Elwood 5566

The Ebente-Tang (이벤트 탕)

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture by 노강호 on April 15, 2010

The 'special event' pool?

This evening, I wallow for a while in the ‘special event’  pool, amusingly, in Konglish, called the ‘ebente-tang’ (이벤트 탕). Next to the pool is a sign announcing the ‘special event’ of the day and advertising forthcoming ‘attractions.’ Though you won’t see anything as special as synchronized swimming or a killer whale display, you will be treated by a variety of subtle scents, frequently changed,  that float gently on the rising steam or  at times  bask in vibrantly coloured water, purple and green being the most common. In some establishments, lighting in the water adds a retro appeal,  probably lost on most Koreans but for westerners over a certain age, reminiscent of 70’s larva lamps.  In other places, the ‘special event’ pool might be a large jacuzzi that froths into life intermittently.

Yesterday’s olfactory treat was lavender, today, its pine needle aroma which must have been recently added as the scent is quite heady though not in the least overpowering.  Pine is probably one of the most common scents in bathhouses and  very reminiscent of  Korea. The smell is quite natural and shouldn’t be associated with the overstated, chemical guff of  propellant toilet and room  fresheners  all designed to neutralize unpleasant smells and bludgeon your nasal passages in the process. Tomorrow’s scent will be jasmine, I can’t wait!

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Ten Tips for Taking the Plunge

So you want to go to the bathhouse but have reservations.? Read on…

Once you’re naked and the same as everyone else, the apprehensions that originally plagued you gradually, though not completely, begin to lift.  I wore my military dog tags and a watch on my first occasion and, for the next few months, continued to do so on subsequent visits. These became invested with a new sense of worth as for some ridiculous reason, I didn’t feel totally naked wearing them.  As psychological props, there came a stage several months or maybe even weeks later, when they were no longer necessary and I clearly remember deciding to leave them in the changing room and finally go completely naked. Initially, I missed them because I used to fiddle with them or glance at my watch obsessively, when I  felt uncomfortable.

You might want to avoid that white bucket seat on your first visit!

Ironically, my first visit to a bathhouse was on Independence Day, March 1st 2001 (삼일). I traveled with my best friend, my boss, whom I now work for, to visit her family in Changwon (창원). The bathhouse visit had been unplanned and presented to me as a choice, the other being to stay at home and play games with the women. I decided, for the sake of my image, to accompany the 5 men,  all related and one of whom my friend’s husband. They were all sympathetic to my novice status and were especially thoughtful and empathetic. Despite my trepidations and the fact I had been wanting to have this experience, my diary comments, were positive and my only apparent fears were bending down to pick up the soap, a little unease at being the only adult who wasn’t circumcised and  sitting in that ‘undignified’ position on the little plastic stool. One of my friends even scrubbed my back which though strange was endearing and made me feel both part of our group and  bathhouse community. What surprised me most however, was the depth of intimacy between fathers and their sons, an intimacy which went far beyond scrubbing backs.  It seemed there were no taboos.

No gigantic towels to hide under

Under the shower next to me, a boy of  13 or 14, lay on the floor while his father vigorously scrubbed him. This included holding aside the boy’s genitals while he scrubbed his groin and, when the boy rolled over onto his stomach, he scrubbed his buttocks. When this was finished, they traded places and the  procedure was reversed. I have since seen this performed countless times, in many other bathhouses and in all possible variations. Though no longer surprised, I’m always aware of the cultural differences that  in the West deems this intimacy, not just sexual, but a perversion. Yet  in Korea, I find such ‘rituals’ bonding, even cute.  When leaving the bathhouse, one of my friends proudly informed me, I was now  ‘a new man.’ I don’t know whether he meant physically or mentally and while there was no doubt I felt impeccably clean, most notable was a sense that I had overcome a  deep-seated fear.

