I didn’t make it to the gym until 11:30 tonight. Although the sauna is open 24 hours, the excercise room, for no discernable reason, closes at midnight. I can read enough of the signage to know this, but as the man wearing red rubber gloves came into wipe everything down, I was pretending I didn’t, hoping he was uneasy enough with his English skills to just let me finish my workout. It seemed to be working, but I started to feel bad for him, so I compromised. The song I had been waiting for all night finally came on my MP3 player. (I figured out how to include this song for your listening enjoyment above.) I decided when the song was over, I would push the stop button and leave. It was a good decision; he gave me a very relieved nod that I wasn’t going to force him to confront me as I smiled on my way out.
Jimjilbangs seem to be either a person’s favorite thing in Korea, or something that they would never even consider doing even with the promise that they will come out fifty pounds lighter in the end. For me, they are heaven. Due to the fact that I’m actively trying to loose weight, that I love to swim, and that saunas are pure bliss to me, the naked 60-year-women are of little consequence.
For the folks who read this who have never been to Korea, Jimjilbangs are a ubiquitous part of the culture that I am going to have a hard time giving up when I go elsewhere. They are elaborate saunas, workout rooms, bathing pool/hot-tub/awesomeness with the add-on of any number of other things like sleeping quarters, restaurants, massage parlors, and the part that people talk about the most: for less than $20 you can have an old lady scrub every dead skin cell off your body with a rag that feels like a cat’s tongue, which will not only make your skin beautiful, but erase any shred of modesty you may have had left.
Actually, that’s not that part that people talk about most. The part that foreigners talk about most, is that in the actual sauna part, it is an absolute requirement that you go naked. The saunas are separated by gender, obviously, and it is a parade that takes all kinds. My kind sticking out like a sore thumb for reasons I probably don’t even want to know about.
In the common areas everyone, male and female, are given the exact same uniform to wear. Long baggy gym shorts, and a t-shirt. One good thing is that you are not confronted by the latest in cheek-flossing LA style workout-wear. One bad thing is that the ladies at the front desk seem to think I am an Amazon woman and always hand me a ridiculously large outfit to wear that makes me look like a walking sack of potatoes. I have to tie the drawstring tight so that my shorts don’t run off while I’m jogging on the treadmill. I’ve made a point of hiking them up and retying the strings in front of the desk Ajammas, but they still seem to think that I require a men’s extra large in the drawers department.
My rear is probably not what any of the ladies in the sauna are concerned with though. I would imagine, there is another part of me that is quite noticeable. The “cool pool,” as I like to call it is the perfect temperature and is deep enough to actually swim laps. It also has jets that are strong enough to send you shooting across the pool, or mar your back with bruises if you stand too close when you turn them on as I found out the morning after my first visit. The second time I was there I had a little toddler of a guy use my chest to hoist himself up over the final step. He was just climbing his way up, and I happened to be standing there, and high enough to be the next rung in the ladder. Then today, there was a lovely old lady who couldn’t stop looking. They do float a little in the pool, being made of what they are made of, but she was looking at me as if she suddenly forgot how to swim and was considering me as an option for a personal flotation device.
That wasn’t nearly as bad as the women at the Seoul Women’s Bookclub who told us a story of a middle-aged Korean woman sitting next to her in the hot tub, who leaned over and squeezed her breast firmly, and then turned back to her companion and declared, “Yep, they’re real!”
Which reminded me, yesterday a boy who looked to be about seven was doing some serious scientific analysis on my body compared to his adult companions. At one point during his data collection, I really thought he was going to flat-out grab my chest. He had both hands up, fingers splayed, one eye closed – but he stopped short of actually touching me, moved his hands over to his mother and compared. Like you would measure something on a map by using your knuckle. Just a rough estimate for future reference.
So by 1am this morning, I was worked-out, hot-tubbed, and bubble-jet happy. But there was a little snaffoo in trying to pull on the skirt that I love, and can finally fit into for the first time since I’ve been in Korea. You know how it’s harder to wiggle into stuff when your skin is damp and the steam makes you swell. The stupid thing is that I had thought of that before I left. I actually thought to myself, “it is going to be hard to get this skirt back on after getting out of the sauna.” But did I bring a different change of clothes. No. So there I was wiggling around trying to coerce the skirt up over my rear, when I hear some tittering behind me. I knew I couldn’t get away with this unnoticed. The display, I’m sure, guaranteed the fact that the next time I go, the shorts that are handed to me will be a men’s extra, extra large.
