Elwood 5566

Who’s Pissing in the Pool?

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, podcasts by 노강호 on June 4, 2011

pissing in the pool

Podcast 83

Here are three Korean habits which I find displeasing: spitting, littering and pissing in public. Now, before getting on a cultural high horse, all three habits can be observed in Britain and certainly, in my hometown on most evenings of the week, you can observe both public spitting and urinating. I have even seen a teenage girl squat against a shop door and urinate without even pulling her jeans or knickers down. A month earlier the Queen herself had walked through the very same doorway (William and Griffith’s in Colchester). Not only can you see the displays of public urination, spitting, as well as vomiting, but in the daytime every recess oozes the reek of urine. And then there is a habit among British teenage boys and low-class men which you will not see in Korea, and which was taboo when I was a boy, of one or both hands down the front of ‘trousers’ toying with genitalia.  I’m sure this habit has evolved along with the spreading popularity of ‘trackie’-type trousers where an elasticated waistband provides ease of access. I once watched a young man in a supermarket constantly first contacting his tackle intermittently touching fruit and vegetables and worse, other people!

there is even a Facebook for this practice

It has taken me a while to ascertain how common urinating is in the bathhouse. I’m afraid I don’t go for those waygukin (foreigners) who claim Koreans golden shower all over bathhouses, piss in the pools and constantly gawk at their nudity. Such accusations are normally levied as a means of excusing yourself the bathing experience because you fear an unclothed environment. Of course Koreans stare! They stare everywhere you go but if you have any cultural awareness you will know that all you need do is look around busily, instead of lowering your gaze which you naturally do when embarrassed, and make eye contact. Koreans will instantly look away because starring is considered rude and eye contact exposes this. Better still, make eye contact and smile. Nothing dispels the tension caused by starring quicker than a smile and instantly, a stressful encounter is made friendly. As for accusations about pissing in the showers, from my experience, they are exaggerated.   Firstly, it is not easy to determine if someone is pissing at the same time they are showering. Indeed, from my own ‘experimentation’ it seems that if you stand in a certain position you can actually manipulate the flow of water so it appears you are urinating. How you determine someone is urinating while in a pool eludes me. With considerable bathhouse hours clocked-up over a long period of time in many different bathhouses, I have only witnessed a few people who were definitely urinating in the shower.

One such occasions occurred a few days ago when a teenage boy entered the complex with his friends. I immediately noticed him as he spat onto the pile of used towels by the entrance. Teenage boys often spit as they enter the bathing complex and I perceive this a territorial act an animal might make when it urinates on ‘its patch.’ Then, as he stood in the shower, he arched his back and pissed as high as he could up the shower wall. In the meantime, he is busy talking with his friends. I am also reminded that not too long ago, I watched two boys larking in the showers during which boy golden showered on his friend’s leg. Considering it is deemed dirty to blow your nose in a handkerchief and rude to even blow it in public, I would have thought pissing on your friend’s leg totally taboo. However, they found the act highly entertaining.

as long as I don't see it

I have no problem with snorting or spitting in the bathhouse provided it is expelled in a gully and not on the areas walked over. For most cases this is what happens, often with a spray or douse of water to speed the emission on its way. However, last week a man bathing next to me, noisily coughed up a projectile and spat it onto the floor. He did this several times and without the usual habit of throwing water over it to wash it away. This was particularly revolting especially as I was about to eat breakfast.

Yes, Koreans have some grotty habits but so do most cultures and teenage boys aren’t the best candidates on which to judge a nation’s hygiene. Personally, pissing in the bathhouse, by which I mean pissing on the floor or tiles doesn’t bother me if it’s done discretely; in other words don’t let me see you doing it or if you do at least make the act ambiguous. Blatant disregard of protocol is more an act of disrespect than of pollution.  I’m sure people sometimes piddle in the pool but I am not that bothered unless I see them doing it when I would be angered, not by urine contaminating my bathing water, but by the perpetrator’s gall at pissing in front of me and hence challenging my adult authority.

As for the third offence I began this post with, namely, littering,’ there is no doubt Koreans excel at this anti social habit. Korean refuse collection leaves much to be desired both in terms of public provision and personal standards. It is one thing to put out garbage in the legally required bin-bag, and quite another to simply empty the contents against a lamppost, as many seem to do.  In terms of littering the street, teenage boys are the worst offenders and seem to assume that rubbish can be dropped anywhere and cleaned up by someone else – which it generally is. This isn’t much different to the misguided attitude many British school kids have, that you can drop little on the floor because cleaners are paid to pick it up. Now that dog muck has been largely banished from British streets, and ten years ago it was tolerated, it is only fair to say British streets are far cleaner than their Korean counterparts and littering is clearly anti-social and illegal.

(2002) in around eight years it has become anti-social to let your dog foul the pavement

So, how prevalent is pissing while in the pool?

