The below text is featured in the UWCHR 2022-2023 Annual Report.
In May of 2023 UWCHR celebrated our first in-person Spring Symposium since 2019. On the evening of May 11, 2023, we were honored to highlight our newest project and collaboration, Strategies for Massage Parlor Workers’ Rights. Student researcher and Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) member Lanqing Ren addressed the audience, giving a moving speech about her experience. A translated transcript of her speech is below. Watch the full recording of the Spring Symposium, including Lanqing’s speech in Mandarin, here: www.tinyurl.com/Watch2023SpringSymposium.
Hello, my name is Ren Lanqing. I am a senior at the University of Washington and a member of the Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) mutual aid group. I am honored to participate in this symposium as an international student from China, currently at home with my family. I want to thank the UW Center for Human Rights for allowing me to participate by using a video format in my mother tongue to share my memories of MPOP and the support it has given me in my work.
This is actually the first time I have given a speech in Chinese during my university career. As a foreign student, my mother tongue has become a second language that few people choose to learn; it is even seemingly pushed away at times. Most of my classmates and professors don’t know my Chinese name and I have chosen to use an easier-to-pronounce preferred English name in the UW system, even though it took me fifteen minutes to pick it from a list of English names.
“I was encouraged to express myself, take on team responsibilities, and even received their acknowledgment; I was able to question decisions and put forward ideas for the first time.”
My fellow MPOP members and I have already adapted to using a pseudonym to avoid embarrassment. It wasn’t until I joined MPOP that, for the first time, someone asked me about the tone and writing of my Chinese name. Therefore, I want to use this precious opportunity to talk about the power of language.
Last year, I learned about MPOP through its outreach program and became comfortable with the massage workers. Most of MPOP’s organizers were still learning Chinese and I occasionally acted as a translator and messenger. At that time, I was praised for my English proficiency by the workers. One worker said, “College students are different—they can speak English.” English is everything here, and if you can speak it, you have power. I stood there, realizing for the first time the privilege I had on this land.
“Over time, massage workers have learned to survive by depending on each other.”
I have been immersed in the embarrassing position of an international student—coming alone to a foreign country, leaving the comfort of home and family protection. Because my spoken English language skills were less fluent, it reduced my social interactions. I fell into a monotonous life, cut off without status or citizenship. In my struggle to find a sense of belonging and identity, I forgot about the rarity and privilege of learning a foreign language and studying abroad. For those who do not have this privilege, life is not uncomfortable, but it is inconvenient with layers of obstacles that are difficult to overcome.
Over time, massage workers have learned to survive by depending on each other. When customers insult them in English, refuse to pay, or make a fuss, they smile and send them away as long as they don’t cause physical harm. When workers could not obtain medical insurance or receive vaccinations during the pandemic, they stayed at home to avoid contact with others, saving money on masks. As acquiring a massage license becomes increasingly difficult, they study harder—even if it means completing 500 hours of online courses and passing a written test all in English; although most massage workers are Asian, they consider their real teachers to be their seniors and colleagues.
Every worker talks about making English language learning a priority because they know how important it is to know English. But because they spend all their time working and saving money, many massage parlor workers say they will learn once they have the funds.
At first, we asked for these stories, and later the workers we got to know actively opened up on their own. The workers who accepted our interviews thanked us in turn. They said, “I talk too much, I don’t know if you are willing to listen.” But their stories have been buried for too long. They often expressed their gratitude, but it was their active participation and advice that made our activities and projects so successful, through means such as oral history interviews and holiday reunions.
Being away from home I couldn’t return for every Chinese New Year; sometimes I needed to study for my exams. Every year we skimped a bit more, and eating frozen dumplings only reminded me of the normal days I returned from the supermarket not wanting to cook. It was the workers who let me taste handmade dumplings with fresh dough and bowls filled with three fillings. This was how they spent any holiday celebration at MPOP whether it was Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, or Lantern Festival. Everyone gathered around several tables, enjoying the flavor of strong, Northern Chinese cooking. Even in the United States, I had a family.
Since joining last summer, I have been recognized by the fellow workers who frequently attend events, probably because of my more friendly northern accent and my ability to talk about family matters since I was a child. The organizers of MPOP also took care of me, perhaps due to a certain cultural connection, but more so because they understood my identity and my difficulty building my language confidence. I was encouraged to express myself, take on team responsibilities, and I even received their acknowledgment; I was able to question decisions and put forward ideas for the first time. Unlike the previous one-sided inquiries that gave me shame, we acted as each other’s Chinese-to-English dictionaries. So the first time I encountered a sentence I didn’t understand, I didn’t just brush it off, but asked them to explain it more clearly.
Of course, language barriers are not easy to overcome. When workers who don’t speak much English meet organizers with limited Chinese proficiency, communication can easily fail; the content shared by workers can make the organizers confused, and the organizers who want to add something can’t do so clearly because of the language barrier. So last fall we tried simultaneous interpretation for the first time, allowing workers to have conversations with other community organizations. Thanks to the financial support of the UW Center for Human Rights, and many others, MPOP was able to invite more interpreters to join the group discussions.
“My choice to join MPOP is so precious to me, not just because I met my fellow workers, but also because MPOP has brought me so much emotional support, a sense of self, companions, and even guidance for my future direction.”
On March 16 of this year, MPOP held a memorial service for the massage workers killed in the Atlanta shooting, and for our fellows killed in the two mass shootings in California during the Lunar New Year. We invited organizers from various minority community organizations to speak and translated their speeches into Mandarin and Vietnamese for those in attendance. This year, we hosted our first event at the newly established worker center and are preparing for more exciting events in the future.
The oppression and struggle in the massage industry are inseparable from the intersections of gender, race, and class issues. We hope to invite more experienced community organizers to MPOP and break down information barriers by sharing their experiences with the workers. Eliminating language barriers is an important part of this work. Looking back on MPOP’s last year together, we have turned countless insights into reality. My choice to join MPOP is so precious to me, not just because I met my fellow workers, but also because MPOP has brought me so much emotional support, a sense of self, companions, and even guidance for my future direction. This story holds many of my personal feelings, I am grateful for everyone listening, and for the continued support of the UW Center for Human Rights. Thank you!