The 1996 movie Comrades: Almost A Love Story depicts the twists and turns of two young souls, trying to make a living in Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s. In the massage parlor, the female protagonist who works as a masseuse at the time, is treated with Ouyang Pao’s obscene humor, as well as his heartwarming gestures. While the main plot is not without its wistfulness, many conversations and scenes subtly give away hints of reality: harsh labor conditions, shaping of identity, social mobility, cultural clash between the West and the East, and perhaps most evidently, the power dynamics of languages. The male protagonist’s aunt says at their first encounter, “Don’t call me auntie. Call me Rosie.”  From the newcomers’ ongoing pragmatic, tentative, and careful examination into the lives of locals, they gradually catch a glimpse of which language most powerfully benefits their social interactions and identities: Mandarin, Cantonese, or English?
In this issue, we feature a poem, “Jenny.” Jenny’s experiences as a masseuse are nowhere near a melancholic love story. While some customers actively seek conversation with Jenny because they enjoy her humor; other times, Jenny also encounters incidents of indifference, absurdity, and belittlement in her work.” We also invited four readers to share their feelings and experiences after reading the poem.
 In Chinese culture, it is not customary, if not socially unacceptable, to address elder family members by their first names. Here it indicates Auntie Rosie’s effort in trying to fit in the Hong Kong society.
Jenny By Joyce No, not Apple which was what they were naming you You prefer Jenny because apples are what people can play with in their hands whereas Jenny sounds like "接你" —— "They come, I welcome" And so Jenny is not 珍妮 You are neither as precious as 珍 nor as cute as 妮 You can't afford that kind of femininity Here you cultivate a special kind of femininity. De-gendered most of the time, usable and useful all the time; harmless, most importantly Here you pick people up, show them to the room, do what you do to them while they don't have to lift their eyelids once At the end you’ll stand there with that practiced attitude as they make their way out, saying "Thank you Jenny," content about how forcefully gentle you were just now Doesn’t it happen all the time: a name given to someone who knows nothing about it other than the sound of it being called by someone who knows nothing about it other than the sound of it It's just a sound devoid of many things but it suffices because for God's sake it's after all a name However alien it sounds it's gotta be better than a number "Please write me a good review. I'm number 33" How dehumanizing, those other massage places! This isn‘t any other massage place. This is a retreat How could we possibly call people by a digit. We need names Not the Chinese ones though Too much effort for those who can only pronounce names like Apple, Jenny, or Yuki and act nicely, some even handing you a red packet  during Spring Festival (when your salary triples for working on a holiday instead of spending time with your family) Out of guilt or appreciation who knows Jenny I forget what your family situation is exactly Perhaps you did mention a husband even a daughter and a son But maybe I don't remember because you spoke so carefree and innocently And no woman I’ve met who's married and a mother speaks so carefree and innocently But maybe that's just me Maybe the weight of marriage and family feels far more daunting to me than it actually is to you because to you it's never even an option not carrying