One trip to a bathhouse however, wasn’t enough to defeat my inhibitions or to satisfy my curiosity about this cultural phenomenon. A few weeks later, another friend took me sightseeing in the mountains which culminated in a visit to some form of bathhouse. Of course, I had no idea of this at the time and assumed that we were visiting a mountain foot clinic, as my friend, Hyo-son, was a foot doctor. I imagined I was going to have a foot massage and then perhaps a meal at the small restaurant  situated on one side of the building. After being introduced to the establishment’s hosts and a teenager, I was ushered to a changing room and then, via  a series of  isolated English words and hand gestures, instructed to undress.  So, I began stripping off, assuming my friend, Hyo-son, was going to join me. Instead, the three of them stood chatting and ignored me until I was naked. Then, like a lamb being led to the slaughter,  Hyo-son coaxed me by the hand into a shower room. More hand signals follow and I take a shower while they stand in the doorway and continue their conversation. Meanwhile, confused, I begin muttering to myself, a habit  which manifests when I am in intense, embarrassing situations. Next, I am led through a small bathhouse in which there are perhaps 5  men. In the far corner of the room is what I now know to be a mud sauna (황토방 ).   Looking like a gigantic wasps nest, this is basically  a small room built out of yellow mud which when dried, houses a dry sauna.  I was instructed to enter the sauna through a flap on the floor – a flap similar to the ones used to allow the passage of a cat into  and out of its house, and not much bigger. Any remaining pride was dispelled as I got onto all fours and proceeded, pig-like into the sauna.  Beyond humiliation, I lay on the sauna matting laughing aloud in total disbelief at events. Sometime later, the teenager was sent to summon me and I re-emerged, on all fours. I was directed for another shower and then, in the bathhouse section, and with my little entourage all present, I was instructed to lay in an enormous stone bath which was already being filled with what looked like dark green slime.  The bath was hot, but every time I tried to dangle my arms over the sides of the bath, or move myself  out of the water, the boy pushed me back. Then Hyo-son began massaging my body with an enormous tea bag which smeared a herbal smelling paste over me .  I was thankful when the water rose to a sufficient depth to cover me completely. Even to this day, I don’t know whether this was a mud or herb bath  or perhaps even both but several showers were required to remove the slimy residue from my body. After a period of relaxation in the small bathhouse, I was finally able to dress and join the group in the restaurant.

And permanently accompanied by a symphony of water

I can empathize with anyone facing apprehensions about taking the plunge into this strange world. Ironically, even after such experiences, I remain apprehensive about swimming pools and changing rooms in the UK where there is always a sense that either something sexual or aggressive is about to happen. What shades and informs such experiences is the culture from which it stems. Back home, the body is dominated by a sort of fascism, predominantly external but also internally generated, which classifies and critiques bodies according various categories. Sometimes I hear myself commenting on individuals and not necessarily in a negative manner but negative ones I don’t like  partially as one target of criticism is my own body. The most obvious category for western men of course, is dick size. On this subject, I don’t truly know what significance Koreans place on penal proportions,  but I would imagine that bathhouse culture renders any pretty unimportant. There may be some variations in dimensions but you quickly learn they’re all basically the same and it’s all pointless and unfair anyway as the winners are  invariably 13-year-old skinny boys whose accompanying bodies  are still 10 and in which any triumph, if there is any, is temporary. When the clothes are off and we are reduced to our  basic components,  everything is demystified.

As an ex-gay man, I have to add that bathhouses are fairly unsexy. I’m not saying nothing  ever appeals  to me, on the contrary, I am very aware of attractive looking males, but what is most bizarre is that even from my first visit to a bathhouse, the experience was non sexual. Ironically,  this is one of the most fascinating aspects of  my bathhouse experiences, as my  sense of liberation stems not just from shedding my clothes, but from shedding that most dominant and basic urge. Necessary as that urge is to the proliferation of humanity, in individual terms it is probably the most wasteful, driving us like lemmings in the selfish pursuit of satiating our own chemical impulses, consuming our time, diverting our attention and draining our energies in the process. I’m talking as a single man, in my fifties, of course, were I  in a romantic situatiom, I wouldn’t be so dismissive; but I don’t think I miss the mark accusing this urge of being the most greedy in its wants and least rewarding once they have been acquired. And Oh! Isn’t it a merry-go-round; once satiated it’s only a matter of time before it rears its head again and we’re compelled onto that journey to nowhere.  What an utter waste of human energy! Well, don’t ask me how, but in the Korean bathhouse those urges are extinguished. Rent apart is that conflation of nudity and sex, for me at least, so that I can enjoy nudity and the equality and liberation it brings without the sexual urge kicking in and can do so while appreciating the occasional beauty that passes my way.  Cocks are really only interesting when hidden and once they are flopping about all around you, other things become of more interest – the trickling of water on old man’s skin, the contours of someones hip, the interplay of someone’s muscles,  someone with a belly fatter than mine, a father bathing their baby, the sounds of water – it can be anything.

Cute!

