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Finding comfort in discomfort: Kari Schroeder

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The 42-year old Sai Ying Pun massage therapist speaks about her unique profession, her Hong Kong identity and way of life.

By Rachel Ma

With light amber hair, grey eyes and a decisively American accent, let’s face it – chances are you wouldn’t assume that Kari Schroeder was raised in Hong Kong. But she was only six-months old when she arrived with her family along with her father, a missionary, to the Fragrant Harbour. Despite the fact that she grew up here, she feels that she can ‘only integrate and fit in in Hong Kong to a certain level.’ But at at the end of the day, she still maintains that ‘Hong Kong is home’. Living in a city you simultaneously call home and yet are perpetually perceived as an outsider in is no longer a strange feeling for Schroeder, to say the least. In fact, she’s well-versed in engaging in the often difficult exercise of finding ‘comfort in discomfort’ no matter where she is. It is this ability to navigate the grey area that allows her to excel as a massage therapist, helping people find wellness within while she maintains an increasingly familiar cultural juggling act every day.

We speak to Schroeder, who runs her practice out of her cozy home in Sai Ying Pun just minutes away from theDesk co-working and events space, about how she learns to find a home amid uneasy environments and then channels that energy into her life’s work. She’s a full-time private massage therapist and integrative manual therapist, combining aspects from all massage practices and applying them according to her clients’ individual needs. Like all manual therapists, she assesses and treats aches and pains using nothing but her hands. Often starting with a massage, she judges the state of the muscle tissue of her patient and then treats them through an array of methods. Simply put, Kari says: “I blend in other techniques to make it more gentle, and I don’t do any manipulation,” adding that while effective, her practice is ‘definitely not chiropractic.’

“When they step off your table and tell you ‘I feel different’ – just to hear that is what keeps me in my job.”

After attending high school in Hong Kong, Schroeder went to the U.S. for a kinesiology degree, returned ‘home’ only to go back later to obtain a massage therapy certification. While many may see this as a homecoming of sorts, she tells us that instead, she experienced significant cultural shock. Unlike the typical American childhood, marked by trips to Target and Costco and playing behind white picket fences, she tells us that her ‘childhood consisted of clothing from wholesale stores and going to wet markets.’ Kari says that she identifies with Hong Kong and her surrounding neighbourhood as much as any other Hongkonger does, despite the expected cultural and communication barriers from her Western heritage. Upon returning from her studies, she moved to Jordan to live close to her parents. “It’s kind of gritty over there, with dai pai dongs along Temple Street and Shanghai Street,” she says. However, ‘you have Cox’s Road right next door – super swish.’ She reflects that: “l like that it’s a mix – not everything is super glitzy in Hong Kong.”  

And it’s precisely the way that she navigates the in-between space of being a perennial ‘outsider’ in a city Schroeder calls home that she channels into her practice. Her practice itself is an exploration of the precarious journey of seeking comfort in discomfort. Only within her profession, this journey isn’t cultural, but a means of finding relief from persistent pains and aches in her patients.

When we ask Schroeder how she connects with her patients, she tells us something no other interviewee has ever told us: “give me your hand, and relax”. Wary, but curious, we offer it to her. She gently kneads and explores the muscles on the forearm. Rubbing into a particularly sore spot, the shoulders tighten up. Picking up on that, she says: “that expression tells me that you’re in pain.” She explains that she ‘looks for such signs in patients and tests out how their body responds to pain, and then adjusts the treatment suitable to each of them.’ As she explains, she presses the palms in a soothing rhythm along the arm. She tells us that she’s practicing a technique called myofascial release, which eases pain by relaxing the connective tissue which binds the muscle with the tissues that cause pain. After a few more kneads, she returns to the initial sore spot. Surprisingly, the pain is no longer as sharp as before.

Schroeder explains that it is precisely moments like that that she finds gratifying in her job. “If you’ve ever been injured,” she says, “you’ll know that the amount of energy that it takes to focus and manage your pain is huge.” She explains further that: ‘if you can take away some of the pain, even just a tiny bit of it – you can see a shift in the person. And that is something truly beautiful.’

Finding that little piece of comfort or any alleviation from pain isn’t as easy as it sounds. But when Schroeder works on us, we feel her intense focus  – it’s frankly immensely spiritual and physical. She describes this side of her job as ‘about being with patients, and really, developing a personal relationship with them.’ She continues that: “it’s about reading the nuances and opening the patient to trust you when they’re half-clothed and vulnerable on the massage table.” If that doesn’t sound emotionally draining enough, she’s also had to make other sacrifices – she can’t enjoy the ‘typical benefits package’, as she puts it, that come with the usual corporate job.

“I’m not the type of person who wants 40-hour weeks – either you burn out or you start going into a routine.”

But wisely, Schroeder reflects that: “you’re making a sacrifice either way – trading long-working hours and blood, sweat and tears for security and stability.” She maintains that “It’s through doing what I love that I can truly enjoy the freedom that comes with my job.” Working as a freelancer, she’s able to pace her working hours to ensure quality services to her clients, a freedom that few of us have. Unlike many of us, she defies social norms and follows her passion, asserting that: “I’m not the type of person who wants 40-hour weeks. I want to do this for a very long time. 40-hour weeks in massage is just not very sustainable.” While that may seem far-fetched to many of us office workers, she made a comment that may resonate with many people – ‘either you burn out or you start going into a routine.’

Perhaps what distinguishes Schroeder from other massage therapists is not her unique background, nor her divided identity – but rather the whole-heartedness and sincerity with which she interacts with her clients. “It’s the human side of things,” she tells us, “human in the sense that one of the real joys about my world is, say, on a really good day, you have somebody coming in. And they’re in great pain. But when they step off your table, they tell you ‘I feel different’.” She adds: ‘just to hear that is what keeps me in my job.’

Our conversation is just a glimpse of how Schroeder seeks comfort with discomfort from not only her complex identity, but also interacting with her patients who are often in chronic pain. She accepts it, embraces it and diligently manoeuvres through it all, mentally and manually, finding meaning and comfort from what she enjoys doing the most. As she says: ‘this chaos, this craziness, this melting pot of cultures, this is where I feel comfortable.’ To experience her magic yourself, contact her for a consultation or a session. She comes highly recommended from the team at theDesk!

Kari Schroeder, in brief:
Name: Kari Schroeder
Age: 42
From: Hong Kong/United States
Position: Integrative Manual Therapist
Location: Sai Ying Pun

To get in touch with Kari Schroeder, email her at kari@hkbodyworks.com or visit her webpage at hkbodyworks.com.

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