Large Bath Toy or Naked English Teacher?

By: Carrie

Living in Korea and not going to a public bath would be a like living in Japan and not eating sushi. I had been living in Korea for almost six months before I had the chance to get naked with some friends. It wasn’t that I was shy; it was simply that the only baths I knew were near my school and I really didn’t relish the thought of getting naked with my students and their extended families.

During my first winter in Korea, a Korean friend asked me if I wanted to go to the spa with her.  (In Korean, they’re called jimjilbangs and my friend translated it as spa.)

"Ooh, lovely!" I replied, imagining peaceful soaks in scented tubs, and possibly a massage.  What a lovely way to spend a few hours!
"Great!” she replied.  “I hope we have enough room in the car for everyone." 
"Um... who is coming?" I asked, wondering if I could back out after such an enthusiastic 'yes!'
"You, me, my husband, our children, our neighbours and their children.”

To a spa?  All of these people were going to share my scented tub?  What kind of spa was this? Were they segregated by sex? I wanted to experience this essential bit of Korean culture but I didn’t really want to see my friend’s husband au naturel.

"We’ll pick you up at 8:30 tomorrow morning." 
“8:30?!” I gasped.

But there was no backing out, and presumably we would be back fairly early... after all, how long could you spend at a jimjilbang? 

  We arrived at the jimjilbang and received our "uniforms".  Everyone got a green pair of shorts and a cream T-shirt. We went into the change rooms (thankfully separated by sex), put on our uniforms, and ventured out into the jimjilbang. 

There was a large room, devoid of furniture but the warm floor was covered in uniform-clad people sleeping, eating and watching TV. The main room was surrounded by a dozen or so smaller rooms: a children's play room, a computer room, a movie room, two restaurants, and a quiet room.  The rest of the rooms were saunas. 

And what an amazing variety of saunas there were! The point of a Korean spa apparently is to sweat, and you are provided with a choice of sweating options to achieve your maximum sweating potential.  Each room had walls made of a material chosen for certain health benefits, and each room was kept at an optimal temperature to receive those benefits.  There was a spacious room lined with cedar at about 65C; a small room lined with red mud and straw at 88C; a tiny dome-shaped room lined with yellow mud and pine branches at a roasting 95C; a charcoal-lined room at 72C… there were so many I lost track.

My favourite was the amethyst room- I have no idea what sort of health benefits you are meant to absorb from hot amethyst, but it certainly was pretty.  

Finally at about 5pm, everyone decided to hit the bath part of the jimjilbang. We headed back into the change rooms, peeled off the now-disgusting uniforms and headed into the bath area.  I scrubbed off, ignored the startled stares (apparently not many foreigners came to this jimjilbang!), and headed for the nearest pool.  Sinking down into the hot, bubbly water, I decided that the whole crazy day had been worth it for this moment.  Ahhh...

  "Carrie-teacher?"
  Uh oh.
  "Carrie-teacher!!!  Hello!" 

Incredibly, my momentary peace was shattered by several small girls from my school.  I sank as far as possible beneath the water and tried to arrange my tiny modesty towel so that it covered as much as possible.

  "Carrie-teacher!  How are you?" 
  "Um... fine thank you, and you?" I replied automatically, trying to inch my way to the other side of the pool. 
  "Let's play!"
  "Um... not right now... I think I'm going to go to …that pool," I announced heading for the pool populated by cranky looking old ladies. 

My ploy worked and I was not followed.  I assumed it was due to the cranky old ladies, but I soon discovered it was because the pool was the same temperature as molten lava.   I stayed as long as I could before I leapt out and made a mad dash for the cold pool, followed by the cackles of the crankies, who were highly amused by my newly acquired lobster-like colouring. 

  My students quickly joined me in the cold pool but now they were all wearing goggles.  Before I could move, I had one in my lap, one on my back wanting a piggyback ride, and one quizzing me about my belly-button ring.  We began to attract the attention of other children in the pool.  Within minutes, I had half a dozen small girls frolicking around me. 

And thus began the cultural conundrum.  I sat frozen, my Western brain filled with pictures of me being led away in handcuffs.  Certainly there is nothing "normal" about being naked with your students in Canada! 

  But I looked around the spa and saw the looks of amusement I was getting; the girls' mothers saw me as a large toy for their children to climb on and practice their English.  Some mothers were even quite proud that their daughters were hanging out with me, pointing out to their friends that THEIR daughter was speaking English!  

The fact that we were all naked seemed to cause discomfort to no one but me.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingCarrie is a Canadian expat living in Korea South. Blog description: Life in South Korea can be amazing, incredible and wonderfully frustrating, but every day is an adventure!
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Contest Comments » There are 4 comments

H-J wrote 7 years ago:

You get bravery points, for sure. I was too much of a wuss to have my Western, tattooed body on show at any jimjilbang in Korea and was certainly never going to hit the one in our village. I think running into your students while naked is probably in a dictionary somewhere as the definition for the word AWKWARD. Shudder...

Vanessa wrote 7 years ago:

Great post! I love going to the jjimjilbang, but like you, I'm so scared of seeing my students! It hasn't happened yet, but there's a first for everything, right? :0

Crystal Goes To Europe wrote 7 years ago:

How interesting! I'm Canadian too, and I think I would have reacted the same way as you! Also? I'm going to try my hardest to figure out a way to work "jimjilbang" into a conversation. That word is a super star.

Fashionista wrote 7 years ago:

You are brave! I am a Korean-American, and I have never set foot in one in my entire life. I could never get myself to do it. The next time you go, you should have someone scrub the dirt and grime off your back, as that is also part of the experience. Then you'll really get to know the other person. Great article!

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