Friends often ask me why there are no such establishments back home or what might  happen if  one were opened. I could write a substantial amount in response but basically, I wouldn’t enjoy bathing in a western context and certainly not in a British one.  A gay bathhouse would terrify me but then I was never very good at being gay!!  Besides, I’d hate being eyed up by someone like me and I quite pity all my victims back in the days when I was lecherous!  My home  town has a spa facility but the need to wear bathing costumes immediately seems restrictive and puerile. Several years ago, when it ran single sex naked sessions,  it attracted so many gay men seeking sex, it subsequently reintroduced costumes. Recently, I’ve considered nudism in the UK as I am tempted to believe attitudes among nudists might be healthier. This consideration has grown out of an awareness that while in Korea, attending a bathhouse imposes no social judgment, in Britain it would label me either ‘gay’ or  as some kind of  ‘swinging nudey.’ Unfortunately, while we conflate sex with nudity, bathhouses, spas, and places of semi nudity will  continue to encourage  all mannerisms of sexual  activity, passive and active.

Ready to take that plunge? No doubt, many will have no worries entering a bathhouse but if the experience is likely to stress you, here are some tips.

1. Keep a watch on. It’s really useful as a diversionary play thing should you feel uncomfortable.

2. Choose a quiet time for you first encounter. Early morning, eg. 5 am, though anytime before 7am on the weekend is good. Alternatively, if the establishment closes, a good time to attend is on a weekend a couple of hours before closing time.

3. Avoid public holidays,  unless you’re prepared for a full house and avoid both  ‘play Saturdays’ (놀토) when there are no schools, and school and university vacation periods.

4. Sometimes, fitness centers have adjacent bathhouses and jjimjilbang. If this is the case, you can use the sports facilities a few times in order to familiarise yourself with everything, before using the bathhouse.

5. On your first encounter you’ll probably head straight for the bathhouse complex blotting out everything on the way. Try to remember to pick up a towel and a wash cloth, usually located around the complex entrance. These can be used the same way as your watch, when you get stressed or ultimately, to bury your face in.

6. Remember, if you head straight for the showers which are situated at floor level, you will have to sit on a bucket sized seat. All bathhouses have regular, standing showers which provide a good vantage point to familiarise yourself with the bathhouse layout and practices and don’t necessitate sitting in an undignified position.

7. Soap, towels, toothpaste are all provided. If you drop the soap and find this embarrassing, park your arse in a corner before bending down, or  with your knees together, bend with the  knees and not from your waist. Alternatively, rapidly kick the soap into the drain and ignore it.

8. If you remember to take a towel in with you, you can use this to dry off, prior to leaving. On your first visit you will probably want to escape quickly and this will be prolonged if you are dripping wet. If there is an ice room, five minutes sat in this, especially in summer, will quickly dry  you but this procedure has a detrimental effect on males.

9. Male and worried about willy size? Instantly add an extra centimeter by trimming surrounding hair. I once read that every forty pounds lost, assuming you are that fat to begin with, increases the appearance of  the size, by one inch. One the other hand, if you’re as fat as I am, an extra few stone would supply enough lagging to provide an overhang sufficient enough to hide it completely.

10. Of course, there is nothing to prevent you wearing a swimming costume and I have known people do this. They were women so I never actually witnessed reactions. I’d imagine you would attract far more attention wearing something than going naked and besides, no matter how good-looking you are, you’d look a total twat.

Good luck. If you too have suggestions, please add them here. Thanks

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouses are Gay!

I frequently hear or see this comment and consider it the dumbest a westerner could make! Anyone who comes to Korea and doesn’t try a bathhouse is denying themselves an experience rich in its uniqueness and in its ability to afford you a very intimate glimpse of Korean culture. I have probably attended a bathhouse 3 times a week for a period of almost 4 years and in all that time I have only seen 3 western people in bathhouse, 2 adults and a boy. Neither have the numerous westerners I worked with over this period attended one with me. I am no bathhouse guru and there will be foreigners living in Korea far more experienced in this pursuit than I, but turning to my own culture, we certainly have a terrifying fear of nudity.

