Aural Sex in Chengdu
In China, There's Nothing Dirty in the Ears
June 19, 2002
CHENGDU, China -- A friend told me I just
had to try it. She
described it as an orgasm in her ear. Sounded more to me like an
The ancient practice of ear-cleaning is alive and well in Chengdu, the leafy and relaxed capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China. Middle-aged men with a handful of metal tweezers and tongs and feathered sticks and bamboo scoopers roam parks and street corners looking to sit you down and scrape out your ear wax.
Every big city in China is known for something: Shanghai is the financial capital. Hangzhou is a city of natural beauty. Guangzhou is the place to eat. As for Chengdu, it's the city of leisure.
Traditional teahouses have largely disappeared in most of China, but they are still a thriving part of life in Chengdu, a place to while away the afternoon playing chess, gossiping with neighbors or just snoozing.
For many Chinese, it's also the perfect place to get your ears cleaned while sipping tea.
"It relaxes people's nerves and makes them feel comfortable," said Li Yongfeng, a professional ear-cleaner who spends his days at People's Park in central Chengdu.
As soon as I walked towards the park's teahouse on a recent visit, Li and his colleagues zeroed in on me.
"Ear scraping?" they beckoned, while flicking tuning forks that trilled soothingly.
I was curious but hesitant. I asked if they disinfected their instruments.
Li answered by taking a cigarette packet out of his shirt pocket, flipping up the lid and taking out a small plastic vial of clear liquid and a piece of cotton. He claimed the liquid was alcohol and proceeded to wipe off his gadgets. Oddly enough, with my hygiene standards lowered after a few years of living in China, I found this reassuring.
After a little haggling, I relented and settled down in a bamboo chair. The actual ear-cleaning was much less traumatic than I feared. It was about 15 minutes of slight tickling and a little vibrating. A chunk of ear wax was ceremoniously placed on my hand. The whole process was less hassle than a manicure.
Li, 38, grew up in the countryside, but when he was about 18, his father decided he should learn a trade, so he took up hair-cutting. He soon moved on to shaving and then ear-cleaning. Traditionally, all three services were offered at barber shops.
He first practiced on peasants and migrant workers and now charges 10 yuan (or $1.25) a pop and can make as much as $370 a month. It's not a bad living for Sichuan province, where the average urban worker makes less than $1,000 a year.
He uses an eight-instrument technique. First he runs a thin file along the ear lobe and outer edges of the ear canal to remove hair. Next he uses a thinner file, a flexible metal strip, to gently loosen the wax. The larger pieces of wax that come loose easily are removed with a pair of pincers. Smaller particles are scraped out by a bamboo stick with a small scoop at the end.
With the wax removed, the rest is just icing. First he slides a hair-thin piece of wire in the ear canal and taps it around. "It's just to feel good," he explains.
Next a thicker piece of wire with a loop at the end is also tapped around, for no good reason. Lastly, a bamboo stick with down feathers is inserted and the tuning fork is gently snapped against the stick, causing the feathers to vibrate inside the ear canal.
Not exactly orgasmic, but not unpleasant either.
The ear-cleaners said they had nearly two years of training, much of which involved practicing holding their instruments without twitching or shaking. Li, a stout man with a balding head and a deadpan delivery, stretches out his arm and demonstrates the steadiness of his hand. He said he developed his skill by holding a pair of chopsticks for six hours a day.
"Not everyone can learn," said Wu Mingxiang, 46. "You have to be smart. You have to have a delicate touch. You can't do it if you have a bad temper."
The job requirements, Li claims, eliminates half of humankind from the candidate pool.
"Women don't have patience," Li said. "When my wife does it for me, it hurts. She doesn't do a good job, so I don't let her do it anymore."
He wouldn't answer questions about the state of his marriage. But never mind. He's now lamenting the future of the trade.
"Young people don't learn it anymore," he said. "They look down on it."
"They'd rather go learn computers," he said, as if that were a bad thing.
But Li does have ambitions: "I want to go to America and clean Bush's ears."
As I was contemplating the possibilities, someone suddenly said: "Hey, we can even clean your eyes."
I was speechless. Would it involve tweezers? Down feathers? I was afraid to ask.
An ear-cleaner who'd been sitting quietly in the back pulled out an instrument that looked like a thick silver toothpick with a nub at the end. He stuck it into the corner of his eye, pushed it in a little and twisted it.
Now that is where I draw the line.
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