The rain begins to fall right on time as I leave my massage session with Kenny. I expected nothing sunnier at this hour; days in Kuala Lumpur aren’t so unpredictable. It starts out sunny, gets extremely hot and humid by mid-day, and then the rain comes before sunset. I needed to break up my similar routine, which is where the blind massage comes in.
Kenny is a Chinese man in his late fifties who is completely blind. Wander Southeast Asia long enough and you'll see blind massages offered in many places (along with many other types of massage...), but I'd only had a 'blind massage' once before in Bali (unknowingly) and never paid much thought to them until now. The online reviews led me there saying this was one of the best massages in Kuala Lumpur (blind or not) and a great experience with no bells and whistles. My life has few bells and whistles these days, so it seemed on par.
When I arrive, there isn’t any spa-like music playing, just the sounds of the rapid Chinese conversation next to me. And that's a good thing, because I wasn’t looking for a spa; I was looking for something new and soothing for a shoulder-ache that crept up on me from a few nights of sleeping poorly.
So there I was, in my underwear, on the massage table while Kenny navigated his way around the room with his hands. “Is there a pillow on the bed?” he asks. I tell him no and he finds one for me.
The room is clinical looking; the massage tables are separated by aged blue curtains like an undesirable hospital unit would be. It’s mostly other Chinese-Malay clients, but Kenny seems delighted that we can chat in English. He asks me about Canada, about why I’m here, about why my muscles are so tense. I tell him Canada is pleasant, I’m here because I’m soul-searching, and my muscles were much worse off last year. Interestingly enough he realizes that I’m in my twenties, even though I offered few personal details. When he talks he looks in my direction to be polite, even though he can't see me.
It’s peculiar to have a blind person navigate their way across my body using touch alone. I keep my eyes closed to calm myself for the experience like I normally would, but I admit that I peek a few times to see his process. His hands are instantly soft and warm. I’ve had too many massages before where the cold hands of the RMT make me tense up further. But Kenny’s been doing this for 30 years -- he knows about touch. His hands are powerful and his massage is, well, a little painful- but the good kind of pain (as he'll assure me later). I let myself melt into the table and trust him to do his thing. He seems like an expert.
I ask him about his blindness as he works his hands over my tight right calf muscles and I cringe at the discomfort. Whenever he feels me cringe he just squeezes harder, telling me that’s the area that needs the most attention. He tells me that the blindness happened just after his teenage years when he contracted a bad fever. They didn’t have the medicine at the time or know what was wrong with him, and he’s been blind ever since. He wasn’t completely blind in the beginning, but as he ages now his vision is completely gone. Still, he reminds me that his touch (and other senses) are greatly enhanced because he can’t see, and that’s why he knows what he’s doing. He says it in a playful tone though, not like someone who's become bitter after a life of blindness. As he says this, he works his elbows down my mid-back and I’m terrified he’ll accidentally press on my spine. But he doesn’t. Because he knows what he’s doing.
He finds his way down to my forearm and feels the black leather bracelet that I wear. He tries to guess what it is when he realizes it isn’t a watch. He asks if some girlfriend gave it to me, or if it has some special meaning. I think about it for a minute and realize that I wear it for purely aesthetic reasons. I tell this to him, and in the moment, I realize that this is a man who bases exactly 0% of his life on visual aesthetics.
He asks if we have blind massage in Canada, but answers his own question. I guess you don’t, I’m sure your government takes care of your people. He tells me that the Malay government is corrupt and they don’t provide enough for people with disabilities. If he stops working then he loses money and ends up homeless. They don’t give him enough to get by on. He had no chance but to find a career 30 years ago where he could put his new vision-less self to work. That’s when he found massage therapy, or when it found him.
In that moment I think about how unsure I am with what job I want. I think about how I have so many options yet I struggle to choose a career path. And here’s a man who had almost all of his options stripped away from him, and now he thrives in one of the only jobs he could do. I feel guilty for a moment, but then I don’t. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with one another, especially when our lives are so drastically different. Still, he makes me think about it.
He works over my entire body, I feel tense and then at ease, nervous and then calm. As the massage comes to an end, 20 minutes longer than it was meant to be, I feel grateful for the experience. He knew the time since the digital voice from his phone called it out at the one-hour mark, but he chose to keep working my stress away.
He walks me to the door with his hand on my tender back. He laughs when I tell him it’s a little sore, and he tells me that there’s bad pain and good pain in life, and that this time it’s the good kind. I tell him I’ll confirm if that's true in the following days, and if so, I’ll see him soon. He laughs again. I pay him the arranged amount. He trusts that I handed him the right bill and smiles.
As I walk down the street in the rain, I feel for the black leather bracelet on my left wrist. And just for today, after meeting Kenny, I’m caring less about how I visually appear in the eyes of others. I slip the bracelet off, drop it in my pocket, and keep going on my way. ■
What good pain do you have in your life?