In UK schools, the practice of showering after sports was phased out around 15-20 years ago. Cutting the heating bill was a good way to save cash even if it meant that students, especially boys, spent the day putrefying in their own sweat. No one seemed to mind especially as showering was only ever enforced when one started puberty and felt uncomfortable being naked. And one common feature of many schools was that boys usually had to undress in front of each other while girls were often, but not always, afforded some privacy.  From my own experiences and conversations with other men, there is an agreement that male changing  rooms are often charged with a bizarre juxtaposition of the erotic and aggressive.  When I last taught in an English High School, around 2003, I had to take several classes of boys preparing for swimming lessons. Each boy was equipped with the most enormous towel  of sufficient proportions to cover a single bed.  I have several female friends who told me stories about convent life where, after sport or swimming, girls were required to shower in, and undress, under large smocks designed to hide their bodies. This was exactly the same except this wasn’t a catholic school! It wasn’t even Church of England. Most of the boys were around thirteen or fourteen and their bodies were still puny but hidden from the neck down, the material enveloped them twice and doubly guaranteed that not the slightest naked thigh, knee or even elbow should be inadvertently exposed. All the boys were skilled at holding secure the neck of their towelling  smock from within its confines, while the remaining free hand, buttocks, hips and knees, shimmied their underwear off and then pulled on their swimming shorts – and this in the reverse order when changing back into uniform. Some boys were unfortunate enough to have restrictive, ordinary size towels and if they slipped or were  insufficient to hide their bodies and they were exposed, not only were they mortified but so too was any boy who happened to glimpse what lay under that towel. Then a string of accusations were spat forth declaring the observed and any unfortunate observers,  ‘gay.’  In Britain, certainly among school boys, to either see another boy’s dick or for yours to be seen, implies homosexuality. This juvenile attitude is similar to the ones levied at Korean bathhouses and seems to be a western attitude rather than one confined to British men. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

if you think bathhouses are ‘gay’ you totally misunderstand Korean social practices

To be honest, in Britain, I too find nudity or even semi nudity uncomfortable. We seem adept at criticizing the bodies of others and many of us, myself included, have been imbued with various attitudes towards the body and nudity. Ironically, I feel more human as a naked,  fat foreigner,  in a Korean bathhouse, than I do wearing shorts in a British swimming pool.  In addition to our internalized assumptions about bodies, we conflate both nudity with sex and same-sex nudity with homosexuality. I am sure that something sexual must  occasionally occur in Korean bathhouses,  probably in specific bathhouses, but I have never witnessed anything of a sexual nature.

My first experience of bathhouse culture was in 2001, when I was visiting Masan with friends. I was asked which three things I’d like to do before leaving Korea. I replied: I wanted to try dog stew, silk worm and go to a bathhouse. My stomach almost hit the floor when my friend smiled and told me we’d probably visit a bathhouse that very afternoon. The whole experience terrified me but I swallowed my pride and went through with it and then, when back in Daegu, I made myself go to other establishments. I still feel a little uneasy entering a bathing complex probably as I have a negative image of my own body but I have never been made to feel uncomfortable. Koreans will all peak at you but once they’ve looked you up and down you blend in with the other clientele. As usual, if you should make eye contact with them while they are peaking, they will instantly look away.

On the streets of Korea the novelty of foreigners is rapidly declining and I find my presence attracts far less attention than it did 10 years ago. I find it boring that my presence on the street is almost non eventful though I would imagine in rural areas we are still  a novelty.  Most establishments, bars, restaurants, shops etc, have learned to accommodated foreigners. In many restaurants, menus  are available in Korean and English but ten years ago you were only likely to find this in fast food restaurants. I can even remember Pohang bus terminal’s arrival and departure board only being in Korean. If you want to experience the Korea relatively unchanged  by the presence of westerners then bathhouses are an ideal location. I am still fascinated by this cultural phenomenon as it has afforded me a far deeper insight into Korean life than probably any other experience. Bathhouses expose not just our bodies but the differences between the Korean and western psyche. Most obvious of course, is the attitude to nudity. I would imagine Korean’s have seen every permutation possible in the human body before they even reach their teens and the traumas our teenagers associate with puberty are minimized in Korea. Also exposed is the level of intimacy that Koreans share not just with their immediate family but with friends and strangers. That horrid male macho-ism that is magnified when western males are in changing rooms or semi naked, a mechanism used to assert masculinity as well as heterosexuality, is absent in a Korean context.  To get naked with your friends doesn’t require mitigating the homosexual implications by playing some aggressive sport beforehand. Koreans can sit close to each other, touch each other and even clean each other without any fears of being misunderstood. The most exposed behaviour though, and one that would shock many westerners, is the intimacy shared between fathers and their sons as well as older men and younger people in general. I doubt there are many westerners who would allow their 10-year-old to go to a bathhouse unaccompanied let alone allow them to have an intimate scrub down by  a bathhouse attendant who may very well be a stranger to that child. This situation was highlighted several years ago when a youth taekwondo team visiting from the UK was put in a very awkward position when their hosts took the British kids and instructors to  a bathhouse.  How do you explain to Koreans that in your culture, this activity would be illegal and that  children and adults naked together, even if immediate family, is treated with great suspicion and constitutes one enormous taboo.

