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My Inauguration into Korean Bathhouse Culture – March 1st 2001. (Korean Accounts Part 1. 2000-2001)

On Korean Independence Day, (Sam-il, March 1st), I went to U-chun’s sister’s house with her daughter, Ga-in and her husband, U-no. They live in Changwon (창원) which sits between Masan in the west, and Pusan in the east.  They arrived at my apartment in two cars as her sister, her husband and their daughter, Min-ju, are all traveling to Changwon where another one of their sisters lives. It was great to get out of Daegu and to travel in a direction I had not been before. U-chun has five sisters and the one we are visiting has a husband who is an officer in the army and hence they live in married quarters. The quarters were outside the city and everywhere, as it is Independence Day, hung the national flag, the daeguk gi (대국 기).

Ga-in (Olivia), in 2001 (Sam-il)

U-chun’s sister’s family  live on the top floor of the apartment block so there was a great view of the surrounding countryside.

On the journey to Changwon, U-chun asked me what three things I wanted to do before I left Korea. I said I wanted to eat pondeggi which is steamed silk worm cocoons, eat dog soup (보신탕) and go to a bathhouse (목욕탕 ). Now I have no great desire to eat cocoons or dog, but I do think I should fleetingly sample them before I leave. As for the bathhouse, which in Korean is called a mokyoktang, all that is stopping me is a fear of nudity and an insecurity at my own physique. Nana outright refuses to visit one and this is now his fifth year in Korea. Most westerners I meet here have not been to them and many don’t even know they exist. I am drawn to them simply as I am afraid of them and see them to be Korean enclaves.

Anyway, U-chun laughed and said that they were planning to visit a bathhouse  this afternoon. There was a strange plummeting sensation in my stomach, like I was suddenly falling at a very fast rate. At first I thought she was joking and then I tried to tell her that I was planning to visit one in the final week or so of my year I Korea. She didn’t seem to understand!

At U-chun’s sister’s house we drank cold green tea and then walked to a nearby restaurant. There were perhaps fifteen of us all together and of course, I was the centre of attention. We were served fish, a very ugly fish which I suspect was monk fish (악귀) as its mouth was massive. Several fish were placed on our tables, all smothered in noodles and drenched in red pepper paste. I didn’t really enjoy it. As always, there were a variety of side dishes one of which was a selection of very chewy meat. I asked U-chun what it was and her and her husband grinned. ‘it’s ddong chip.’ She replied. Now, my knowledge of the Korean language isn’t extensive but I do understand the word ‘ddong’ (똥) as this word I found written all over desks in my classrooms in my first week in Korea. The word was usually written under a drawing of a turd that curled upwards into a little point rather like Mr Whippy ice-cream. ‘Chip’ (집) is simply Korean for house.  So I was eating chicken’s arse! Korean food is very often Klingon in nature and I didn’t eat anymore from that bowl.

After the meal we walked to a nearby traditional potter’s work house. The outside of the building was a regular concrete structure but the interior had be decorated to resemble and old, traditional lodging and work place.  There were wooden rafters on the ceiling with a papery material stretched over them. Wooden posts had been sunk into the floor and the walls were paneled in wood. Everywhere was covered in Chinese characters and in one room they were even on the walls and ceiling. The potter sat at a wheel making various objects which were later to be fired and put on display. We ordered some dongdong-ju (동동주) which we drank from traditional gourd bowls. I would love a recipe of this drink as we have nothing like it in the west. It is a creamy rice wine which hasn’t been strained and which seems to be the tipple of peasants and farmer folk. As we were walking back to the apartment block, reeking of smoke from the wooden fires in the potter’s shop, U-chun told me the next stop was the bathhouse. Suddenly, the sinking feeling returned.

Sam-il 2001, in a traditional restaurant and potter’s shop on the day of my first visit to a Korean bathhouse

In U-chun’s sister’s apartment, I was offered the choice of staying with the women to play games, or going to the mokyoktang with U-no and two other male relatives. I couldn’t stay with the women without losing face, though they wouldn’t have minded, and so I decided to swallow my pride in the mokyoktang. I was really nervous but I wasn’t going to back out of the experience. At the mokyoktang in Changwon, on my inaugural visit, I immediately saw a few men who were proportionally fatter than I was and any insecurities about the genital department quickly evaporated when I realised that there were very little differences between people. I was quite honoured when two strangers volunteered to scrub my back for me but it was a weird experience. It was wonderfully liberating to be naked with other men and boys and not feel in anyway assessed or eyed up. Nudity in the west is always accompanied with sexual overtones or notions of masculinity which detract from the experience’s potential pleasures. Next to me a boy of about fourteen rubbed his father’s back and then the father rubbed his. I had a slight shock when the boy lay down and his father began rubbing his son’s chest and then moving his dick and balls to one side, scrubbed his groin. The boy then did the same to his father.

