I was contentedly strolling the school’s corridors among friends and colleagues, when suddenly, seemingly for no reason, I looked down and was racked with panic. I was nude. Not an article of clothing grazed my flesh. How could this be? Worse yet, everyone had now noticed and was pointing and gawking at me. Aah the naked dream. We’ve all had them, right? Well, my first time at a jjimjilbang was pretty much like that.
As the woman working at the counter took the money from my slightly quivering hand, which was not the only thing giving away my insecurities and apprehensions of what lay ahead, she extended to me a towel. Not a typical bath towel, one in which you can twirl yourself around in three times and still have some left over fabric to tuck in, but a square cloth big enough to cover about one thigh or one breast. Maybe two if I pushed them together. But in no way both. I found my locker, looked around, and shed my clothing. Well, here we go, I thought as I tried to walk with a mere semblance of normalcy.
Jjimjilbangs are a very popular establishment in Korea. They are public bath houses open twenty-four hours a day, just in case at three in the morning you wake up and realize you could really use a good sauna. They vary in size and decor but most offer various types of hot tubs, saunas, salt rubs, cool pools, as well as massages. While the bathing areas are sex-segregated, there is a unisex area where, once you are clothed in the loose-fitting shirt and shorts everyone receives upon entering, you may share a meal with your male/female friend. Once I got beyond the initial feeling of discomfort brought on by my debut into public nudity, I began to enjoy myself. It was a wonderful reminder that human beings are all the same. We all have skin, hair, feet, hands, body parts we love and areas we wish we could improve. There is no judgment, just a general consensus that it’s nice to have someone scrub our backs every now and then.
I decided on my last visit to a local jjimjilbang that it was time I experienced a traditional Korean scrub. Instead of buying a loofah and exfoliating myself in the shower, who has time for that? I could just have a korean woman do it for me. So I walked over to her table, which looked exactly like a masseuse table and falsely lured me into thinking what I was going to receive would somehow feel like a massage. What I thought would be a relaxing experience couldn’t have been further from the reality. So there I lay, fully exposed and at her complete mercy. She donned a scrubby on each hand and went after me with a vengeance. Let me just say as she rolled me around and scrubbed every possible surface on my body until I was pink and raw, I received my most important lesson of the day; the kitchen scrubby I picked up at the grocery store and have been using to wipe down my counter surfaces, is actually the korean version of a loofah and is meant to wipe down myself.