A Harvard Student's Journey into a Korean Bathhouse

by Donyne Yuh-Un Choo '98

My mother often describes what I did on my first wide-eyed visit to the bathhouse. More nude bodies than I'd ever seen gathered washed near faucets and mobile shower heads attached to the wall. In the center of the hall were large baths. One warm, one cold, one steaming, they held various women soaking and talking to neighboring females they didn't know. My mother, thankfully, had started a conversation. Mid-breath, she excused her small American daughter; my bashfulness gone, I had taken to traversing the length (and then to further challenge myself, the diagonal) of the warm 'pool' in one breath. American suburb girls have seen small private pools, but they know nothing of large public baths.

When I returned to Seoul 5-3, and the mother whom I'd outgrown a few years ago joined me for the last weeks of my summer stay, she suggested that we go again to the mogyok-tahng. 'Bathhouse,' in the context of a nation whose gender roles and conceptions are overly defined, most accurately describes the amalgamation of services, sauna, steam, and water baths offered in these facilities dotting the city. Like spas for women, female bathhouses offer facials and massages, while those for men offer an analogous array of services. The practice of visiting bathhouses spans socioeconomic lines; people seek almond-cucumber facials or simple hot baths.

Common though they might be in Seoul, Korean bathhouses offer a service not found in the U.S. My mother wanted to go because of this service, while my aunt offered to explain to my mother if I didn't. During her first visit after returning to South Korea, my aunt had lost her verve in the locker room. Not the public tubs, but her intention to get exfoliated unnerved her. Koreans describe this exfoliation as the removal of 'Ddae,' roughly translated as 'grime.' An 'I-tal-y' towel, an abrasive plastic washcloth of dubious Italian origin, scrubs every spare dead skin cell away. I joked with my aunt that without my glasses, my myopia was such that I wouldn't be able to see a thing. I reasoned if I couldn't see anyone, they wouldn't see me.

I had also thought my severe lack of language ability would hide my stutter and horrid accent from my pride, but I never missed the looks of bewilderment and impatience. I began to relive how I used to stand while my mother scrubbed, straining not to complain as she scoured my craning neck. I tried to transpose this 7 year old's experience onto my 20 year old body. Still trying to shake the 'freshman fifteen' of American college life, my body had become much more personal: insecure thighs, wider hips, larger, more burdened shoulders. The 'Ddae' removing woman would be much more impersonal. She certainly wasn't my mother, and if she scrubbed my neck too hard, I should complain.

My mother lead me down the stairs to a business hidden to the street except for the block green sign at the stairway's top. It surprised me again how businesses in Seoul find these niches in lower corners, 2nd floor corners, corners you wouldn't expect. The matronly attendant handed my mother two orange keys with elastic bracelets and my mother handed them both to me. While I found our lockers, she approached two women reclining on plastic strap pool chairs oddly inside instead of on a patio. The enclosure of the bathhouse made it more personal or private than it had been. My mother asked the price of the service (rates are rarely posted) and made our 'appointments' (services are walk-in). We stripped and entered the tiled floor of the actual bathing room.

The diagonals of the tubs now looked terribly short, but the same faucets and shower heads lined the wall. The bodies stood or sat against them, golden and slick in the mix of tan tile, weak light, and steam. To my relief, my mother directed. 'Here,' she said, handing me a green herbal cake, 'soap your whole body.' She then led me into the hottest tub. Now older, I tried my best to follow her, squeezing myself into the heat. She slipped into the water quickly and began to talk to a larger woman near us. I was expected to greet her this time. I inclined my head and smiled as I concentrated on moving my arms away from my upper body, accepting the initial pain upon my skin.

I relaxed my limbs. I hadn't understood my aunt when she said, 'Just try to stay in the hot tub as long as you can.' I had thought of heat tolerance more as a temperature boundary than a question of endurance, but several minutes of the heat and steam began to tax my lungs and breathing. I felt the same resignation as I had walking up the hill between the subway and my Aunt's apartment. In a silk blouse thrice-soaked in sweat, my neck and back would burn with heat-rash. By that point in my stay, sweating through the requisite foundation and eye makeup, and feeling wet nylons in seemingly baking black heels, had become almost customary.

But I rose out of the water to give my lungs a breather, feeling the comparatively cool tile under me. I eyed the lean, blemish-free bodies of two younger Korean women with envy and then with guilt; I had it easier. The stunning faces and figures had an obvious, underlying cause. My few female coworkers, sitting on the periphery of the office, were told to use their vacation time to clean an obviously neglected household. They would eye the youthfulness of the manager's wife, but notify me that sleeveless shirts were taboo. Women had few avenues but the quality of their skin. Although personally excused as foreign and a guest, I was grateful for my motherŐs presence. In retrospect, I laughed at how after eating lunch with eight men (for the third time in a row) the initial week, I had called home in disbelief to my mother, 'Mom, you could never live here now.' She had responded so sweetly and simply, 'What do you mean? I grew up there.'

