Korea 007 – The Bathhouse
When I woke up the next morning, my room was still pitch black and I was chilled to the core. I was disoriented at first but slowly realized where I was. I lay there a while listening to the sounds outside my room, the sounds of Korea and of the Inn Dae Won waking up.
I climbed to my knees and then to my feet, grabbed my towel and toiletries and stumbled down the short hall past the door to Robert’s room, which stood open on an empty room.
The courtyard was filled with activity despite the early hour and minus eleven temperatures. Long term tenants were at the drain in the centre pounding the three month old dirt out of their jeans and t-shirts. Others were busily brushing their teeth and dodging in and out of the crowd to spit the foam from their mouths. The Ajimah was scraping a chicken carcass clean, and her daughters were emptying vats of dirty dish water. It was a wet business and everyone was wearing rubber thongs. I was much reminded of African watering holes and half expected an elephant or two to come and stake a claim. I waved hello to Charles who was at the mirror in the courtyard shaving with a disposal razor. His hand was shaking so badly from the cold he was cutting his face to ribbons.
I sat on the couch and waited for a break in the seemingly endless parade of grumpy and rumpled English teachers heading to the shower. When I finally got my chance, I looked around in disappointment. The bathroom was a tiny cement cubicle with barely enough room to turn around in. It contained a western style toilet (though missing the seat) and a shower head attached to the wall. The water from the shower sprayed all over the toilet, walls and floor, and, since there was no drain, ran under the door and out into the courtyard to the central drain. I reflected that everyone could look at the flow of water and see how dirty you were. There was a built-in electric heating element which was supposed to heat the water as it moved through the pipe just before it reached the shower head. It made me nervous of being electrocuted, but for now that wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t working. There were no hooks on which to hang my clothes and towel as I showered. I tried to hang my pants on the door hinges but they twice fell onto the wet floor. I had to settle for rolling everything up and putting it on the water tank of the toilet. If I stood with my body between the showerhead and the toilet, I could block most of the water. By this time, my own hands were shaking and I couldn’t open my soap container. This whole process must have taken longer than I realized for three people had come and banged on the door. This was too much I thought. There had to be a better way. Then I remembered the map on the bulletin board showing the way to a public bathhouse.
I had no idea what to expect, but I had read that the bathhouse was a big part of life in both Korea and Japan. According to the map, it was only a short distance up the alley from the Inn Dae Won and was marked (as were all bathhouses) with a sign showing a bowl of hot water with lines of steam rising up from it. I found it with little difficulty.
At the door I paid 1,700 won, about $3 Canadian. The outside, I noted, was very dirty and grimy but the inside was a revelation. Absolute luxury.
I left my shoes at the door with dozens of other pairs and was given a key on a rubber band which was meant to be wrapped around my wrist or ankle. I went to the locker which matched the number on the key, stripped, and then not knowing what to do next simply imitated those around me. They carried nothing with them and walked up a flight of steps wearing only the rubber band and key. I felt very strange as I walked up the steps and realized that it was the very first time I’d ever walked up steps completely naked. There simply had been no cause for it before now.
The steps ended in an immense room with three rows of showers along one side. First step was a long hot shower using the soap and shampoo provided. Beside the showers were four Jacuzzis ranging in temperature from hot to nuclear. The first and coolest was empty, and I climbed in there. As I lay there feeling the bitter cold seeping out of my body, I began to notice the attention I was getting from around the room. All the Korean men were sneaking glances at me and talking amongst themselves. Finally, an older Korean man jumped into the tub and smiled at me. He reached up and turned a large knob letting a powerful blast of hot water in. The temperature rocketed upward almost instantly. He gave out a muffled roar and then turned to me. He smiled like he was trying to break his jaws and watched me with open curiousity. He knew enough English to make a point or two but understood little of what I said in reply. Three other men jumped in and they all sat in a row across from me staring quietly and from time to time pointing and making some comment about my appearance.
The first man suddenly stood up, slammed his fist against his chest and said in English, “Mr. Kim. Sound body. Sound mind.” He got out of the tub and indicating I should follow, walked to the next. It was much hotter than the first.
After a few minutes, that tub also filled up with curious Koreans, though none as yet dared address me or even sit on my side. They ranged around the other side with Mr. Kim in the middle. Mr. Kim, claimed right of discovery and spoke at length to my audience all the while pointing at me. Suddenly he stood up again and thumped his chest. “Sound body. Sound mind.” To the next tub. This one was hotter still. When he saw that I hesitated to get in, he brought me to a large and deep tank that stretched the full width of the room. The water was ice cold and delicious after the blistering temperatures of the Jacuzzis. It was large enough to swim in after a fashion. I experimented for a few minutes going back and forth from the cold pool to the hot Jacuzzi and found it exhilarating.
Mr. Kim had since gone to the fourth and hottest tub. I only made it to number three. Mr. Kim then took me to the next stage, a steam room. There were four of these as well. In the first, the air burned my lips and I hardly dared breathe the hot air into my lungs. Mr. Kim flexed his biceps and before he could speak I said, “I know, I know. Sound body. Sound mind.” He laughed and slapped me across the back before ducking out and into the next room. I stayed a long time in the first once I discovered the steam obscured my presence and kept the usual legion of the curious from discovering me. I didn’t even intend to try the others, finding it a challenge to remain even in this one. When I finally left, my lips tingled and I felt a bit faint. I found Mr. Kim in the fourth steam room. On the door was a giant sign with red markings and large exclamation marks. I didn’t need to read Korean to know what that meant. Mr. Kim signaled that I was to come in, but I shook my head no. At that, he dropped to the floor and started doing push ups. He did a quick set and then jumped to his feet. The glass was too thick for me to hear what he said but I had no trouble reading his lips, “Sound body. Sound mind.”
After the saunas came another set of showers. These were low to the ground and had a small plastic stool in front of each one. This enabled you to sit comfortably and take a long leisurely shower scrubbing every last millimeter of skin with hard sponges and stones. Finally, I found myself in another large room with long mirrors and endless baskets of cream, lotions, combs, brushes, manicure sets and q-tips.
While standing in front of the mirror I saw for the first time the reflection of my own body and features contrasted with those around me. I could see myself through their eyes and understood their insatiable curiousity about me. In some odd way, I was embarrassed about my strangeness and wished I looked like them so I could fade in, be unnoticed. They fit an almost perfect standard. Same height, same black hair, same black eyes, smooth perfect skin and to my inexperienced eyes even the same facial structure. And there I was, a foot taller with pale hairy skin, a bushy red beard, blue eyes and blonde hair. To them I wasn’t exactly human in the same way they were, and they felt no embarrassment at standing even a foot away and simply staring at me. I reflected that they didn’t know how uncomfortable that made me feel. Never in their lives had they stood different from their fellows in this way. They stared at me in much the same way I would watch a bear at a zoo. They endured my turning to watch them as comfortably as I could withstand the bear’s inquiring gaze, confident that the bear and I inhabited different worlds. To a man, they put on the same white undershirt, white dress shirt, jacket, tie, and white socks to establish their belonging to the group of salarymen. I climbed back into my old jeans and my t-shirt emblazoned with a picture and words which I hoped established my uniqueness and separateness from anyone else.
I finally emerged from the bathhouse onto the busy streets of Seoul feeling refreshed and warm for the first time since I’d arrived the night before. It is an unfortunate fact that I rarely returned to the bathhouse, preferring a cold shower and privacy. The call of the warmth of the bathhouse was always overpowered by the memory of the chill of that penetrating and dissecting yet impersonal gaze.