It started with a Matt Damon film which was being screened at the Toronto International Films Festival (TIFF). The movie was scheduled for noon at the Roy Thompson Hall.
My wife and I had joined our daughter and son-in-law who were in town to binge-watch movies at the TIFF. The movie, about miniaturizing human beings to reduce consumption, was appropriately titled Downsizing. The plan was for the two of us to watch the movie, kill some time wandering around the city and regroup for dinner later in the evening.
For a mid-September day, the weather was gorgeous. So, when the movie ended we decided to walk around the familiar and some unfamiliar neighbourhoods of the city.
Toronto is a great city for walking. If you haven’t tried it, you should. The city is clean, safe, and diverse. No better way to kill some time than to walk from the gentrified Distillery District to the cool neighbourhoods of Ossington Avenue. This link from trip savvy will give you an idea.
After a couple of hours of walking in the hot sun, we were ready for a break. Walking seven kilometres can take a toll on your feet, especially when you are wearing shoes not intended for long walks.
As we strolled through China Town, the number of spas and massage parlours touting their services seemed to beckon us. The list of services were exhaustive and included massage, reflexology, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, to name a few. The number of massage places in China Town — any China Town — amazes me. Clearly, the community has figured out a niche that other Toronto ethnic neighbourhoods — Indian, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and others — seemed to have left alone.
Most massage parlours preferred to call their businesses “spas,” though their services were primarily focused on massages. Just so that we are clear, a spa offers holistic treatments that go beyond massage therapy — at least that is the idea.
We figured we had tired feet, time to kill, and spas galore to pick from. A quick search for massage places near China Town brought up mixed results. Some sounded legit. Some others offered discreet services; a few were more explicit and offered happy endings.
All we were looking for was a foot massage.
After walking past a few store fronts a couple of times, we decided to try one that looked the cleanest of the lot.
Most spas have the same feel to them. They are generally dimly lit with blue or purple hue, have asian sounding music playing in the background, and have an herbal smell about them. The chairs are normally plush and have a tired look about them.
This one was no different.
After resisting the owner’s attempt to up-sell services to us, we both settled for forty-five-minute foot massages. We were ushered into a booth where two masseuses greeted us and prepped for our massage. As the two started going about their business, we leaned back, closed our eyes and relaxed. The hot water on our tired feet felt good!
A few minutes in, I was woken up by something that my masseuse said. I looked at her. She wasn’t talking to me; she was speaking to her colleague in a language that I did not understand. I closed my eyes and decided to go back to my deep thoughts.
Suddenly she giggled.
I opened my eyes again. Both of them were looking at me, but quickly looked away. I wondered what they were saying. I couldn’t help feel that it was something about me. I decided to keep my eyes open for the rest of the massage — perhaps a visual deterrent would dissuade them from finding other things funny about me.
That lasted about five minutes.
They continued their intermittent conversation maintaining straight faces. Occasionally one would say something and they would both glance at me or my wife and then look away. Perhaps I was imagining; they were probably discussing dinner plans for all I knew.
Though, I was a little annoyed.
I wondered if they would be having their private conversation if I looked more Asian than South-East Asian. I made a mental note to check out Rosetta Stone for Mandarin.
Shouldn’t there be some sort of a massage parlour etiquette consideration here?
I reminded myself that we were not at the Hammam Spa at the Shangri-La. I should not be so sensitive.
I tried to analyze the situation.
I figured that they did not speak much English. Holding a conversation in broken English in front of clients may be awkward for them. Also, forty-five minutes spent in silence when you have another colleague in the room may feel strange.
I contemplated striking up a conversation with my wife in Malayalam, my mother tongue from India. What if we said something, looked at them and smiled? That would be a counter move — a dose of their own medicine.
Would that send a message?
Or, I could pull out my iPhone and try to surreptitiously figure out what they were saying using Google Translate. It could auto-detect the language and translate it for me. Except, I wasn’t carrying my headphones with me. If the phone started translating in real time, they may catch on.
I wondered if that would constitute a violation of their privacy in some way.
One sure way to avoid such a situation in the future would be to go into separate booths; but that would sort of take a way from the whole experience.
As we paid up, and headed out, other similar situations came to mind.
Colleagues talking in their native tongues at work with total disregard for others in the room; elevator conversations where you are the clueless third person; social situations where people break out in a foreign language in others’ presence, and many other situations where people forget common courtesy.
Signs of the times!
Stuff happens when you live in an ethnically and culturally diverse society.
Perhaps I am the one who needs to learn to adjust.
One thing I had to admit, my feet felt good!
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