After A Chat with the Masseuse, I Wrote Down This Poem


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.” [1] 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. 

[1] 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.




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 [2] 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"[3] 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 

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

乔伊斯著 Dennis译

而珍妮听起来像“接你” —— 客人来,我接待



“听着,小姑娘” 他临走前把你拉到一旁

那一句句“请” “可以吗” “不客气”
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
都不算什么 他们警告她

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
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 1977. The artist spent almost a year meeting over 8500 sanitation workers in New York City, shaking hands and conversing with them.

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 [4] 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.

[4] 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. 

上周,我在时隔一年半后第二次去到当初认识Jenny的这家按摩店(“养生会所”)。这次的技师是B和N——她们仍是以英文名被介绍给我和朋友的。我聊起Jenny,说上次是她帮我按的,N问“胖胖的那个是吗?” 我说我也不知道她胖不胖,只记得她玩笑过自己有点胖。我意识到我跟其他顾客一样,按摩全程埋着头,根本无需抬眼看在自己身上推来搓去的这双手的主人相貌。再说精油项目要脱光衣服,那时我为自己害臊还来不及,根本没工夫看别人。



Arne Svenson, “The Neighbors” Series, 2013.

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, or check out our Weibo @unCoVer疫中人!

  • 读完“Jenny”,你有什么感受呢?
  • 你怎么看“取英文名”这一行为呢?
  • 你会和服务业从业人员聊天吗?有什么好玩、惊奇、或让人心酸的事情吗!


Editing: Maggie
Translating: Dennis
Proofreading: Rayna, Joyce, Carly
Typesetting: Linlin

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