‘I Am a Sex Worker’
She migrated from China to the United States, hoping to find a better life. She ended up working in a massage parlor, providing sex to customers.
I met A Lan one hot summer afternoon in front of a bakery on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing. She is an undocumented immigrant, working in a massage parlor in Queens’ Chinatown. I was walking the streets of Flushing, looking for people I could interview for a social research project I was doing for a university about immigrant sex workers working in massage parlors in New York City.
A Lan (not her real name) caught my attention. She was leaning on the glass doorway of the bakery, holding a small piece of paper, waving to every man who passed by her. In a high-pitched voice, she asked each one with a single English word: “Massage? Massage?”
I walked over to her and asked in Mandarin, “ Do you work in a massage parlor?”
“Yes. I do. May I help you with that?” she answered matter-of-factly, also in Mandarin.
“These massage parlors offer more than just honest-to-goodness massages… customers can also get what has come to be known as happy ending – which could either mean a hand job or full sex service.”
I told her that I am part of a social research team and that I would like to talk to her and ask her questions. I was surprised when she agreed. “Yes, I think I am the person you are looking for the study,” she said. “I provide sex service for male clients.”
A Lan is one of many women from China who migrated to the U.S. hoping to find better lives, but have ended up working in massage parlors providing sex to customers. In New York City, there are approximately 1,200 massage parlors. According to eroticmp.com, a website that lists such establishments, there are at least 29 massage parlors in Flushing alone, although the real number is said to be higher.
Flushing appears to be the epicenter of this growing trade. There seems to be a massage parlor on every block in the neighborhood’s commercial district. These establishments offer more than just honest-to-goodness massages. The website eroticmp.com said that customers can also get what has come to be known as happy ending – which could mean either a hand job or full sex service.
A Lan is approximately 6 feet tall. She has long, dark, black hair that shines. She wore a royal-blue maxi dress, a pair of black strap heels about three inches high, and a pair of cat eye prescription glasses. Her lips were covered with burgundy red lipstick, and her eyes were made up with thick eyeliner and false eyelashes.
“When A Lan was 20, she heard stories of young women from the village earning money for their family by arranging their marriages to Taiwanese men.”
When she spoke, her eyes shuttered behind the frame of her glasses. She refused to give me her true name. She asked me to call her “A Lan” because “Lan” means blue in Chinese, and she was wearing blue that day.
“What is this survey for?” A Lan asked me.
“It helps us better understand the needs of this particular group of women,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t need the help but I need money. If you pay me enough incentive…”
“Yes,” I said. “We have a budget to pay you $100 for an hour-long talk. Would you be interested in that?”
She hesitated. About five-seconds later, she asked me, “Are you from Taiwan?”
“Yes, how were you able to tell?” I answered and asked.
“I could tell because I am from Taiwan and I feel I am connected to you,” A Lan said. “Oh, I miss Taiwan! It’s such a nice place to live in.”
I asked her, “Then why did you leave?”
She seemed annoyed by the question, but after about a 20-second silence, she began to tell me her story.
A Lan was born to a poor farming couple not in Taiwan but in a village in Sichuan (formerly Szechwan or Szechuan), China. She is the oldest child in the family, and she has two younger brothers. Because of poverty, she never got the opportunity to go to school; she had to help her family tend to their farm.
“An experienced worker was assigned to teach A Lan how to perform massages. ‘I was trained for about seven days. After about seven days, I started to provide massage service,’ A Lan said.”
When A Lan was 20, she heard stories of young women from the village earning money for their family by arranging their marriages to Taiwanese men. Wanting to help her family, she asked around for any arranged marriage opportunities.
One day, A Lan’s friend brought a picture to her. It was of a man in his 40s, who is offering US$2,000 to whoever would agree to marry him. A Lan took the offer without question. Days later, she received a plane ticket and flew to Taiwan. The man, her would-be husband whom she had never met before, came to the airport to pick her up.
“It was summer in 1998, and I could even feel the mist of the air when I first landed in Taiwan. It was exactly like the mist of the air in New York,” she said.
Little did she know that her husband was an alcoholic and an abuser. “We were living in a small shabby apartment in Taipei. He did not go to work. I couldn’t work either because I didn’t have a working permit in Taiwan. He became very unhappy with me because I couldn’t bring any money home.”
A Lan said the physical and verbal abuses came a year after their marriage. “He began to get drunk every day. And when he was drunk, he would start beating me.”
The beating not only continued; it actually worsened when she was pregnant with her first child. It turned out her husband did not want to have a child.
After A Lan’s daughter, Jenny, was born, things improved a bit. She was able to convince her husband to start a business. She opened a restaurant serving her hometown Sichuan cuisine. The restaurant was off to a good start. “My relationship with my husband improved. Still, he wasn’t working, but he had stopped abusing me. He even came to the restaurant to help out with some work.”
“But later, A Lan figured out that her colleagues were earning more in tips than what she was earning. ‘One day, I asked my colleague, ‘What is the trick to make more tips?””
