How I got cupped, scraped and covered in polka dots
By Emily Ford
It is Saturday afternoon and I am waiting in a cafe to meet my Swedish friend Anna. When she walks in the door, I am shocked. Covering her arms and back are huge red welts the size of palm prints, angry raised discs of pain. She is clearly suffering from some terrible skin disease, yet looks surprisingly happy. I wonder if it would be too rude to say anything.
"God, what happened to you?" I say, embracing her gingerly.
"Oh this?" she says, looking down at the glaring raised patches as if I'd inquired about a new cardigan. "I went for a fire cupping session. You haven't tried cupping yet?"
It is hard to know whether she is joking. I look again at her purple swollen skin. "No one would voluntarily do that to themselves," I think.
"Is it like acupuncture?" I ask. "It's an ancient Chinese therapy. They heat air in cups and place them over your vital organs. The suction draws blood to the surface, stimulates your circulation, balances your yin and yang, improves organ function, cures your imbalances and helps you to sleep," she says.
"Goodness," I say. Now that the giant polka dots covering her body are not contagious, they have started to seem rather comical. But she does look good.
"The darker your circles come up, the more toxins you have in your system. I'm toxic," Anna says cheerfully. "But it's a great feeling."
"I wonder if I'm toxic," I think.
Despite my reservations, I am intrigued by cupping. After the excitement that accompanied my first few weeks in China, things have settled down to the point where life feels almost calm. Crossing the road no longer feels like a life or death experience. Kamikaze taxi drivers don't faze me. Even street food has so far been disappointingly uneventful.
"Maybe fire cupping will spice things up a bit," I think. I look up cupping on the Internet. People have been doing this to themselves for 5,000 years, I discover. Fans say that it can cure everything from digestive ailments to sciatica and a broken heart.
I try to think what I have that might be cured by cupping. "I'm sure there must be something," I think.
I am still not quite sure about cupping until I discover that there is a British Cupping Society in operation in London which lists an official mobile number and everything. "Oh, it must be fine!" I think.
The only problem is deciding where to go. Shanghai's massage parlors appear on every street corner, and foot rubs are an acceptable way to end a night out. Anyone who's lived in the city for longer than six months has a local blind masseur primed to pummel their knots for devastatingly little cash. I, however, worry I might find the real thing too painful to handle and so visit an overpriced Taiwanese chain where they play soothing music, light scented candles and serve cappuccinos.
When I arrive for my cupping session, I see they also offer another ancient treatment called scraping. "Who would want to do that?" I think. I reluctantly take my clothes off and lie down on the bed. The young masseur speaks to me in rapid Chinese as he lights a flame under the cups. I begin to feel a little nervous.
"Fire!" He says enthusiastically. "Fire!"
When I come out, I am covered in polka dots. Cupping turned out to be less painful than expected, but the circles look satisfyingly awful.
As I leave the massage parlor I bump into a colleague who stares at me in undisguised horror. "God, what happened to you?" she says.