Why I Avoid My Local Chinese-Run Massage Parlor (It’s Not What You Think)

Boulder, Colorado, where a mass shooting occurred last week. (Photo courtesy of the author)

As the world grieves the horrifying loss of life to mass shootings near and far, including the murders of six Asian women who made a living in service to other people’s aching muscles, other people’s stress relief — I’m realizing with more clarity why I could never get comfortable with one of my husband’s favorite places — Relaxing Station.

Relaxing Station is the Chinese-run massage parlor in Boulder, Colorado. It’s housed in a non-descript single-level retail space in the middle of town, sandwiched between a diner and a nail salon. The large open room is set up in several zones: a few half-wall room dividers separate a reception area from a central zone with two rows of oversized leather chairs facing each other and some TVs playing slideshows of nature scenes. Massage tables line the walls. The ceilings are affixed with pipes or braces of some sort — used by massage therapists for balance while they’re literally walking on your back. In an affluent, mostly white town, it’s where you go to get a cheap massage without an appointment — between dropping the kids off, going to the gym, running errands, or running your tech company.

My husband, who is Indian American, loves Relaxing Station. Or, I should say, he loved it — before a global pandemic made out of the question the idea of sharing a large, indoor space of questionable HVAC quality with a bunch of other breathing humans, being touched repeatedly by a stranger working to relieve your sore muscles. His idea of an ideal date often involved a suggestion to go to Relaxing Station for foot rubs. I’d almost always demur, encouraging him to go “get relaxed” while I found something else to do: walk around, sit outside on a bench with a book, or wait in the car with my phone… anything to avoid the place without denying him the pleasure of having his feet rubbed for an unthinkably inexpensive hourly fee by someone waiting for customers to walk in.

Brian X. Chen wrote in The New York Times that, “Asian-Americans are…becoming the most economically divided demographic in the country. In 2016…incomes ranged from about $12,000 at the 10th percentile to roughly $133,500 at the 90th percentile…according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with about $15,100 and $118,00 for whites.” Reading that sentence broke something open for me, a tiny bite in a soup dumpling overflowing with guilt, confusion, lack of self-awareness — burning my refined, high-earning tongue.

I’m squeamish about class — but I didn’t start at the economic top of the Asian American demographic. My mother came here as an immigrant from Hong Kong in 1964, her mother a garment factory worker, her father a card dealer in the Chinatown social club to which they belonged. My father was born in the 1950s in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, an American-born son in a chain immigration of Chinese Yees to the Pittsburgh area, where his father worked in a Chinese laundry, then Chinese restaurants, wowing his grandchildren by de-boning a whole steamed fish at dinner with a fork, a spoon, and a few quick flicks of his wrist.

Just over half a century later, I am the daughter and grand-daughter of those people, with a degree from a top liberal arts college and another from a top business school, working in a high-profile director job at a high-profile global public company.

Did I work hard to get here? Yes I did. Do I feel proud of realizing the dreams of my working class foreparents? Yes I do. Do I wish to carry on the values of hard work, education, resilience that were passed to me, implicitly and explicitly? Very much so. Do I feel like I’m suppressing the economic mobility of my fellow Chinese if I pay below-market service rates for a massage that costs twice as much at the “nicer” white-owned salon down the road? Yes, I’m realizing. Yes.

I now see that my personal history and class mobility perpetuates the “model minority” myth — but I am only slowly realizing that this complicates my relationship with the systems that continue to value and lift up certain groups of Asian Americans over others.

I always thought my squeamishness about Relaxing Station was about paying for a massage from a Chinese person who could reasonably share an ancestor with me. But it’s much more than that. “Often one generation of immigrants in service jobs raises the next generation of corporate strivers,” continues the same Times piece. “But as the population grows, the groups are becoming increasingly isolated from one another.” That, or we’re coming face-to-face with each other in massage parlors, nail studios, dim sum restaurants. I’m not embarrassed of my personal history, but I’m increasingly distressed to be part of the group pulling away without acknowledging and supporting those who are simply trying to start the same narrative for their families.

Is it okay for me to be a consumer in an economy that is keeping a class of Asian-Americans just “scraping by,” those working in the only jobs they can find? A brilliant Filipinx friend of mine encouraged me to research what we’ve learned from other POC groups about the widening income gap — and how those lessons might serve to inform my view on buying power, and the “shame…we ought not carry.” What I’ve found are dozens of articles, lists, and resources on how and why to support Black- and Asian-owned businesses and organizations.

Maybe my shame is misdirected.

Asian-owned businesses face twin crises right now — of livelihood, and of xenophobic mistrust and violence egged on by powerful people. According to a study by McKinsey & Co. published in August, Asian Americans experienced a 450% increase in unemployment between February and June 2020, outstripping any other racial group. Asian-owned businesses are overrepresented in categories hit hardest by pandemic lockdowns: food and other services, retail, and cultural districts effectively shut down due to racist fears about Coronavirus.

Supporting the livelihoods of Asians in America right now is what’s important. Bringing more awareness to the harmful way in which Asians have been lumped together as one group and therefore systematically disenfranchised, is what’s important. Fighting back against anti-Asian racism with our bodies, our words, our dollars, is what’s important. Now, without guilt, maybe it’s okay to go to Relaxing Station with my husband after all.

So what can you do? To start, I liked some of these simple suggestions collated by the small business support organization, SCORE, written about Black-owned businesses but applicable to to Asian-owned ones as well:

  • Start with visibility and share the business with your social circles
  • Write & share a review on any platform
  • Build a relationship and ask what they need
  • Provide resources and/or access to capital or connections

You can also use the power of your pocket right now:

And you can learn more:

  • COVID-19 and Advancing Asian American Recovery [McKinsey & Co.]
  • “Dear Educators, It Is Time to Fight for Asian America [Rethinking Schools]
  • “I Don’t Like China of Chinese People Because They Started This Quarantine” [Rethinking Schools]
  • BOOK: The Making of Asian America [Bookshop]
  • BOOK: Strangers from a Different Shore [Bookshop]

Jenn is a Chinese American writer and learning professional based in Boulder, Colorado.

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