Cooling off

The most interesting aspect of a bathhouse experience is that it not only exposes Korean culture to the foreign observer, but also exposes you  to the nature of your own culture and encourages you to reflect on many taken for granted assumptions and practices. Using bathhouses has given me a deeper insight into both Korean and British culture.  On my return to Korea after a holiday, my first task is to take myself into a bathhouse.  I have come to perceive communal bathing  and the intimacy  practiced around it as natural and certainly healthy, both physically and mentally and concurrently, I have come to realise the  unhealthy nature of western attitudes where natural human relationships have been moralised if not perversified. To deem bathhouses ‘gay’ is a moral statement in that it suggests ‘not natural,’ ‘wrong’ and ‘unhealthy.’ In the UK, we have already embarked on a brave new future where the most innocent of associations with a minor is suspect and where even the most checked, verified and scrutinized professionals have to be permanently policed.  In Britain, I do not think we are too distant from a future where any form of communication with a minor, outside that of the  family and school, will be classified as a potential crime and sufficient to call the police.

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

The Last Taboo

Recently,  I changed my routine so I often go to my favourite bathhouse (목욕탕) after I finish work, around 8.pm, rather than in the morning.  However, I prefer the morning as it is quieter and unless it’s a holiday or a weekend there are rarely any kids or university students. As I lay in the ‘special event bath,’ this week scented with lavender, another westerner entered. In four years of fairly daily bathing, this is only the second time I have seen a westerner in a bath house. He probably saw me but as usual, didn’t acknowledge my presence. Most westerners will walk straight passed you even on an early Sunday morning when the streets are empty. I’ve given up being friendly as a cold shoulder is the usual treatment if you are polite. There are exceptions, of course, but this has been my experience. I didn’t particularly want him talking to me anyway; I don’t mind being naked in front of Koreans but have never relished the idea of bumping into a westerner when nude as we tend to be critical and judgmental about nudity and the bodies of others as well as our own. In reality, the westerners who do use bathhouses, especially if alone, probably have healthier attitudes to bodies than those who avoid them. I don’t think he felt particularly comfortable in my presence as he left  after only a few minutes which was a shame as, my apprehension aside, it would have been a good opportunity to exchange experiences.

Usually, I have to wiggle my backside like a gigantic duck in order to disengage that little seat from my bum.

I don’t think he was a bathhouse novice, either. From the lavender bath in which I was relaxing, I could see him drying off  in the area immediately beyond the bathhouse exit. He had no problem bending over to dry his feet and calves and did so without maneuvering  his backside into a corner, thus censoring that most private place from public view. One of my remaining inhibitions, though not as acute as it was,  is exposing or touching this area in public. Perhaps I need to set myself the task of  prostrating myself 5 times a session and soaping my backside  in a position where my neighbours can see, as a therapy to neutralise this remaining inhibition. I would like to squat right down, Korean fashion, and give my entire undercarriage a thorough scrubbing, if it were not for the fact that I find deep squatting  both easy to topple over in and difficult to stand up from. I have enough problems standing after sitting on the  bucket sized seat  from which you wash yourself  as often it remains stuck to my arse as I stand. Then, if it clangs to the floor, it attracts unwanted attention. I have a similar, though quieter problem, if I sit on a towel as this too will remain in the grip of my buttocks, as I stand.  The term, ‘taking in washing’, which is used to describe the backside’s ability to grip things, usually underwear, comes to mind, but bathhouse furniture and towels  is taking it too far! Maybe it’s my arse, I don’t know and I’ve never paid much attention to what Koreans do after sitting on a towel. I have a niggling suspicion that the propensity for my buttocks to grip towels and  seats, even the large plastic type, similar to the ones we use in gardens in the UK in summer and which are often found in the steam rooms and saunas, have more to do with my dimensions than my ethnicity; I have a large arse to put it mildly.  Of course, I don’t know how other westerners conduct themselves in a bathhouse as I’ve never observed any but I would imagine that many would find it disconcerting to drop the soap  and have to pick it up.   This chap was quite at ease, as at ease as the Koreans around him, at prostrating himself right in front of the glass doors to the bathhouse and in full view of everyone lounging in the baths. Whoever he was, he left the bathhouse with my admiration.

