HERE’S WHY THEY STAND SO STRAIGHT

DAY 8: Medicine, gold medals and how this little piggy went to market.

BEIJING – So my big toe is being squeezed between this guy’s knuckles, shooting a pain up my body and straight out my ears, when I notice the guy’s eyes are shut tight and his head is close to my foot, leaning into it, face calm, as if listening for something, listening very, very carefully, and I realize I may be in the presence of … a Toe Whisperer.

“Sleep … no good,” he says.

At first I’m thinking, “Sleep? While you’re inflicting this kind of torture? Who am I, Torquemada?”

But then he repeats, “Sleep … no good.”

And I realize he is saying I am not sleeping well, a fact you also could guess from my face, which, thanks to jetlag, has the look of a cardboard box that has been shipped through baggage claim to Buenos Aries. But he is not looking at my face. He is listening to my toes. They are speaking to him. My dogs are barking. Well, not so much barking as whimpering, apparently in Cantonese.

“Pain … back,” he says, as he squeezes another toe and I want to throw a brick at him.

“Eyooow! Yes! Yes! I have back pain!”

I am in a large chair in a dim room in a basement-level massage shop, which is open 24 hours – yes, 24 hours – and has a sign in English calling itself the Ouijang Healthcare Club, and another sign in Chinese that I am guessing reads, “Physical Torture For Foreign Guests; Reasonable Rates.”

I am getting a one-hour foot massage, something that is a growing rage in China. It costs about 20 bucks. I could have had two hours for 40 bucks, but why be greedy with this kind of agony?

“Eeeeeyah!” I scream.

“Knees no good,” he says. A tradition for the ages

I first came to this place the day before, in an effort to investigate the enormous advantage Chinese athletes are experiencing in these Olympic Games – so far winning twice the gold medals the United States has won – and while, yes, it might have been more productive to immerse myself in, say, the balance beam, I doubt they’d let me near that. Also, I have an interest in Chinese culture, and what could be more cultural than a Chinese massage parlor?

Besides, according to my vast research, the first documented descriptions of massage were discovered in China and date to about 3000 B.C. I didn’t even know there were human beings in 3000 B.C. But, apparently, there were already plenty of Chinese and they were giving massages, thus explaining the steady nerves they now employ in the Olympics. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the principle that every illness, pain or ailment can be traced to an imbalance in your “Qi,” or life force.

Or, in my case, the little toe.

“YEEEOW!” I scream.

“Mmm … bad shoulder,” he says.

At the Ouijang Healthcare Club there are beautiful women out front calling you in (don’t get any ideas) and a front desk with more women, and then you are given a room down a hallway that is draped every few feet with silk curtains.

That’s where the romance ends. Next you are assigned a male therapist (in Chinese, the word is, I believe, “bone crusher”) who introduces himself only by his number. It occurs to me, too late, that so do prison inmates. Rearranging your organs

Now, according to its brochure, the Ouijang was inspired by the mythological Chinese doctor Qibo, who learned his craft from a heavenly being and is described in the brochure as “a northerner who was born smart and good at medicament.”

Which is where I soon found myself. In a medicament. I interpret that to be where “medicine” meets “predicament.” My medicament was that the therapist they assigned me, No. 110, despite my request to be made as fit as a Chinese gymnast, was soon grinding on, of all things, my stomach, pushing it back and forth, elbowing it so deep I thought he’d go through my spleen to tie his shoes. Also, he had one of those sharp-pointed haircuts and harsh cheek-boned faces that reminded me of the prison guards in “The Deer Hunter,” only I think those guys were nicer.

“Hrnng hrrnng,” he grunted now and then, as if pitying me my sad and pathetic Western medicaments. And he pushed my stomach a foot to the right.

Now, I am not sure, when you go for massage, that your organs should be reassigned to other regions. This is just me. Later he worked on my kidney area and my liver area, and also he put his hands around my eye sockets and pressed in, really hard, and, well, let’s just leave it there. I don’t want to damage Chinese-American relations any more than necessary.

Suffice it to say that I did not feel Olympian when I departed old No. 110, although I could relate to the Ping-Pong ball that they whack around with such joy in this country. But as I was leaving, one of the women out front said, “You come foot massage. Foot massage. Very good. Tomorrow. Foot massage. You come. Yes. What time?”

(As you can tell, there is no such thing as the low-key sales approach in Beijing. People are as sweet as can be, really, but if they could, they would burst into your hotel room and drag you by your pajamas into their store.)

And I realized, my mistake, apart from the chicken I’d eaten in the Olympic cafeteria, was in choosing the agony of the body, when I should have gone for the agony of da feet.

So I did. An insightful body part

Here is how that begins: You get in the large chair and are brought a giant wooden bucket filled with scalding hot water. And you plop your feet in that. I know this because my new therapist, No. 19, yelled something like “Nyeh! Nyeh! Gauy!” until I did (it was that or give up state secrets) and instantly my eyes bulged from my head and he grinned and said, “Hot, hot?” (Oh, so NOW he speaks English.)

Anyhow, while you are soaking in the boiling vat, No. 19 works on your back. (This actually feels good, although at one point, and I swear this is true, I felt two hands on my shoulders and then this sharp driving force in my spine and I’m thinking, “That can’t be his elbow, unless he’s a contortionist,” and I realized it was his …knee. Really. He worked my vertebrae with his knee! No wonder these folks are so good at gymnastics.)

And then, finally, comes the real medicament, the long, blissfully painful, analytical foot massage, in which every metatarsal, phalange, talus, navicular and cuneiform is pounded, pummeled, knuckled and squeezed until you can’t see straight.

“God in heaven, no more!” I plead.

“Elbows no good,” he says.

By the way, this process of breaking down the entire body through the foot is apparently called reflexology in the United States and other places where they don’t win as many gold medals. Here it is called “Royal Foot Massage For One Person, 60 Minutes.” At least that’s how it’s listed on the menu.

And, suddenly, with my head flung backward and my eyes rolled into their sockets, I am finished. And No. 19 scrubs my feet with a hot, wet towel and he listens once more to my toes, which apparently are saying, “We pledge eternal loyalty to the motherland, just, please, we are begging you, leave us alone,” and he takes his gear and departs, but not before pointing to his badge and saying, “Ah, ah, OK?” which is either his way of saying, “Come back again and ask for The Toe Whisperer, OK?” or “If you tell anyone what went on here, No. 19 will hunt you down like the scrawny dog you are.”

Either way, I leave with a spring in my step, ready to pummel a pommel horse. And I think I get why the Chinese are doing so well at these Games. Compared to surviving a daily foot massage, capturing gold is a piece of cake.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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