Elwood 5566

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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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.

Bought a Piano – Monday November 6th, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on November 6, 2000

I bought a piano yesterday. It is a second-hand one and only cost a couple of hundred pounds which in reflection is probably a bit excessive. I had to do the whole  deal in the little Korean I’ve learnt. I had to draw a map and the nearest landmark to my house that I know is MacDonald’s. The shop owner didn’t understand this until I’d written in Korean which quite pleased me.  Then I found a video rental shop (Video bang) where videos cost an amazing thirty pence a week. The video shops, which are prolific also sell Korean manga and heterosexual soft porn.

The piano was delivered this morning and though it is fairly well in tune some of the notes have a crap mechanism. Still, I only intend to play it in order to keep my fingers in trim rather than intending to advance my ability.

I’m still aching from training and am surprised I haven’t pulled a muscle. I’ve been waiting for one to rip for a few days now and this is likely to happen as I do something inane such as turning on a tap or writing a letter. I quite fancy a sauna to relax my aches. I’ve heard there are saunas or bathhouses (the first mention of them) in town but apparently they are dubious and I don’t want to get into any embarrassing situations. I settled for a hot shower at home but I miss a bath to relax in.

Initially I was a little reluctant to play the piano as Nana was  in his room and I’m shy. It was great playing again but my fingers are lazy and some of the notes are quite stiff and hard to sound. Of course, I should have played the instrument in the shop but instead just plonked out a few scales.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.