My only qualm on my first visit to the mokyoktang, besides squatting on one of those little seats,  was bending over to pick up the soap. I felt this a far to undignified act to perform. U-no spent almost an hour scrubbing himself  and I did notice that when the boy beside me was having his back scrubbed, a small line of dead, grey skin was being stripped off. Koreans actually have a word for this skin, ‘dae (때) which translates as ‘dirt.’ The abrasive cloths they use, which come is several gradients are almost like sandpaper. When we left the mokyoktang, U-no said to me, Nick! You are a new man now!’ I think he meant it in the sense I was clean but I interpreted it more mentally as the experience was a landmark in my visit to Korea and in my personal development. It was an experience that quite liberated me but has remained an experience I can only enjoy in Korea.

I have since been in three different mokyoktang premises and they are all fairly similar in what they have to offer. The changing rooms are large and opened planned and there is usually a television around which people sit naked or dressed either drying off or recuperating after the session as it can quite tire you. When you go from the changing room area to the bathing area you have no security at all as you are totally naked.  Everything is supplied for you and so you have to walk past the relaxation area without even the safety of a face cloth or towel. I actually felt so naked that even my watch and dog tags gave me some minuscule sense of security.

Once in the bathing area there are plenty of high powered showers which you can adjust from freezing cold to scorching hot. Next there are rows of showers where you sit down on a small plastic stool which is not much bigger than a washing-up bowl. In front of you, as you sit, is an enormous mirror and it is here that you do most of your scrubbing clean. One my first visit I avoided these showers as the seat is so low to the floor that even if you have a relatively small belly, it is highlighted. Soap, toothpaste, razor blades, salt – for scrubbing your teeth, towels, abrasive body cloths are all provided. In the bathing area are usually a number of pools which would include a hot pool, a cold pool, a warm pool and often a Jacuzzi. Around these are a number of rooms such as a steam room and various saunas. In some mokyoktang houses are shower cubicles which blast your body from a hundred different vents with ice cold water.

I have fallen in love with the Korean mokyoktang and not for any seedy reason. In fact, since I started this diary entry I have made six trips to different establishments around Song So (성서). First of all, no one ogles at you. Koreans, by their nature will have a little inquisitive stare but will look away very quickly as starring is considered rude. I surmise that Koreans will have seen thousands of bodies by the time they become adults and everything I have to offer, other than Caucasian looks, will have been seen many times before.  The mokyoktang, experience has given me a deeper insight into the Korean psyche. Koreans are impeccably clean and have a very healthy attitude towards nudity and physicality albeit within gendered confines. Many of the insecurities that exist in the west I should imagine are unknown here. I doubt few teenage boys or men grow up worrying about the size of their penis. I can remember the hatred I had as a teenager when it came to school showers and there were many of us that used to try and dodge them. For some perverse reason showers only ever seemed to be enforced around the age of puberty. Korean mokyoktangs are full of men and boys of all ages who visit with their friends or alone and obviously have no worries about nudity. When I last taught PE in an English school, probably around 2003, boys undressed underneath enormous towels and even one boy saw another naked both observer and seen were deemed ‘gay’. How pathetic!

In the week following my visit, one of the foreign teachers from the Yon San Dong school suffered an emotional trauma over an experience she had in her classroom. One of the bosses of the school, a guy we call ‘Scary Hat Man, as he always wears the ridiculous looking stetson, was playing with Mr Jo’s youngest son. She saw him playfully pinch the boy between the legs. The event traumatised her and she was sat crying inconsolably. She ranted on about leaving Korea and that she couldn’t work in a school wear a boss was a child abuser. Recently, the relationship between the foreign teachers in the school has been a little strained and Matt and I tried telling her that you couldn’t judge on western attitudes. I have read that Korean adults will often feel a young child between the legs to determine if it is a girl or a boy and that this is quite acceptable. Further, several infant boys have pinched me between the legs and run away laughing, this has happened more than once. Another common behaviour is for children to clasp their hands together with their index fingers protruding, and then to poke you up the backside. This is always accompanied with the Konglish (mixed English and Korean) exclamation, ‘Ddong Injection!’ (‘shit injection!’)  This is always a group activity, or perhaps I should say attack, and is always accompanied with laughter. When I told her about the father who moved his son’s dick and balls to one side to scrub his groin, she promptly shook her head and said ‘I don’t want to hear this!’ Her attitude is annoying as I feel that when she is in my class I have to censor the way I act though I have no interest in feeling a kiddies crotch. I am just concerned she may interpret my sitting a child on my knee or touching a child as ‘sexual.’

Another thing I have started doing here, in order to live the Korean experience, is making slurping noises when I eat and making those throaty noises when my nose or chest is blocked. Loudly clearing your nose in the mokyoktang gutter is quite acceptable and actually enjoyable. It provides a wonderful sense of personal freedom though I am sure such habits will cease when I return to the UK.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
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