Elwood 5566

Beating Boknal 4 – Water water everywhere

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, seasons by 노강호 on August 8, 2010

I’ve abandoned the e-bente-tang for the duration of high summer and like some maggoty hippo I spend my time floating about in the cold pool.

refreshing

Water, in all its forms is wonderful and is only truly appreciated in summer. After or during an intense and sweaty workout, when bodily fluids have been rung out of the body,  water is the only drink, barring neutral beverages like cereal teas, that have the potential to satiate a hungry thirst with such intense pleasure. Only in summer, when heat and humidity make an extra drain on the body, and when water  both replenishes diminishing levels and lowers soaring temperatures, is water truly appreciated.  In the heat of heat summer there are times when you suck in water with such force, living in the moment it is experienced, that it can cascade down your chin and splash down your chest in the most refreshing manner, a manner that at any other time of the year would be uncomfortable. These are the moments when the experience of quenching your thirst are orgasmic in proportion. Despite all their silly claims, sweetened, gaseous drinks utterly fail to pleasure the body and mind with as much intensity as a does a simple glass of icy water.

cooling

And you know the heat of summer is here when your shower water is set to cold and yet is almost warm. Wonderful water washing over your body, flushing away sweat and grime and swathing you in its refreshing coolness. And in the bathhouse the cold pool, for so many months a test of endurance and toleration, becomes a revitalizing cocoon of luxury to be lingered in. Now only the ice room remains to effectively chill a body punished by heat and humidity and even this induces pleasurable sighs and ecstatic exhalations. For months, as I wallow in the e-bente-tang, the ice room and cold pool lay predominantly dormant with visitors enduring their extremes with spartan  conviction. Now they are bustling with life, the pool a busy maelstrom of splashing youngsters and lazing adults. In the ice room I sweep shards of ice into my palms, like snow, and rub them over my face until they are reduced to trickles of icy water.

beautiful

And the water in all it’s variations talk and sing to me like an enormous symphony; water hissing from the enormous cauldron in the steam room,  swooshing its vent in a hot vapour,  the burbling of the jacuzzi, the persistent dripping of water from a myriad of locations, of water lapping against the sides of their containers stirred by some movement, splashes echoing in colourful variation reflecting their intensity, the roar of the power shower as it blasts out it’s freezing water.  A world of water purges  my senses and fractures, like a thumping gong, the sights and sounds of humanity and within that persistent liquid modulation a pool of tranquility from which a multitude of thoughts are stirred and caressed.

tranquil

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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.