that weight. You just live with it You live with it As it sinks into your elbows, your knuckles as you relax my muscles as your muscles tighten as I wonder when and where you relax your muscles And I love how you told the story about some guy and his kidney. When you pressed on the acupoint somewhere his lower back and insisted it was really really bad He kept denying and got really really mad You didn't know the undertone You didn't know that to have a good kidney means to be sexually competent And for those fragile creatures The only thing that's more terrifying than being sexually incompetent is being known to be sexually incompetent “Listen young girl,” He pulled you aside before he left “Never, ever, say anything nasty about a guy’s kidney” You've since then learned the swelling lie "Can't be better!" So you would reply when they ask you how their kidney is in front of their friends You would laugh as they laugh and you would press harder onto his lower back You know they can't say it hurts You know under your fingertips an ego flexes Jenny when you say it's people like me from whom you've learned the manners The "please," "is it okay" and "you're welcome" I want to tell you that sometimes, only sometimes that manners is a cruel cruel business Because sometimes to learn the manners is to be gentrified and to be gentrified is to be disciplined and disciplines have no kind heart (none of those things that you associate good manners with) It doesn't feel cruel because it poses as a facade I know because I smile to the janitors in our building all the time Their names are "Ayis" and "Shifus" just like Jenny is yours And gosh don't people feel good about themselves when they smile to the janitors As if they could smile away that abysmal gulf As if they could actually see the invisible and make it less so But no, they can't see it. They don't. But I'm glad Jenny that people who come here are well-mannered to you so that you don't have to deal with the sort of joking and touching that you had to before "No reporting,” said the manager at the last place you worked "Then what do you do?" I ask "You don't confront, you circle around” like when the teenage boy said “you have big tits” (you are probably as old as his mom) But that was nothing compared to what had happened to this other masseuse. They told her "You are not calling the police" And the next day she’s nowhere to be found Jenny I don’t usually make the effort but did you see my five-star review I wrote that you are sweet like an angel and the go-to masseuse But above all you are freaking funny Your humor is one of audacity And Jenny next time I come here Can I ask for your real name Can I casually tell you when I lay there with my body soggy and limbs askew that you are precious and you are cute and it has nothing to do with your name Jenny
 Red packet: 红包(hóngbāo), a monetary gift in red envelopes symbolizing good luck, usually given on special occasions such as holidays, weddings, or graduations.
 Ayi: 阿姨(Āyí), originally meaning aunt, or a term to politely address women of similar age as one’s parents. In recent years, it has more frequently been used to address middle-age women who work in janitorial, housekeeping, or cafeteria service roles.
Shifu：师傅(shīfù), originally meaning master, or craftsman. In recent years, it has also been increasingly used to address middle-aged men working in roles of janitorial staff, bus drivers, repairmen, etc.