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Mogyuktang Observations Plus – Tuesday 3rd April, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Now I am getting quite relaxed using the mokyuktang, I am beginning to discover a different aspect to them. Regularly, I use the steam room and sauna, only for a short while, and after that I go and sit in the cold pool. The process of going from very warm to cold has the most amazing effect on the mind. I experience a strange taste in the back of my throat and start to feel a little dizzy after which my mind becomes calm and floaty. The whole sensation is rather like a little drug hit. In this state, which is very pleasant, I notice other men just sat around all in their own little worlds. If such an institution existed in the west it would probably be polluted with pop music. The mokyuktang is filled with music which when in the right state is wonderfully relaxing. It is the music of running, splashing and spraying water. If you sit at one end of the cold bath you can look down of the mirror-like surface of the pool and really enjoy the state of calm the experience induces. When you get out of the cold pool you have to be a little careful as your body is slightly wobbly and I have noticed, men usually get out of this pool and sit awhile on the edge of the pool before moving to another bath.  I still can’t believe I’m naked in a place full of other naked people and have even started sitting on the floor of the steam room, cross legged.

Han Song Bathhouse, Song-So. The third Bathhouse I visited. It became my regular bathhouse in 2001.

It is interesting watching the interaction between children and their fathers; last week a young boy and girl sat playing beside their father. Young children bring toys to the pool and between being scrubbed and scrubbing their father’s back, they run around enjoying the water and playing. They were fairly interested in me and for quite a while they stared whenever they thought I wasn’t watching them.

One day there were two lads in the mokyuktang, probably in their early twenties and most likely from the local university. As is usual, one sits behind the other on the low plastic seats which look like upturned washing-up bowls, and then they take it in turn to scrub each others’ back. There was an old man in one corner of a pool and one of the lads went over to him and scrubbed his back for him. I was hoping he might volunteer to do mine but I was out of luck. A visit to the mokyuktang would give any artist a deeper insight into the human body and I find it amazing watching naked bodies from an aesthetic perspective. It is fascinating how they are designed and how the muscles interact and are articulated and how the human body is structured and proportioned.

At taekwon-do on Tuesday evening, I discovered the school oath is being replaced. I was rather annoyed as it was the first evening I had been able to recite it at the same speed as the Korean students. A new oath hung on the wall and is to be used from now on and so I will have to learn this. As my body has become fitter and more agile, I am able to exert myself more in classes. The sessions are grueling! I hadn’t realised how unfit I had become after three years of writing. Pak Dong-soo spent sometime during a lesson working out on the bag; he is beautiful to watch and can do flying kicks well over six foot high. He moves like a bird.

The English teaching I am doing is becoming increasingly boring. Last week, in one class I went berserk and smashed my stick on a table. This is the third stick I have broken in three months. I called for a senior teacher and he came along and shouted at them. The kids are not disruptive but more inattentive and chatty. Sometimes it is impossible to get their collective attention and sometimes I just despair – especially after a long day. It doesn’t help that I rant and shout as Koreans find such displays of emotive behaviour unpleasant and deem it to be a loss of self control – which of course it is.

Fridays are a drag as I teach in another kindergarten and have no time for lunch. There are days when I observe something that I realise gives me a greater understanding of the Korean psyche. In the kindergarten, when I pass out a handout, the kids all gather around me. There is rarely any pushing, they just stand passively in front of you with both hands extended and wait for you to place the handout directly into their hands. One day, I was watching two boys who came into the PC bang (room). They were eating an ice-cream which consists of a plastic ball, a little larger than a snooker ball, with a built in straw. Both of them just stood in the middle of the room, passively sucking. They sucked in a way so totally different from how children might suck or eat an ice-cream in the West, without the greed and voracious consumerism. If there is one thing I am learning about my culture, it is how vulgar, greedy and selfish it is. English kids are always on the want, they are always squabbling over possessions and in particular, over food. In six months of teaching in Korea, I haven’t once seen a fight or seen one child strike another. In my kindergarten class last week, which is held in a small school situated in an apartment complex, the Korean teacher left the room briefly. Suddenly fifteen or so little children converged on me eager to stroke the hair on my arms, which fascinates them. Some wanted to stroke my hair, a few wanted to pat my belly. Korean children can be quite beautiful in both features and mannerisms.

After a hideous class at Di Dim Dol, I went and sat at the table Nana and I share outside Joe’s office. Lisa was there for her afternoon class. I started moaning about my lesson and she immediately started complaining loudly.

