J. Kenji López-Alt blah

Wuhan: Feet Cleaning Fish


One of the problems of looking vaguely Chinese but not being at all Chinese in China is that not only do Chinese people try to speak to you in Chinese, but you actually have a tough time convincing them that you don't speak Chinese.

Have you ever noticed that when faced with someone who doesn't speak a lick of their language, English-speaking tourists slowly turn into Tarzan?

Man to confused waiter: "Do you guys have egg rolls?"

Woman to man: "Honey, I don't think they understand..."

Man to woman: "It's ok, honey. They'll get it. Watch." To waiter: "You have egg roll?"

Woman: "Dear, I really don't..."


After 2 1/2 weeks in China, I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of that.

One thing that does translate well into any language is uncontrolled giggling. Adri and I spent a short night in Wuhan, en route from Yichang to Shanghai. After a long pleasant walk and a meal of almost-too-hot-to-eat mushroom, pepper, and chinese chive skewers painted with chili paste and grilled over charcoal on Hubu Xiang, Wuhan's snack street, we spotted a storefront offering foot massages delivered by fish.

Inside the shop i s a long row of foot-level, open-topped aquariums housing Garra rufa, the so-called "Doctor Fish" from Turkey. The nice lady running the shop didn't speak any English, but it was pretty easy to understand. You pick your tank based, I suppose, on how large you like your feet-eating fish (they ranged from tanks with thousands of dime-sized specimens to those housing two dozen fish the size of Persian cucumbers), and how hungry they appear: As you walk by the tanks, the fish swarm towards you, sensing that a meal is in store.


We picked tanks with the smallest fish in them, sat down in the comfortable green-upholstered massage chairs, slipped off our sandals, and stuck our feet in. The fish immediately swarmed, scraping at our skin with their tiny toothless mouths, burrowing between our toes, nibbling at our ankles.

It feels not unlike a battalion of tiny dwarves armed with feather-tipped pikes suddenly attacking your feet on command. I burst out into a fit of uncontrolled giggling that got everyone in the store going. Adri, the shopkeeper and her husband, along with two large, very serious-looking Chinese tourists with their feet in the big-boy tanks all bonded as they laughed and pointed at the Chinese-looking guy who couldn't handle his shit when the fish went at him.


I eventually settled down as my feet became numb to the tickling, until I lifted them and gave the fish access to the undersides, which triggered a whole new bout of giggling, laughing, and pointing.

There's plenty of debate as to whether this sort of treatment is actually good for your skin or not—the fish supposedly eat dead skin cells, leaving your feet smooth and refreshed. Our feet did feel smooth, but perhaps that was just a function of the thirty minute soak. We'd have to do some rigorous side-by-side testing, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for that particular job.

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