Jenny 乔伊斯著 Dennis译 不，不是苹果 那是他们原本要给你的名字 你更喜欢珍妮，因为苹果 是人们可在掌心把玩的东西 而珍妮听起来像“接你” —— 客人来，我接待 所以珍妮不是真的“珍”“妮” 你既不珍贵，又不是可爱的妮子 你担负不起那样的女性气质 在这里你养成了一种别样的女性气质： 常常去性别化，总是于人有用；最重要的，是人畜无害 在这里你接上客人，带Ta进房间 完成你的工作，而客人 始终不必抬眼 最后你站在那里，揣着熟稔的服务态度 送客出门，听Ta说着 “谢谢你，珍妮” 满足于你温柔而有力的双手 这场景太过熟悉：一个名字 于它的主人不过是一串音节 呼唤它的人也不懂个中意义 一段声音罢了 即便缺斤短两，也够了；毕竟它是 一个名字 无论听起多么陌生，它总好过一个数字 “请给我一个好评，我是33号” 那些按摩店是何等的剥夺人性！ 这不是普通的按摩店，这是高级会所 把人以数字相称，怎么叫得出口。我们需要名字 但不是中文那种 会为难了那些只会念 Apple，Jenny，或Yuki的人 那些友好和善，春节时甚至会给你塞红包的人 （当你为节假日三倍工资放弃和家人团聚） 这些红包出于感激还是愧疚，谁人可知 珍妮，我忘了你的家境 可能你提过一个丈夫 甚至一对子女 但也许是你言语间的无虑和纯真冲淡了我的记忆 我没遇过如你这般无虑和纯真的已婚母亲 但那也许只是我的感觉 也许婚姻和家庭的份量于我远比于你沉重 因为于你 那份重量从来没得选 你接受了它 你接受它 由它沉进你的手肘 你的指节 当你绷紧你的肌肉 来放松我的肌肉 当我想着 你又在何时何地放松你的肌肉 我喜欢你讲的那个男人和肾的故事 你对着某个穴位按压他的后腰 执意说着问题如何糟糕 而他不断否认，恼羞成怒 你说者无心不懂听者有意 你不知道一颗好肾意味着强健的性能力 而对于那些脆弱的生物 唯一比性无能更恐怖的 是其性无能为人所知 “听着，小姑娘” 他临走前把你拉到一旁 “永远，永远不要说一个男人肾不好” 你于是学会说瞎话 “好得不得了！”你会回答 当他们在朋友面前向你问起自己的肾 你会随他们一起笑然后更使力地 按向他的后腰 你知道他不能喊疼 你知道在你的指尖下 是一个男人的自尊 珍妮，当你说你的礼节是从我这样的人学来的 那一句句“请” “可以吗” “不客气” 我想告诉你有时，只是有时 礼节是一桩残酷的生意 因为有时学习礼节是一种装模作样 而装模作样背后是规训的条条框框 而规训从无善意可言 （跟礼节所代表的东西相距甚远） 但你感觉不到这份残酷 因为礼节有着精美包装 我知道 因为我总对楼里的保洁员微笑 Ta们的名字是“阿姨”和“师傅” 正如珍妮是你的名字 对保洁员们微笑多么让人自我感觉良好啊 仿佛这一笑就能填平人与人间的深渊 仿佛这便能让难言之物浮出水面 但不，Ta们不能，Ta们看不见 但珍妮，我很高兴这里的客人对你举止得体 让你不用苦于 过往遇到的揩油和调戏 “不准上报”，你上个按摩店的经理说过 “那怎么办呢？”我问 “不能对峙，只能绕弯” 就像那次一个小伙子说“你的奶子真大” （你的年纪差不多都能当他妈） 但这和另一名技师的遭遇比起来 都不算什么 他们警告她 “不许报警” 第二天她便人间蒸发 珍妮，我一般不会费这个劲，但你看到 我的五星好评了吗 我说你像天使一样贴心 是首选的技师 但最重要的是 你真的很风趣 你的幽默 无畏无惧 珍妮，下次我来 能否问一句你的真名 当我躺在这里，全身酥软，四肢歪斜 我能否顺便 告诉你 你是珍贵的 你是可爱的 而这和你的名字毫无关系 珍妮
来自作者 | From the Poet
Last week, I went to the massage place where I met Jenny for the first time after one and a half years. The masseuses this time were B and N – still introduced to me and my friend by their English names. I started talking about Jenny, saying that she was my masseuse the last time I came. “Oh the chubby one?” N asked. I said I wasn’t sure if she’s chubby or not, only remembering that she joked about being chubby. I realized that, like other customers, I had my head buried throughout the whole massage, with no need to glance up at the masseuse’s face. Plus, one has to get completely undressed for the oil massage, so I was too busy being embarrassed to look at anyone else.
N comes from the same place as Jenny, on whom she commented, “full of life.” Now whenever I think of Jenny, my mind comes up with Jia Ling’s  face. Chubby, jolly, open to self-mockery – I have such limited recollections of Jenny, all those traits seem to match my impressions of Jia Ling. I also remember telling her, Jenny you should start creating TikTok videos, it’s hard not to go viral being as funny as you.
I don’t know if she still scrolls through TikTok when she’s not busy. I was told that she became a grandma and went home to look after her grandchild at the beginning of this year.
 Jia Ling: 贾玲(Jiǎ Líng), a Chinese female comedian. She has produced and staged many famous comedic performances, some of which appeared at the Spring Festival Gala. She is known for her approachable character.
来自读者 | From the Readers
Lauren @ Los Angeles
Jenny, like a number, is commercial convenience in place of a name. A name as capitalism to obscure deeper identities that shine mirrors on our assumptions, behaviors, and tacit complicities in systems of violence and oppression. The poem at once makes the reader wince in painful acknowledgment of our contributions to intolerance and dehumanization, while challenging us to intervene and laud everyday heroisms. As a foreigner who moved to China alone, I recall immense gratitude for massage, yet impotence in my ability to reciprocate the generosity of the massage therapist. Separated by vast boundaries of history, nation, and language, massage was for months my only access to human touch, punctuated by my infantile and butchered attempts at communicating my lonely appreciation.
