I went to the public bathhouse today, where I learned two things; Koreans don't have sweat glands and children have no shame following me anywhere and in any state. I shall begin with a quick synopsis of a Korean bathhouse. At the counter you have two options; the first is simply a bath for four dollars/4,000 won and the second is a bath plus sauna for six dollars/6,000 won (I got the works). The bath area is really quite cool; there are many different pools of varying sizes and temperatures with children running everywhere. So I settle under a large stone fish with hot water booming from its mouth. When I finally open my eyes, I realize I have five children in my pool staring at me. After this first week I am used to an excessive amount of attention-- though usually I'm clothed. So we talk a little, basically exchange names and they yell at me for mispronouncing theirs. After I get pruney, I try another bath, sure enough I have five sets of footsteps padding along behind me. I go to the shower and again I see five shadows in the corner of my eye. As you can imagine, by this point, I am attracting a lot of attention, I can't think of a more flamboyant way to announce my arrival than to stroll around with an entourage of naked giggling girls. So much for melding into the naked crowd.
Eventually, I made my way upstairs to the sauna. This portion is co-ed, so they give you a hideous orange sweat suit (the ones reserved to embarrass prisoners in the US) for the occasion. Upstairs is more like an activity room. In the center is a huge big-screen TV with massage chairs and places to lounge. Around the main area are various rooms containing food, exercise equipment and professional masseuses. Yet the majority of the rooms contain saunas with different degrees of heat and enviornments. My favorite room was filled with rocks that acted as coals, it had a low sloping mosaic ceiling and scattered logs to keep your exposed skin off the rocks. One woman showed me how to stack the rocks on your body to enhance the experience. It was delightful. I wandered through most of the rooms still evading a group of children who seemed to wait for me at every door. Eventually, I hit the Big Kahuna of saunas. As I was crawling through the door, I was sure I was climbing into a wicked witch's oven. The room was round but narrowed at the top (like a chimney) and the door looked just big enough to fit a Hansel or Gretel. Anyhow, my paranoia aside, this room was hot enough to melt me into a stew; the second I climbed in I wanted to leave. However, there were three men inside and I refused to look like a western sissy. I was determined to outlast at least one of the men (another example of my unnessesary competitive nature) but after about five minutes I was sweating bullets (more like machine gun sheets). I mean my gorgeous, orange, sweat-suit weighed at least ten pounds with water retention...yet none of the men even have a glisten of perspiration on their foreheads. One even smiled at me, in obvious recognition of my drowned cat exterior. About that time I fled the oven, concluding Koreans are a people crossbred with lizards, so therefore, any competition was futile.
Humor aside, I really enjoyed this experience. Right now I smell of wood and coals but my skin is the softest it has been in years. Also, I like the fact that these girls see women in their natural setting. In America, I feel girls have body issues because they mainly see the perfect bodies on television and feel all women look similar, therefore, they are inferior. These children grow up with women of all shapes and sizes moving comfortably in their own skin. Chalk one up for Korean culture!