Jjimjilbang: A Weird Dream I Had?

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Not Pictured: Lots of Naked Women

When I explain my first time at a Korean jjimjilbang to my friends and family, it feels like I’m describing a weird dream I had. “So I entered this room and everyone was naked. And I was naked, too. And we just sat in weird pools of water until Lee Pace showed up and asked me to marry him.” Because all of that is true…except the Lee Pace part.

I went to a jjimjilbang, called Lavender, in Daegu with four of my foreigner co-workers. Two of them had been to a jjimjilbang before, so, thankfully, my first experience wasn’t by myself. Even though seeing your friends naked is a strange way to bond, I was glad I wasn’t going alone since it’s always better to gape in confusion with someone else when you don’t understand why an ajumma is handing you a pile of used soap, or to be peer-pressured if you start to doubt whether or not you have the courage to strip off your underwear.

And so we burst through the door of the building that had the jjimjilbang on a higher floor, the cold air rushing in with us. We were bundled up in coats, scarves, and hats. We took an elevator up, and then put our shoes in tiny lockers, because Koreans don’t seem to like shoes near places they want to feel clean and cozy. So we went inside, shoeless, me feeling like this was all happening too fast, and we quickly saw that everyone was clothesless. Naked women everywhere. The next thing I know, I’m naked, too. We’re all naked. Old naked ajummas. Middle-aged naked women. Young naked women. Naked children. Naked me.

We shuffled, very naked, past women who were blow-drying their hair in the mirrors and through a door that led us into the jjimjilbang itself. The room was heavy with steam, every inch of the floor wet. We strode past women sitting on little plastic seats, like booster chairs, scrubbing their bodies with cloth, basins full of cloudy water. Red lights beamed down in the middle of the room, where women were lying face-up, snoozing with towels over their junk, while other women enjoyed the pools behind them.

The first pool we entered was a perfect hot-tub temperature. It was nice to finally be submerged and hide my body while I tried to process how naked we all were. Eventually we felt overheated, so we tiptoed out and into another pool that was ice-cold. Getting waist deep was as difficult as descending into a vat of needles. Overhead, the ceiling was designed like a cave and a stream of water poured out of it like a serious roofing problem. Every drop that splashed us stung our skin. We grimaced at each other, nakedly.

Then we proceeded into a lukewarm, dark-blue pool off to the side of the room, enveloped by a translucent wall. We never found out what was happening with this water. Some kind of sea salt? Food coloring? Kool-Aid?

And then an imitation waterfall where high pressure faucets beat/massaged our skin. I stood there, under the stream, like an old dog getting its head rubbed real nice.

After almost passing out from the heat of a different pool, I ventured into another that might have been camomile- or cucumber-infused? At this point, I’d decided two things: (1) If America had jjimjilbangs, they would fill them with fruit, probably, and just be like, “Enjoy our infusion hot tubs!” and then you would float in a tub of mushy strawberries or orange slices for $200. (By the way, it was only about $6 to get into this jjimjilbang.) And (2), jjimjilbang’s are half relaxing and half uncomfortable to me, because some things, like the massage waterfalls or the blue pool, are perfect, but other features, like the extreme hotness or coldness of some of the pools and sauna rooms made me feel kind of bad about life while I was in them.

Those sauna rooms were not really my cup of tea. One was like sitting inside an oven (I think I could see the air glistening with sweat?), which is never a thing I would recommend a person do, and one was freezing cold, with an ice wall spanning the perimeter of the room and a cold floor that just made me want slippers.

But the best and worst part of this adventure was getting scrubbed. First, we used bars of soap and scratchy cloths to scrub ourselves down, while we witnessed a girl cake a carton of Yoplait onto her face. Later, we were shown to the scrubbing tables in a private corner of the facility. Like Conan O’Brien says in his trip to a jjimjilbang with Steven Yeun, the tables do, in fact, look like they could have been used for dolphin autopsies. So I layed down, very naked, on a slippery table and pretended like this was all perfectly normal for me, and the scrubbing woman, clad in nothing but granny-panties, scrubbed every surface of my body three times with a cloth that felt like sandpaper, although it was painless. I’m pretty sure the words, “Um, woah there,” came out of my mouth more than once. And I almost gagged when I saw rolls of dead skin coming off my body, splashing to the floor when she chucked warm water from a large bowl at me, and my dead skin joined that of whoever else came before me, pooling into a dead skin sea. *gag* But my skin has never been so smooth.

Wow, what a strange dream, you might be thinking to yourself. I know. I never would have expected to find myself so physically vulnerable to a bunch of other women. But this experience is real life and, after awhile, it’s easy to relax. Korean culture doesn’t sexualize this aspect of their culture. It’s a normal and healthy way for them to spend time and take care of their bodies. Once I had the confidence to join them in nudity, I became comfortable in accepting that we’re all, in a way, the same, and there should never be any shame in vulnerability and self-care.

After we were showered and dressed again, swaddled in layers of clothes to face winter outside the jjimjilbang, I had never felt so cozy and clean in my entire life. Like a baby who’d had its first bath.

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