“Korean children have no manners. They’re rude, ignorant, and need training.” I almost told her to shut-up.

“No! They’re not rude!” I replied. ‘They are usually well mannered, polite and very gentle. Yes’ they run around between classes and don’t recognise your personal space but that’s cultural.”

The other day she told me how she has this tone of voice she reserves for ‘foreigners!’ She then went on to say she had a ‘men-sahib’ attitude towards Koreans which confirmed my suspicions about her having a colonial attitude.

On Friday it snowed heavily for most of the morning and suddenly it has turned cold and wintry. In the evening Ryo Hyu-sun took me for a meal, we had pork barbecue and a few bowls of dong dong ju (동동주) after which we went for a walk in a nearby park. The cheery blossom and lilac are in full blossom despite the cold recess.

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

More Mogyoktang Observations – March 26th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Today at the mokyoktang  a boy of about 11 or 12 came in which was quite unusual as usually children are at school. However, I noticed he had a rub down from one of the masseurs and this is done on a couch to one side of the central bathing area. The whole procedure was quite intimate with the boy lying naked and the masseur rubbing away at his body with an abrasive cloth. This procedure lasted about twenty minutes as during it I visited the steam room and several saunas.

I was interested just to see how intimate the rub was as in the future I might dare to have one. In addition, I was also interested to see if adults were treated any different from children. At one point the masseur jammed his knee on the boys inner thigh and sort of splayed him so he could rub his crotch. The idea of a stranger having this much access to  a child without their parent’s there would be deemed abhorrent in the west and it quite disheartens me that we are so fucked up about this in our society. When I was having my final shower, a cold one which I take to lower my body temperature so I am not sweating when I leave the mokyoktang, the boy was sat upright and the masseur was rubbing his neck and face. The masseur, was naked too!

After I have had my cold shower, I spend five minutes in the drying room. This is pamper city and a few of my gay friends would love this facility. The rooms are always long and with large mirrors on the walls which takes more getting used to than the other naked men around you. There are large fans on the table tops which you can direct on your wet body and also hair dryers. I have noticed many men using the hair dryers to dry their pubic hair and I have also started doing this. On the surrounding tables are a range of lotions, hair creams, body conditioners and after shave. I put several concoctions on my face and then use some hair cream. Combs are lying on the bench tops or you can take one from the comb sterilising machine.

I quite like watching Korean men preen as they do so in such a totally faggy way. Today there was an elderly man next to me who combed his hair in a really fruity way and then rubbed various lotions onto his face. Finally, he daintily patted his face and hair with a towel. There is always a huge stack of lovely clean, white towels and you can use as many of these as you wish. I am still surprised at the vigour with which Koreans preen themselves, they trim their nails, trim their nasal hair, poke at their ears with cotton buds and when they leave, pick up their newly polished shoes from the shoe cleaner at the premises’ entrance. I have noticed the hairs on my arms and legs disappearing from the amount of scrubbing they have been receiving. I have realised that Koreans preen and clean their bodies with as much vigour and enthusiasm as we in the west might apply to our cars or motorbikes.

I had wondered what it would be like to meet someone you work with, by accident, in a mokyoktang. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Last week I was having my first shower after my arriving at the closest mokyoktang to my apartment. As I was still a little shy I hung around in the shower until there weren’t too many people in my path before walking over to the large pool. There was only one other person in the pool as I could clearly see the top of their head. Well, just as I had stepped up onto the parapet, this person, at the far end of the pool, waved and shouted my name. It was Lee Seong-gyu (이성규) from Di Dim Dol hakgwon. It was actually quite an amusing experience to be caught totally naked and in full view by a friend. Anyway, Lee Seong-gyu and I have now met several times and bathed together. It is handy having a friend as they can rub and scrub your back for you.

Song-gyu and I, in 2001. I still bump into him in saunas ten years later! Incidentally, my trainers were New Balance, unheard of in Korea then but which 12 years later are the most popular training shoe on the market.

In the steam room of one mokyoktang there is always a large box of salt on the seats and salt is strewn all over the floor. I have noticed it is used for scrubbing your body rather like an aggressive ex-foliate.

