Washing feet ‘a holy experience’ – From South Korea to the Hill: a Diamond in the rough

Local Life December 5, 2012 0 Comments

Some people might regard taking care of other people’s hands and feet as undignified, but for Seong Angela Heo, it can be almost a spiritual experience. (Photo by Wendy A. Horwitz)

by Wendy A. Horwitz

“Your feet are crying,” Angela said, cradling my heels in her hands. “You can’t hear because your heart is up there, but they are close to my heart.” I was sitting in the pedicure chair, and Seong Angela Heo, who goes by her middle name, dabbed tea tree oil on my toes, as she’d recommended I do several months prior. I hadn’t followed her advice. “You must do this every day,” she said gently.

Angela has been a technician for one-and-a-half years at Diamond Spa, 8430 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill. A petite woman with a warm smile and short brown hair, she has worked as an insurance agent, written a column for “Peace Times” in Flushing, NY, and published in magazines in South Korea, where she was born. When she was a child, her uncle gave her a special pen because she aspired to be a poet.

“I never thought I’d wash people’s feet,” she told me when we met over tea at Chestnut Hill Coffee Company, a week after my appointment in November. “But I love the job. It is humbling, and sometimes,” she hesitated, “a holy experience.”

I was surprised. Although I enjoy pedicures, I’ve been secretly embarrassed, wondering how one deals with others’ calluses and toenails. Besides, my feet are ugly; as a child, I sat on them to hide them. How was it to sit at our feet day after day, grooming this trammeled part of the human body? To gather around an impatient client, like workers around a queen bee; mani-pedi, done? We are hand-in-hand at manicure tables, but perhaps divided by unacknowledged differences, and potentially, by names that some clients might have trouble pronouncing.

But Angela prefers her baptismal name, the English one. She was raised in South Jeolla (Chonnam) Province, on tiny Sorok Island. Her childhood was a strictly religious Catholic one. She loved when the sisters took the children on hikes or to the beach, using nature as props for doctrine and stories. As a teen, Angela found Catholicism constraining, and she was more inclined to Buddhism. Nevertheless, she was very observant: “People said I would be a nun,” she smiled mischievously, “but I wanted to be a bishop!” In 1980, she immigrated to the United States. One of eight daughters, Angela married and had a son and a daughter.

She acknowledges that technicians at some salons do not enjoy their work. After financial necessity motivated her to get her license, Angela was surprised how much she liked doing nail and skin care. She had already re-embraced Catholicism, and it has been her deep religious faith, along with experience in holistic health, that informs her approach. Health, she told me, is the real beauty.

“I tell clients that the polish is pretty, but it hides the toes. Do not cover up; give the nail a rest and let it breathe.” Some clients are annoyed, but others are thrilled to see their skin and nails heal from fungus and other problems. “If we are hiding,” she said, “We never heal.”

Leaning across the coffee shop table, Angela whispered, “Sometimes, I talk too much at work. We are supposed to keep a quiet atmosphere.” So she focuses on touch and massage to help heal a client’s body and perhaps, to reach the psyche and even the soul. Her work has become as much a religious practice as a technical skill.

She still writes, too. “My poems are more like a prayer now. Earlier, some were about a cold wind to my heart. Now, loud and soft winds; all are God calling.” Her family wanted to publish her essays, but Angela didn’t want to burden her children with the feeling that they had to read it all, in Korean. Also, “There is a storm of books in the world, too many,” she said. “I don’t want to add to that.”

At one spa appointment, I told Angela about my father, who had enlisted as a doctor in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) during the Korean War. When I was growing up, he never talked about it nor showed his many photographs. More recently, he became quite public about his experience.

Angela listened and then said something that took my breath away. “You must thank your father for me. For my country, what he did to help.” “Thank him?” I repeated. “Yes, please thank him.”

We were quiet. She smoothed warm stones over my calves. “Sit back, relax,” she said.

We go to spas to relax, to feel pretty, to enjoy the conviviality. Diamond Spa is serene and friendly with its taupe decor, soft music, comfy massage chairs. But the touch of a hand at our feet may do more than disguise middle-aged toes under sparkling polish. Angela taught me that.

Wendy Horwitz is a freelance writer and psychologist who resides in Mt. Airy with her two children.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.