Written by Rachel Glasser, (University of Pittsburgh) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Spring 2017

My friend Saraly and I headed over to the spa this weekend to relax, unwind and celebrate the three-month mark of our semester in Harbin. To say it was an experience would be an understatement.

When we walked in, we were directed to the left where a man told us to take off our shoes and in turn gave us shower slippers. He also handed us wristbands that would track our spending within the spa and would allow us to pay for everything at the end.

Saraly and I entered through a thick brown curtain into a changing area and a woman showed us to our lockers. Saraly and I stood in front of our open lockers dumbfounded, unsure of what to do next.

Strolling through the park

I asked one of the women standing in the entryway what we should do.

“Go shower!” she said.

Chinese women are very comfortable with nakedness, and in the changing room, everyone walks around and interacts freely without clothes. It’s a habit that Saraly and I hadn’t fully adopted yet.

Saraly and I threw each other apprehensive looks and finally removed our clothes and prepared to shower. Saraly, who had brought her swimsuit, decided to wear her bottoms for the time being.

We walked through the changing room into an open area with a small round table and wicker chairs in the center, surrounded by the shower area, two saunas and the massage area. We showered and proceeded to the massage area, first watching the process to figure out our next step. The masseuses all wore black underwear.

After watching from a slight distance for a few minutes, we moved closer. A masseuse came over to us and we told her we were interested in a massage. She wrote down Saraly’s wristband number and told us she would come get us when it was our turn.

To kill time, we tried out the saunas, first walking into the “wet” sauna. The wet sauna was like walking into a cloud. We couldn’t see anything because of the fog, and breathing the thick, wet air felt a little like we were drowning. There were two stone stools in the middle of the room that I was hesitant to sit on with my bare bottom. Needless to say, after three to five minutes, we stepped back out.

We then tried out the “dry” sauna. The air was clear, still damp and thick, but breathable. The room was a rounded, semicircle shape with a clear glass wall separating us from the rest of the spa area. In the middle of the room was a large raised pit with what look liked hot stones, and on the back wall was a wooden platform. The wooden platform might have been intended for sitting, however, when we walked in, a woman was standing on the platform, facing the clear glass wall that looked out into the rest of the complex.

Saraly and I went with the flow, stepping up on the platform next to her. She started doing stretches; we started doing stretches.

After we couldn’t take the heat any longer, we exited the sauna and went back to the showers to rinse off. I grabbed a towel, dried off and sat in a chair. The masseuse called out a number and Saraly and I walked over to check to see if it was ours. We waited there for about two minutes before she pushed us away and told us to keep waiting.

Our Chinese still isn’t perfect, but at this point, we just laugh off the misunderstandings.

A few minutes later, the masseuse waved us over. She immediately started yelling at me and I had no idea what she was saying.

“Chong, chong!”

Eventually she dragged me by the arm to the showers and I realized that she wanted my body to be wet, not dry. A dictionary search later revealed that “chong” means “rinse.”

Saraly finds a small friend to play soccer with

I sauntered back to the massage area where the masseuse was laying fresh plastic wrap on the bed. She motioned for me to climb up. I lay on my back as she began to scrape my skin with an exfoliating pad. Saraly and I glanced at each other from our adjacent massage tables with slightly pained looks. When our masseuses finished scrubbing our entire bodies — front, back and all — we were covered in small rolled bits of dead skin.

“Chong!” they said again.

After rinsing again, we asked our masseuses to give us the best massage in the 98 RMB price range — around 14 dollars — and also chose to add cucumber facials to our tab.

I climbed back on the table. My masseuse rubbed a sweet, orange-scented oil all over my skin and kneaded it into my body. Then, she took finely chopped cucumber and layered it on my face. Once my face was sufficiently covered, she stretched a sheet of plastic wrap over my face and poked holes in it for my eyes, nose and mouth. She stretched a larger sheet of plastic over my entire body. For about 20 minutes, I lay there wrapped up like a corpse.

Saraly and I spent two hours at the spa for about 35 dollars, and I gained two things: extremely soft skin and a greater appreciation for the naturalness of the human body.