Two Masseuses

My friend and I were tired. After waiting and waiting at the customs of Noi Bai Airport for our respective visas to be issued, we’d taken a late car back to the Airbnb we were staying in. Airbnb was a loose term for it; like many other listings I’d encountered in searching Hanoi accommodations, this was actually a small hotel using Airbnb to advertise its empty rooms. Regardless, the room was perfectly fine for the $20USD total we’d each paid to stay for a quick girls’ weekend, and we made quick arrangements for “in-room massages” as advertised by the hotel’s front desk.

A knock on the door the next day signaled the arrival of our two masseuses. The moment the massages began, so did the conversation. “Where are you from?” My masseuse asked. She was the talkative one; her colleague listened quietly to all of our answers. “America,” we answered, little knowing that this would only be the first of a barrage of questions. The noise in the room grew as the minutes passed by; I glanced over to see my friend’s masseuse chatting away on the phone, continuing to “massage” with only one hand.

My annoyance grew as the incessant interrogation grew invasive (‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asked, “What is your job?”) and the experience quickly deteriorated from the relaxing massages we’d hoped for. I was relieved when it was over, cringing as the masseuse stepped on my pillows with her bare feet in order to get off the bed and leave.

But the two masseuses did not leave, looking at us expectantly. “We’re paying at the front desk,” I explained, “This will be added to our bill when we check out.” They shared a glance, and my masseuse insisted, “You pay us now.” I thought perhaps she did not understand due to a language barrier; I explained again: “We signed up for the service through the hotel, and it will be billed with our rooms.”

She stared right at me, her partner silent. “You tip us, now.”

Finally, I understood: they were waiting to be tipped in cash and had seemingly no intent to leave the room until we paid up. My anger grew at their entitled expectation: given the lackluster experience that I’d just had, calculating a justified tip was the last thing I wanted to feel pressured to do. And yet I knew I was also being obstinate: quality or not, the difference a few dollars would make to me versus to our masseuses was more than significant. What was more important to me: the principle and perceived value (“deservingness”, I suppose), or compassion and generosity?

The masseuses stayed in our room for a long time as we argued back and forth. I refused to back down and became increasingly stubborn as the masseuses grew increasingly aggressive and insistent. In the end, I don’t even remember how we got them to leave – but I do remember that it wasn’t because we tipped them on the spot.

When my friend and I think back to that experience, we say, “Hey, remember that time we had those terrible masseuses?” But I wonder sometimes: why did I prioritize my need to feel “justified” over paying up a few extra dollars to someone who really needed it?

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