was something suspicious about the word “parlor,” apparently). But it didn’t take me long to realize that unlike back home, everyone got massages in China.

I don’t know enough to say why, although I’d guess it’s related to the deeply ingrained Asian folk culture of health and holistic medicine. Whatever the reason, massages are popular, and massage shops ubiquitous. For about fifty yuan (nine dollars), a masseuse will rub, pound, knead, and otherwise abuse your back, neck, head, and shoulders for half an hour or so. That’s just the beginning. Most of these establishments also offer foot massages, aromatic oil massages, Japanese massages, pedicures, manicures, and a host of other more ominous-sounding services with names like “hot earwax cleansing” or “traditional physiotherapy.” It’s inexpensive enough that everyone can afford to have a massage once a month or so without putting a serious dent in her pocketbook. You can get them even cheaper if you’re not too picky about how clean the place is.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really notice storefronts offering massages. They’re just part of the landscape of our semi-urban Chinese lives. But for the past two days, I haven’t been living my normal semi-urban Chinese life. Since we’re expecting our first child sometime around the end of June (for those of you that I thought I told already, but didn’t – surprise!), Desiree and I thought we’d do one last weekend getaway, just the two of us, and explore a little bit of this gargantuan city that we live in. We booked a nice, relatively low-cost hotel just off the Bund, the old and glamorous riverfront drive that makes up the heart of Shanghai. We’ve spent the time looking at French colonial architecture, sneaking pictures of the birthplace of the Communist Party of China, and wandering around old streets.

We were walking back to our hotel Monday evening after snooping around some beautiful European Concession buildings on the waterfront and eating Japanese noodles for dinner. We wanted to get something to drink, so we made for the lights of a small convenience store about a block from our hotel. Having purchased a few suitable beverages, we strolled back down the street through scattered Chinese commuters. I glanced idly up at the lighted storefronts as we passed them: a collection of dirty shops selling socks, phone cards, or battered tools arranged in plastic trays, each with a bundled-up shopkeeper staring vacantly into a tiny television on the counter. A massage shop caught my eye for professional reasons: three-foot letters along the top of the window read MGSAGGE, accompanied by a string of Chinese characters. I grinned and looked past the sign into the store. It was normal enough: a front desk, two low couches with a glass coffee table, a few sick-looking office plants in the corners, and a doorway leading into the back. Three remarkably attractive young ladies were perched on the couches, waiting for customers. They were laughing – one of them had apparently just made a joke. Another of the girls was bent over, wiping the glass coffee table with a rag, and I noticed intricate inked patterns swirling across her shoulders and upper arms. “Cool tattoos,” I commented to Desiree, nodding at the girl. “What makes them cool?” my wife shot back playfully. I was preparing a suitably witty reply when I glanced one final time into the shop and immediately looked away again. On the back wall was a huge poster that would have been more at home in the pages of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition, or worse.

I was momentarily puzzled as I stepped around an electrical pole and dodged an oncoming cyclist. Then everything clicked in my mind: the shocking poster, the massage shop in the middle of the hotel district, and three beautiful young women wearing skimpy summer clothes in January.

I’ve never seen a prostitute before, to my knowledge. I knew they existed, of course. I’ve seen suspicious pamphlets in Chinese hotel rooms marked “Spa – Men Only” with spa prices ten times the normal amounts. I’ve even heard stories from friends about getting phone calls in their rooms from strange women when they check in. But I’d never encountered one myself.

There was something deeply disquieting about seeing them there, clustered all together on the end of the couch, looking for all the world like a group of my fresh-faced nursing students giggling over some secret joke. I can see them now in my mind’s eye – just waiting for customers; ready to sell their attentions to the next out-of-town businessman who walks through the door. Ready to sell themselves.

What must it take, to press a hot iron onto your conscience night after night, to feel the disapproving glances of the grandmothers who hurry past your shop or to meet the gaze of little girls who peer curiously and innocently through the glass? What must it take to enter into employment in such a business – to walk into the shop for the first time, to meet the other girls, to check out the magazines, to have your outfit inspected as though it were a costume in a play?

I can answer that question. It takes humanity. It takes a fallen, cursed nature that rebels against the law written in our hearts. It’s the same human nature that it takes to enter such a place of business and to put your money down on the counter as though this woman were selling a haircut or a loaf of bread, and to push from your mind the fact that she has brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles; that she attended elementary school somewhere; that she frets over the price of makeup and has a beloved cat named MoMo; and that she is not simply a tool for temporary amusement.

I felt weary as we walked back into the hotel, and I cast sideways glances at everyone I met, suspecting them of the most heinous sins. Those girls disturbed me because I knew that I was not different. Deeply entrenched in my soul is the same deviant impulse that rips at the restraints of conscience and that calls out eagerly to temptations, “Yes! Take me with you!” That impulse is what it takes to beat down conscience, self-respect, and public morality for the sake of money or pleasure.

And even in the midst of those disturbing thoughts, I felt thankful. Not, God forbid, that I am not as other men, even as this prostitute, for I fast twice a week and give tithes of all that I get. But instead that He has been merciful to me even though I am like her. I am no less desperately wicked inside – inside, where it counts. And in spite of that, He loves me. He has rescued me from the enemy. One day, He will utterly liberate me of that wrongness and I will be free indeed.

And I hope – I ask – that He’ll do the same for them. Maybe one day I’ll meet that girl with the tattoos again at the foot of His throne, and I’ll give her a hug and we’ll talk about how it happened. I know it will have been grace – all grace.