Terrible But Exciting Experience, Jimjillbang
On one of my first dates with my Korean boyfriend I was informed that we would be spending the night at a jimjilbang. I was terrified! Bath house culture does not exist in my home country New Zealand. Bathing and personal cleanliness is kept strictly within the home and the body is not something that we readily parade around in the public domain. The thought of walking completely naked through throngs of ajuma, teenagers and children made me feel nervous to the point of passing out. Was I going to be the only foreigner among several hundred Korean women? Would everyone point, stare and laugh at the different shape of my body? Would I end up hiding in the steam room waiting for the lights to go out? I didn’t know what to do.
New Zealand is a British colony and along with the Queens English, meat pies and pound cake came the English sense of shame. From the English us white New Zealanders have grown up with the idea that the body is not something to show off, that it is a sexual object that should be kept heavily shrouded in many layers of clothing and of which you should always feel a slight sense of shame and embarrassment. Going to the spa with my boyfriend (who I was shocked to realise I would have to part with for several hours) would be my first experience of being naked in front of more than one person at a time. It was like a nightmare unfolding before me.
After arriving and figuring out which locker to put my shoes in and which locker to get undressed in front of, I made my way into the main spa room fully clothes in the pyjamas provided by the jimjilbang. I showered and then quickly leapt into a yellow coloured pool of mud. I carefully placed the pyjamas beside the pool for the time that I would need to get out. I noted I was the only person in the entire spa room who had their pyjamas with them let alone had them sitting beside the pool. As I decided to change pools I realised with terror that my pyjamas were gone!! Some busy ajuma had taken them and I would have to walk around without them! My nightmare had come true.
Pyjama-less, I was forced to walk totally naked to my next destination and it turns out it was the best thing that could have happened to me. As I walked across the seemingly massive expanse of the spa to my next pool I felt a sense of freedom and happiness that I have never felt before. I realised that no one cared that I was naked, because they were all naked too! And it seemed that here in Korea the sense of ones own body is different than it is in New Zealand (or at least, different than it is for me personally). No one seemed to feel embarrassed about their body, everyone seemed totally relaxed and there was a real feeling of community between the bathing women. People scrubbed one another, chatted as they showered or just bobbed up and down in hot pools with their eyes closed. I realised that being naked was not such a big deal after all. I felt a rush of liberation and relaxation as perceptions that I had long held about my body fell away.
I walked to the showers where I copied other women and scrubbed myself with a harsh material mitten until I was raw and red. Suddenly I realised I was being stared at by a woman in her 40’s. To my horror I realised she was walking toward me. Was she going to say something horrible about my body? Was she going to tell me to get out?! ‘Nice to meet you ‘she said. She then gave me a full body hug (the first completely nude hug I have ever had with a woman), she then started to sway both of our bodies back and forward so that we were now dancing together under the shower. Then she started to sing the 1985 Michael Jackson / Lionel Richie classic, We Are The World. She clearly did not have a problem with a foreigner being in her spa. How had she known this was one of my favourite songs of all time? I shall never know. I felt accepted.
Several times I transferred between the hot sauna room and the cold pool and at a certain point felt a cool rushing inside my body and chest. It was the most amazing, healthy and relaxing of feelings. I was later to learn that this is a feeling many Koreans attend spas to achieve, the sense of cool, the sense of cleanliness and health, and a sense of intense relaxation.
We slept that night in the communal jimjilbang room. I woke twice, once to find a complete stranger asleep and with his arms across the face of my sleeping boyfriend. The second time to find a drunken ajuma hitting my feet with a wooden block because she had decided that she wanted to sleep where I was sleeping. Luckily she was pulled away by her laughing drunk friends. I stayed awake for a while after this looking and marvelling at how closely total strangers were sleeping with one another, arms and legs thrown across their sleeping neighbours, everyone was so completely at ease with one another. I loved it.
We left the jimjilbang the next morning very early and watched the sun rise over Gwangan Bridge. Vibrant pinks and blues flooded the harbour as the sun pushed the night away and I floated on a cloud of total mind and body relaxation. It was relaxation on a new level as I have never experienced before.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmxT21uFRwM – We Are The World
By Magnolia Wilson