She thought that she would make Taiwan her home. However, 15 years later, things started to fall apart. The restaurant business had fallen on bad times. Her husband suffered a serious stroke and had been paralyzed ever since. Her daughter was severely injured in a car accident on her way to school. She chose to shut down the restaurant in order to take care of her husband and daughter.
She got a call from a childhood friend who lives in New York. After A Lan told her of her situation, her friend invited her to come to New York. “’You can make more money here and you can give your daughter a better future with more money,’” A Lan remembered her friend telling her.
“I told her I don’t know any word in English, and I don’t know anyone beside her in New York. I was not sure about it. But she told me not to worry about it, that she will help me get set up.”
A week after, A Lan received a one-way plane ticket and a note, with her friend’s address and phone number written on it. The departure date of the plane ticket was for a flight a month later.
“I kept the plane ticket and her note in an envelope and left them in the drawer. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
A Lan decided to take a chance. A Lan said, “ I just thought it’s worth a try if I could accept this opportunity to change my life, or my daughter’s future life for the better.” She got on the plane with $50 in her pocket, arriving at JFK on a snowy day in December of 2014. Her friend, Anna, picked her up at the airport.
Anna took A Lan to her apartment in Flushing, and gave her a room to stay. Anna, it turned out, owned a massage parlor in Flushing, “if I could help her with the business, I was free to stay as long as I want,” A Lan said.
“”She laughed and showed me a gesture,” A Lan said, as she imitated her co-worker, balling her hand in a fist and shaking it up and down. I found out that she was providing hand jobs to her clients after a massage. Then I realized all of my colleagues in the parlor are providing secret sex services.”
The next day, A Lan went to Anna’s massage parlor. An experienced worker was assigned to teach A Lan how to perform massages. “I was trained for about seven days. After about seven days, I started to provide massage service,” A Lan said.
“I earned around $10-tips for an hour of massage, which is really good money for me if I convert it to Taiwanese currency.”
But later, A Lan figured out that her colleagues were earning more in tips than what she was earning. “One day, I asked my colleague, ‘What is the trick to make more tips?’”
“She laughed and showed me a gesture,” A Lan said, as she imitated her co-worker, balling her hand in a fist and shaking it up and down. “I found out that she was providing hand jobs to her clients after a massage. Then I realized all of my colleagues in the parlor are providing secret sex services.”
“I need the money. That is what I am here for,” she said, justifying her decision to provide sex to her massage customers.
I was silent for a minute, and I was waiting for A Lan to open up some more. But she stopped speaking. She looked at me for a second, and then asked, “ How much can you earn at this job you get?”
I responded honestly, “I make $20 dollars an hour.”
She looked at me with surprise, “That’s the tip I make for a 15-minute hand job! Well, I suppose your job is much easier, I wish I had an education like yours. Well, college kid, if I want to stay in New York, how can I stay in a legal manner? My visa is already expired so I am staying here illegally.”
I told her there is nothing I could do for her, but she can get a lawyer to help her with that. She shrugged. “Well, perhaps I will find someone to marry. I hear it is the best and the speediest way.”
“If you can’t find a way to legalize your stay, would you want to move back to Taiwan?“ I asked.
“The man stopped walking, asked her, ‘How much?’ A Lan didn’t say anything. She just grabbed his arm, and said in English, ‘Follow me, follow me.'”
“I’ve thought about it, but I might change my mind,” she answered.
Then, I asked her if she regretted coming to New York, and doing the things that she does now for a living.
She thought about it for a second. “I’ve never stopped missing Taiwan and my daughter for a second. But I felt more or less part of me has been changed. I don’t think I could go back now. I feel that being here gives me hope to do whatever I want to do and to be whoever I want to be. Don’t you suppose so? You are so young, don’t you think you can do whatever you want to do and be whoever you want to be with a life here?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Immigrant life is tough.“
“Come on, young girl! You have a college degree and your mommy must be very proud of you. You have a bright future ahead of you. What do you mean you don’t know?,“ she said.
“I wish my daughter could have an opportunity like yours. Doesn’t your mommy tell you are very lucky?”
“My mom passed away three years ago,” I told her.
She reached out for my hand, held it and looked at me. “I am sad to hear that.”
I didn’t answer. I looked at her face, and I saw tears welling at the corner of her eyes. I felt the heat through her palms and I felt a long lost mother’s love coming from her.
“I believe God took away your mom so early for a reason. I’ve always believed that life is fated – whatever will be, will be,” A Lan said.
She sighed, and quietly spoke again, “You have to forget everything that went on, you have to surrender, and you have to go with the flow. That’s how I go through life.”
An older man walked by in front of us. She immediately turned to the man, waved, and said an English word repeatedly, “Massage? Massage?”
The man stopped walking and asked her, “How much?”
A Lan didn’t say anything. She just grabbed his arm, and said in English, “Follow me, follow me. ”
She walked away from me with the man. After a couple steps, she turned around and said, “Girl, it’s nice to meet you. Take care. Take care.”