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Nancying in the Powder Room. Bathhouse Ballads

 

 

A Bathhouse Ballad

In this particular bathhouse (목욕탕) you can sit in the ebente-tang (이벤트탕) and watch the men and boys nancying about in the little ‘powder room’ that are provided in all bathing establishments. This particular ebente-tang doesn’t have any added aromas  or coloured water and you might be forgiven for wondering why indeed it is even called an ‘ebente-tang,’ until the pool starts frothing and chomping quite crazily. The jets of water from inside the pool, should you be unfortunate enough to be sat over  one as it starts and you fart, are powerful enough  to  administer a surprise enema.  As I’m being buffeted by the jacuzzi jets, I’m busily watching  three middle-aged men in the ‘powder room.’  All are stood, independent of each other and two are in straddle stances, or in what martial artists would recognise as a  ‘horse stance.’

 

A 'wushu' version of the 'horse stance'

Traditionally, this stance is used to strengthen the legs and as a position from which to practice  various blocks and strikes. As a combat stance it is redundant as it renders a male a potential gelding should a strike to the groin be forthcoming.  Don’t forget, the men in the ‘powder room’ are totally naked. Rather than blocking and striking, feet rigidly anchored to the ground, both men are drying their  sack and crack with hairdryers. I’m thinking they must have studied at the same school because despite all the variations of horse stance,  both are in identical style, technique and positions. Most likely it’s a taekwondo derived stance as it is much higher than in the Chinese version above yet not as high as the one featuring Bruce Lee (이소룡), below. This version is in-between.

 

이소룡 (Bruce Lee) practicing the sack 'n' crack stance.

The accompanying arm movements are identical: first the dryer is held pointing at the sack ‘n’ tackle before being swung  between the  legs to windy the crack area.  The latest event in the tub, an eruption, has quelled and I’m chuckling to myself as a third man in the  ‘powder room’  demonstrates his technique. Clearly, he has been trained in a totally different school.  After fiddling with one of the big fans on the long dressing table, angling it into the required position, he turns, get into a straddle and bends over, parking his exposed  butt in the fan’s stream.  The technique is very different but the stance is identical to that of the other two men and with head almost touching the floor, the fan is probably capable of drying his sack ‘n’ crack all at the same time.

Jeez, Korean men are such ponces! That’s why I like them. Back in the UK, a room such as this would terrify most westerners not just because you nancy about in it naked, but because the purpose of the room involves preening oneself. Actually, I much prefer the safety of the ebente-tang to watch how different men occupy themselves in this task. I never stay long in the ‘powder room,’ not because I don’t like being naked in front of other men, but because I don’t like being naked in front of myself, and like most ‘powder rooms,’ the walls are covered in mirrors.

All the flaws of being western are magnified in the array of mirrors and bright lights. Our skin tone tends to be more varied; my face is slightly ruddy, my buttocks lily white, my forearms as tanned as any Koreans and my neck brown. The rest of my body is whitey- pink, like a giant maggot. Then there’s the hair; back hair, chest hair, arm hair and leg hair and it’s all different in colour, texture and shape. My arm hair is smooth, my chest hair a little coarser and the hair on my back is somewhat like the hair on the backs of my arms, long and straggly and the sort of hair a neanderthal might have. I can’t stand looking at myself in those mirrors and always find the ‘powder room’ a little stressful.

 

All that hair. Yuk!

I touched on the subject of body hair several months ago, in relation to living in an environment free of carpets. It’s only in this type of environment that you realise just how much hair we shed. I am not especially hairy and I sweep my floor everyday with one of those magical wipes to which hair and fluff adhere. Despite this, I find hair everywhere. I’ve found them in the fridge, freezer and only a few days ago I was eating a slice of water melon when what I thought was a little crack on my plate, was in fact a pubic hair. I’m 54 and have a full head of hair non of which I see anywhere, but pubic hair, chest hair and those unsightly, straggly back of arm and back hairs, get everywhere. Korean bodies are so much nicer, more alike in proportions, colour and apart from having pubes that are long enough to perm and which often seemed to be straight rather than curly, are usually pretty hairless. Hair, its antediluvian and barbaric! As I get older I notice my eyebrows becoming wilder and if I don’t trim them I start to develop antennae. Nasal hair is a bugger but is kept at bay with regular burst from a cigarette lighter. And I dread getting ear hair as that looks especially alien.

 

No hairs in his fridge!

 

In the ‘powder room’ a couple of men and a boy are preening; an old man is methodically combing his hair with a brush from the selection  of brushes and combs which are always available.  I’ve never seen any hairs on brushes and assume they are cleaned regularly and in many ‘power rooms’ are small steam boxes similar to those used in doctors surgeries and dentist, to sanitize such items. A boy is cleaning out his ears with cotton buds (q-tips), an item as standard as towels and soap. On the long dressing tables, there is always a collection of face creams, hair gel and skin brace.   As with everything in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, no two places are exactly alike.

 

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.

Creative Commons License
©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.

Creative Commons License
©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.

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