She reminded me to put cool water on my face which was hot from the bath. Her relentless attitude towards appearance had continually encouraged her to advise her tomboy daughter, 'Go, put on lotion.' She rarely let me peel seafood or wash dishes; whatever it was, smell or texture, it was bad for the hands.

My mother had decided that we had soaked sufficiently (to soften older skin), and we lay ourselves on parallel yellow tables. A thirty-ish woman approached wearing a colorful bikini brief, and both of her hands were clad in hot-pink I-tal-y mittens. She grasped my wrist with one and pushed directed strokes on the back of my hand with the other. She worked upwards on my fore-arm, leaning closer to me and over me. I watched her shining dark sallow skin and firm upper arms; her smooth breasts moved naturally as she worked. I noticed every detail, detached from my own nudity, and wondered if she had children as I looked at her lower stomach. I read that the familiarity and physical closeness Koreans share (especially within each gender) are products of homogeneity. You simply feel comfortable with someone you look like.

My mother was predictably telling her my life history. Nodding politely to explanations of the 'hard academic career' that forced me to gain weight, the woman replied, 'No, she looks fine,' as she scrubbed my calf, 'Maybe in her legs though. . . .' Surprisingly, her candor pleased me. I wondered why I felt so close to her, whether my identification with her was through my body. Perhaps the 'culture' I felt, the kinship I observed with Koreans, within Korea, was also through my body. Race often accompanies culture, giving a seemingly superficial air to appreciating ethnicity.

I looked over at my mother, lying a foot away, wiry and thin from American aerobics. Her eyes were closed in ease. Although she was known for being fashionable, her nudity emphasized not only her femininity but her feminism. She had moved from Korea's openly caged role for women, to the U.S., whose cage, if not larger, is at least better painted. She worked hard, chose her suits with care, and made me carry extra nylon stockings to important events. 'Just in case,' she would say.

There is much to be said, and much to be decried, about the comfort of body - the comfort of perceiving a beautiful body or the beauty of a face that looks like yours. This real superficiality of human interaction might have caused the warmth of conversation in a Korean bathhouse as it decidedly causes painful discrimination. As I sat up on the table to allow her to rinse away the 'Ddae,' so many clumps of rolled up cells that had come from me, I wondered if the community that was shared was because she washed hair as black and straight as hers.

My skin smarted pleasantly under the final cool shower that I took next to my mother. We exited pink-faced, and she directed me to the lotion offered in big communal bottles. As I smeared my legs, I felt no shame in understanding the emphasis upon the body, the reality of looking Korean, the reality of having a female body. There is a community among Koreans; there is a community among women. An unavoidable correlation exists between the perception of the body, and the reality of interaction. It is easy to see, however, that such correlation is irrelevant. It cannot be acted upon. The culture created among Koreans, or among women, might have been inspired by the properties of body, or the perception of others' bodies. What it becomes, however, stretches beyond.

No longer is the culture one of hair color or body shape, but the community formed by mother and daughter, the authority of an elder woman reporting to a welcoming younger listener. As I toweled my hair dry, I recalled the sharing I had experienced with many of my co-workers. Even initially, we shared similar family ethics, similar culturally-based expectations as to what constitutes achievement and distress, similar attitudes toward authority and hierarchy.

I, too, had always listened to my mother, but I had been angered that people mistook the correlation of body for causation. I reacted against community based on ethnicity; it seemed hopelessly and haplessly based upon the body. Ethnic gathering seemed as much at fault as ethnic discrimination. One either perceived almond eyes, or one ignored them. I couldn't endure the difficult, hot mix of culture embedded in issues of body. I had no patience for the fine line, hazy with steam, between intermingling true culture and superficial perception.

I welcomed learning about Korean foods, unquestionably culture, while shunning being too friendly with the 'Korean clique.' Undoubtedly, many did gather merely for bodily comfort, but my fleeing towards anyone not Korean to affirm my open-mindedness, closed me even more. No bra-burning activist can claim to stronger feminism than my mother, who made her way through the U.S. in heels, but it is still difficult to tread amidst seeming hypocrisy, seeming superficiality.

Yet, when all was exposed, when my nudity confronted my mother's and that of other Korean women, the overemphasized body became merely a shell. In the car-ride home, I fingered my forearm, supple and tingling, recalling in amazement the countless gray balls of skin. My mother looked no different; she had redone her cosmetics before heading out, and my aunt commented that the cleanliness was like none other. I agreed wholeheartedly. Drowsy in the extreme ease of my body, I finally appreciated the difficulty of bathing and enduring the hot bath.

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