Friday, December 02, 2005

That Thing You Do to Faces

Any of you who have studied a foreign language long enough to be disqualified as a beginner but not long enough to be considered truly proficient will be familiar with the art of talking around words. This is the skill that allows you to convey the meaning of the word without ever using the word itself, and it usually works like this:

“In the park there are machines that you sit on and they go up and down very fast to scare you. But they are for fun. You sit on them because you want to have fun. Sometimes they go very high. Like in that place in California that is famous for the little cartoon mouse. They have many of these scary machines that you sit on for fun. ”

Or, in instances that simultaneously humble and amaze you, it works like this:

“I’m looking for a cruciferous vegetable that is a verdant green. It has a very thick stem and a bulbous, rounded top. It is of high nutritive value and is a member of the same genus as the cauliflower. I am hoping to purchase it so that I can include it in a smorgasbord of salads that I whipping up for a casual gathering in my place of domicile this evening."

The art of the verbal pantomime is definitely not limited to language learners—those unfortunate enough to have to converse with us often resort to this tactic, as well. In their dealings with me, the patient denizens of Beijing have proved themselves to be surprisingly skilled in this arena. With the help of some dramatic gestures, inventive facial expressions and “international” sound effects, we manage to communicate with one another quite effectively.

All that aside, sometimes precision is priceless. There are definitely those moments when you need to know the right word, right away, and nothing else will suffice. This kind of moment might come, for example, in an emergency. Or it might come when you are in a real hurry. Or it might come, as it did for me this Wednesday, when you are naked and sitting a foot away from someone that you have only met twice before and who is also naked, and you are not in a bedroom, but instead in semi-public and there are two strangers wearing white jackets talking to you and looking at you. In moments like this, for instance, you don’t want to beat around the bush. In moments like this, you want to know the phrase for “turn over” so that you can turn away from your new acquaintance and the people in white jackets, hide your blushing face, stop worrying that someone is telling you to do a naked squat, and turn over already.

This Wednesday I treated myself to a facial and treated one near stranger and two total ones to a view of my bare, wintertime flesh. I am not confident my companions can say the same, but for my part, at least, the awkwardness of the naked non-communication incident was worth enduring in order to get to the pure luxury of a facial treatment so extravagant that it included a massage (the reason, in case you were waiting for it, that we had our clothes off in the first place), lasted one and a half hours, and left me so mushy and relaxed that I could barely walk—all for less than the price of a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn back home.

When I returned to our apartment and asked Mark if my skin looked any different he told me: “Yes, it looks rosy. Rosy around the nose.” I can’t say I was delighted but I also can’t say I care. Because, here’s the deal: it’s not really about the skin. It’s about pampering. Some of you might scoff at the thought of paying any amount of money just to have someone rub you and rub stuff onto you. But trust me, you have an inner diva and it’s just begging to be indulged, especially if your outer diva spends its days in the grey grime and cold of Beijing. I am not a person who goes gaga over massage and I don’t pay particular attention to my skin, but just two days after this experience, I am already hoping for an outbreak of pimples so I have some excuse to treat myself again.

Those of you reading this in Beijing (and I know there are a few of you): don’t delay. Grab a friend and get to the salon. And if you don’t know how to say facial, try this:

“That amazing thing that you do with soft hands and sweet-smelling potions. When you rub the face and put cream and hot towels on it. And you also rub the back, and the shoulders and the arms and even the scalp and cause ordinary Americans to wonder if they should give up their homeland and take up permanent residence in Beijing just so they can come back to you. You know, that thing you do to the face.”

(Just remember, “turn over” is “fan shen”.)