Global adventures in Asian reflexology

THE FIRST TIME I let a mild-mannered and seemingly harmless elderly Asian woman touch my feet, the pains of regret shot through my body instantly, from the underside of my left foot -- just below the big toe -- right up to my heart and everywhere in between. It was in Hong Kong International Airport circa 2002. Call me naive, but I had merely signed up for a little reflexology to soothe my aching feet after a tiresome transpacific flight, just a little foot massage to pass the time and rejuvenate the kicks. This small joint near Gate 40, simply called Oriental Healing Art, suckered me in with its 30-minute special for $20 or so. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

You see, reflexology, at least based on my experience in high-end spas in the West, is a wee bit of pampering -- a nice, pleasant little foot rub administered with tender love and care to aching feet on special occasions. It’s supposed to be a treat. Not that folks who practice reflexology in the West don’t believe in its ancient healing effects; they just don’t torture you in the process. (Might have something to do with wanting repeat business.)

But in the East, reflexology is more akin to a medical procedure -- and one administered without anesthesia, for that matter. For 30 minutes that day, I endured chair-gripping, face-grimacing, sweat-inducing agony. Voluntarily. Every time that lovely, tiny woman -- bless her heart -- dug her knuckles into the soles of my feet, I thought she was digging for China. Except we were already in China. So I was confused.

I thought to myself, Is this normal? Am I just a wimp? I looked around at the other clients, all of Asian descent, all happily sipping their green tea, reading the paper, and calmly falling into a deep state of relaxation at the hands of their reflexologists. Why was I the only one dying here? Suddenly, it hit me -- my reflexologist was to blame. She was taking out some sort of Eastern frustration that I could never possibly understand on my feet. That must be it. But I soldiered on, enduring the pain, refusing to go out like the boy from the States who couldn’t handle a little Asian foot rub. It nearly killed me, but I survived.

Then a strange thing happened. After reluctantly paying the bill (after all, they’d just put me through some sort of medieval torture -- shouldn’t they be paying me, and a lot?), I floated off toward my connecting flight to India like I was walking on air. I’d never before felt so light in my loafers. My feet felt soothed and rejuvenated, and as I sauntered to my gate, I felt like a Chinese emperor -- untouchable and podiatrically blessed. I felt healed.

A few years later, while I was booking another flight that would require a stopover at Hong Kong International, the travel agent said to me, “You will have a 50- minute layover in Hong Kong. Is this okay with you?” Suddenly, I remembered my 2002 reflexology session. And, I have no idea why, but I needed my foot fix. “What’s the next option?” I inquired of the agent. “It would be three hours later, sir.” Perfect! And so began my masochistic addiction to Asian reflexology.

 

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WHETHER OR NOT I actually believe in reflexology remains to be seen. A type of zone therapy, it’s been evidenced in Egyptian pictographs dating as far back as 2,300 BC and has been documented in records of Chinese dynasties older than dirt itself. Reflexology is said to be able to heal a laundry list of chronic health problems via the application of pressure to certain points of the feet and hands that in turn stimulates the nerves, blood, and lymphatic supplies to biologically self-correct the corresponding organs and systems throughout the body. Of course, nobody can really prove that with hard, cured evidence, so it remains the sort of medical care your aunt scoffs at. And while I’m no doctor, I find it a little hard to believe that if, for instance, someone pushes hard enough on a small area on the middle inside of my foot, it will reverse the effects of years of fine wine on my liver. (After all, if this were indeed the case, I’d gladly forgo my monthly health-insurance premium in lieu of a punishing $30 foot massage. Perhaps this is the crux of our health-care crisis in the United States; I don’t know.) What is apparent to me, though, is that even if nothing that ailed me was actually cured, I sure did feel good after those two foot rubs -- and that possibly tricked me into thinking I was a new man, in a sort of mind-over-matter kind of way, anyway. And I was beginning to love that part, and it was loving me back (sometimes more than my wife, whom I haven’t exactly seen dishing out the foot massages lately). So I figured there had to be something to it; otherwise, whenever I landed in Asia, I would be more concerned with shopping and Tsingtao than with the saving of my soles.

 

I was so enamored of this new obsession of mine, in fact, that on my last trip to Taiwan, while touring around Taipei with two tourism officials -- both young guys who were up for anything, thankfully -- I suggested foot massages. I mean, I really needed my fix. They knew the perfect spot: a little place on Kwangchow Street, near one of Taipei’s bustling markets. We settled in, the three of us side by side in separate massage chairs along a nondescript wall. Unfortunately, they waited until this point to tell me -- to my surprise -- that this would be the first time for both of them. I cringed at the thought of what lay ahead, and I tried to warn them. Let’s just say neither of them truly believed me when I told them it was going to be a tad uncomfortable.

We were handed foot-reflexology charts showing us which pressure points on our feet corresponded to which parts of our body, and then our reflexologists dug in. I knew I was in trouble the moment I noticed that my reflexologist -- a male this time -- had a hardened nub on his knuckle from his years of reflexology work. I braced myself and looked over pityingly at my friends, who remained clueless about the grief coming down the pike.

The pain was swift and unrelenting, but, being prepared for it, I handled myself with a little dignity. My skeptical friends, on the other hand, were blindsided. The next half hour was an exercise in hysterics, the three of us caught between laughter at each others’ grimaces and no-translation-necessary howls of ache and concern as, with each twinge of pain, we scoured the charts to see what parts of our bodies were ailing us. (Apparently, my liver, heart, kidneys, and pituitary glands were all shot.) I soon realized that my bank account would be, too, if, in order to continue feeding this addiction, I had to keep flying to Asia.

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER I’d returned home from that trip, I decided to do a little research on reflexology services in Los Angeles, where I live. Come to find out, about 20 miles away, in San Gabriel, there is a road lined with Asian reflexology joints. Apparently, San Gabriel was the first city in Los Angeles County to issue permits for foot-massage spas, and it’s home to the largest Chinese-American community in the States. After perusing websites and reading reviews posted by customers for the various spas, I settled on a spot called Oriental Natural Treatment, and I jumped in the car, as Angelenos are wont to do.

Forty-five minutes later, I found myself driving along East Valley Boulevard, a bustling avenue also known as Reflexology Row -- there was hardly an English sign in sight. I located Oriental Natural Treatment and parked the car. Inside, some 15 or so leather chairs filled a room soundtracked with the background hum of CCTV (Chinese television) and the urgent linguistic chaos of high-volume Cantonese. There were very few clues to remind me that I was not, in fact, in China. A one-hour foot massage ran $15. I sank into my seat and took a deep breath.

A sense of calm came over me the moment I felt the pain of the rubdown, a massage that, with my eyes closed, was nearly indistinguishable from the ones I’d had in Asia (though I suspect they take it easy on those not of Asian descent -- that, or my tolerance was building).

One rave review I’d read about Oriental Natural Treatment had justified the drive to San Gabriel for a foot massage by claiming that the gas was 10 cents cheaper there. I don’t know about that, but for this self-confessed reflexology addict, it’s definitely a heck of a lot closer than China.



If you want to feel the pain

Hong Kong, China
Oriental Healing Art
Southwest Concourse, gate 40
Hong Kong International Airport
011-852-2755-1555

Taipei, Taiwan
Han Fon Foot Massage
kwangchow street, 235
011-886-2-308-2884

Singapore, Malaysia
My foot reflexology
Terminal 1, near gate c16
Terminal 2, opposite gate e6
Singapore Changi Airport
011-65-6546-0603

Los Angeles
Oriental Natural Treatment
502-512 East Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel
(626) 280-0669