Lauren @ 洛杉矶
David @ Shanghai
So many Jenny, Johns, Prince, and Bella’s. So many #25, #30s. I’m often asked where I’m from; and when I can communicate back, what is meant to be a 90 minute treatment becomes an insight into the privileged life that I live. They rarely see the 268rmb price tag…they rarely get to retreat after a 12 hour shift…We can treat them as a transaction or we can actually ask “what’s your name?” I prefer “峰” over “frank”.
David @ 上海
有那么多的Jenny、John、Prince和Bella。那么多的25号、30号。我经常被问到我从哪里来；而当我以此开始与对方的交谈时，90分钟的理疗便成为知悉我自己优渥生活的一个窗口。他们很少能看见268元的项目收费……他们很少能在12小时的轮班之后得到休息……我们可以把Ta们看成一笔交易，或者我们也可以问一句：“你叫什么名字？” 比起“Frank”我更喜欢‘峰’ 。
Carly @ Shanghai
I am white and culturally Western; for many of my peers, cheap massages are one of the “perks” of living in Asia. But for me, the power dynamic described in this poem keeps me away. I have friends in the US who work as massage therapists and earn a good living. The high fee they charge is justified by their specialized training. They work limited hours and put great effort into caring for their own bodies to prevent the injuries that are common in this physically demanding work. Some of them work independently so they can control their own schedule and balance child care. Are Jenny and her peers allowed any of this care and respect? I assume the answer is no. However, this poem makes me rethink – perhaps my personal “boycott” of massage and assumptions about Jenny’s lived experience are also closing my eyes to her humanity, just in a different way.
Carly @ 上海
小 @ Chengdu
I remember I was reading this poem in the cafeteria and my eyes were getting warm and teary. That morning my mom told me that one of my uncles (a construction worker) had just been injured — his toes on the left foot were cut off by the machine. And it hadn’t been quite peaceful on the construction site. I myself was also going through a series of anxiety and breakdowns at the time.
I would like to believe I know something about feminism, class, gentrification and all that. But nothing hits harder than when you actually see it, hear it, and feel it. I was talking to a janitor at school, whom I also addressed as “Ayi.” It was then that I found out that we are actually from the same province, and that she and my father are from the same county. It took me two years to make that discovery. I was intentionally speaking in dialect then, but she insisted on speaking Mandarin. Maybe it is a matter of “manners” (like what Jenny said), or an internalized habit under this very environment. Language politics like this are happening in real life, not to mention that it’s a place like Shanghai.
I used to dislike Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy because it was a mandatory assignment and I was a rebellious kid. But now I can see that the characters, experiences, struggles, and hardships are all depicted so vividly and intricately. After nearly 80 years, the “Xiangzi” (the protagonist) in our society doesn’t seem to change much: Jenny has to learn those unspoken knowledge, and her humor might just be born out of the pressures and compromises in life. If there is any difference, I guess people nowadays are more hypocritical and therefore better at concealing: if you have a fancy name, then you’re no longer a miserable masseuse; if you are called “Ayi” or “Shifu” then there isn’t really a need to find out your real name; if you are given a five-star review, then you might get a shred of self-worth from this already artificial and crooked system.
I used to yell at my dad, “How come people like you are never kind?” But on second thought, is it too much to demand kindness from someone who’s already fried by work and relationships? I guess that’s what I like about the narrator: she could still care about another exhausted person when she herself is already exhausted.
小 @ 成都
- What are your thoughts and feelings after reading “Jenny”?
- How do you see people who are not from an English-speaking country having an English name?
- Have you talked to people who work in the tertiary industry? What are some of the funny, surprising, or frustrating stories?
Leave us a message on WeChat, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out our Weibo @unCoVer疫中人!
Proofreading: Rayna, Joyce, Carly