I have just had lunch in a small restaurant I have been frequenting for the last week. For several months now I have been doing my own cooking and learning how to cook Korean food but to be honest, it’s  far cheaper eating out! I ate pokkum bap (복음 밥), a sort of fried rice with an egg on top. As I left the restaurant, one of the chefs, a woman in her thirties or forties, and who seems to have developed an interest in me, gave me a slice of fruit. I asked if it was an apple and when I bit into it I discovered it was some sort of parsnip. The street on which the restaurant is situated is very close to my home and is flanked on both sides by maple trees which are just starting to leaf. The air was warm even though it was 8pm and dark. Spring seems to have been jumped as the weather is suddenly as warm as it would be on an average summer’s day in Britain. On my way home, I walked past the local hapkido school where I could hear kids chanting out the rhythm to some exercise which was interrupted, intermittently, by loud slaps from the mat.

Chi-woo, I imagine he’s now almost in high-school

Korean children are beautiful! Everyday Chi-woo (이치우) sits on my lap on the journey to the school. He always gives me a kiss on the cheek and teaches me how to count in Chinese. Korean uses both Korean and Chinese counting systems. In fact, Korean numbers only go as far as 99. Some things are counted in Chinese, others in Korean. There is rarely competition between the children and they share sweets and treats. Even at four years of age they are impeccably ordered and will put their toys away at the end of playtime and then pick up any paper or mess on the floor. At lunchtime they all help with laying the tables and clearing away. None of the children smell of piddle or shitty pants and they are all toilet trained – at least as far as going for a crap. This week however, two boys in my class pissed themselves. Dong-seop (동섭) left my class for a ‘shee’ (씨) and came back leaving pissy footprints on the carpet. I should have gone to the toilet with him for he had pulled down his trousers and long johns and then pissed into them. The same thing happened with a new boy called Seong-jun (성준). The next day I made sure I went with them and when they stood with their pants down I stuck my knee into their backs so they pissed into the urinal.

Da-hae (다해), the brain-dead moron, has suddenly come out of her shell and every morning she runs up to me for a hug. She still dribbles. The other day I noticed pen marks on a wall and I jokingly motioned for her to salivate over them –  with her tongue. Amusingly, she went to do this. I had rarely heard Da-hae (다해) speak up until about a month ago and in fact she has a really deep, gruff voice rather like the monster-girl in the Exorcist.

Last week there was an open day for the parents and each class in turn had respective parents watching the lesson. My class went fantastically well. I just did the same sort of things I do every morning: counting, reciting the days of the week, singing songs and doing some alphabet and written work. I choose to do work the children could manage so as to show their parents’ they had learnt something. Afterwards, I talked to each parent in turn with Precious interpreting for me. Koreans like you to be intimate with their children and they could clearly see I had a good relationship with them. I think they left feeling impressed and afterwards, Precious told me my class had been the best. However, complaints had been made about Matt and Angela’s classes. Apparently, parents didn’t think they had much control and their biggest gripe was with their earrings, shoddy clothes and unkempt hair. Some mornings, Angela looks like a scarecrow with bits of fluff and paper in her hair and with it messy all over. Mr Joe asked me if he should take them down town and buy them some new clothes.

I went to my doctor last week, about Bill, my small umbilical hernia. He has a new surgery close to the E-Mart which he proudly introduced me to. He has a new endoscope, an ultra sound, an x-ray room and various other rooms. The waiting room was beautiful with ornamental plants, a large fish tank and a station to make tea and coffee. I was in his office over forty-five minutes and had an ultra-sound on my stomach which I watched on his monitor. He tells me I have a small muscular tear which should clear up of its own accord but so far it hasn’t done I’m sure if it was a hernia he would have noticed it as he clearly showed me thew tear on the screen and estimated its size. The consultation cost me W10.000, just under five pounds and I didn’t have to wait any more than five minutes to see him. He is the first doctor I have had that I can truly call, my doctor.

My weekends are very busy and there are always friends trying to take me out or visit me. In fact, I hardly have any spare time at weekends now. Last weekend I met Pak U-chun and her daughter, Ga-in.  We met downtown, in the area known as Ex-Milano, where we visited lots of shops and just walked around talking. Korean children are rarely any nuisance and are used to spending time with adults. We walked around the Buddhist area where there are shops which sell clothes for monks, calligraphy brushes and paper and then moved into the more fashionable part of town. As on previous visits, a demonstration was in progress and as usual it was ordered. There were perhaps two hundred demonstrators sat in rows in a large pedestrian intersection. Many westerners here, whether civilian, military or teachers are usually an embarrassment and dress like slobs and are usually loud and in your face. We ate the most wonderful meal in a restaurant that specialises in spicy chicken which is cooked on a barbecue at your table. After, we went for an ice-cream at a Baskin Robbins.

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

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.