The song is Down in Mexico by The Coasters
“She didn’t know how to behave around these people – the rich and powerful, a number of whom had asked her about the samurai way of life and thought she was being charmingly self-effacing when she said the closest she had come to the warrior world was her days as a worker at the munitions factory. Two years after the war they could accept an ally of Hitler sooner than they could accept someone of a different class, she thought, and wished she had entered India in a manner that would have allowed her into the houses of those that lived in Delhi’s equivalent of Urakami.”
- Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Now, when you move to a new country, it is to be expected that strange things, things outside of your norm, and the just plain unexpected will happen. The apartment building that I live in with all but two of the other teachers at our school has left the realm of cultural relativity and entered the realm of slum.
I have stooped to airing my grievances on my blog because I think it’s pretty clear that neither my boss (because he’s getting a great deal and doesn’t have to pay the “key” deposit over and over since he’s been keeping folks here so long), the landlord, or anyone else for that matter seems to care what happens here.
Here’s the shortlist of bullshit that has happened in the four months I’ve been in this particular location:
- Someone walked into my apartment and stole my purse while my friend stepped out to have a smoke and left the door unlocked. Not even being in the building (or the room) is enough protection in this shithole.
- Jim’s bike was purposefully knocked over when someone didn’t like where he parked.
- Someone left a turd on the fifth floor landing. One teacher really thinks it was human, but there has been some speculation. Either way, the landlord didn’t have it cleaned up for several days.
- Someone broke the hallway light, seemingly on purpose.
- I woke up at 12:30 tonight to the sound of my downstairs neighboor yelling and throwing dishes.
- The man who lives across from one of the other teachers is heard repeatidly beating his girlfriend.
- A random drunk woman walked into one of the teacher’s apartments, started making herself noodles, and then climbed in his bed.
- Jim’s mechanic thinks someone purposefully put dirt in the engine of his motercycle.
- One of the teacher’s had his scooter stolen from our garage a couple of months ago.
- The putrid smell that comes out of the sewer right in front of our front door that frequently fills the entire building with the smell of a frat-house, morning-after-beer-shit.
The piece de resistance was this afternoon, in broad daylight, as I was walking to work, a man comes out of the shadows, cock in hand, wanking off and staring directly at yours truly. Fortunately or unfortunately, this isn’t the first country, or the first place such a thing has happened. Actually, I believe the subway in D.C. was the biggest offender, where I had to make sure I never got too engrossed in the book I was reading on an hour-long subway commute, each way, to work in Congress, or I would end up with a pervy sitting too close.
The long and the short of it is that dick does not embarrass me. I find it simultaneously to be one of the most desirable and laughable parts of a man.
I don’t think older Korean men expect you to stand up to them. As a younger woman, I’m supposed to cower away in shame while his age and status protects him. Instead, I looked him square in the face, punched him, albeit not very hard as I’ve never really punched anyone before, spat on him, and gave him a glorious flying bird as I stormed away and he was left the one cowering in surprise.
So I’m left none worse off than before, and possibly with a chance to actually use my unlady-like biceps, but the issue that still stands is that our boss has us living in the worst part of town, and clearly doesn’t give a shit. This on top of the fact that some of his dinner conversation at the company party included a discussion about whether it is better to go to prostitutes or just find “wild” girls (his stand was that wild girls have more muscles “down there”). I missed this part, but apparently he had the new Korean female staff in tears harassing them.
Men jerking off in broad daylight is only one tiny part of a huge problem that women here are still viewed as toys. I did see the part where the boss forced all the new staff (myself included) to drink two giant mec-so bombs in a row (soju, the local vodka type drink and meckchu which is beer). Say what you will, but through years of practice and possibly luck of some genes, I can drink a lot of men under the table. One new Korean staff was not so lucky and ended up leaving hurling and in tears. He forced her to drink more and called her weak. I’ll gladly throw back a few, but I was appalled at how he forced someone who clearly didn’t want to be there to do the same.
And how am I supposed to have a professional working relationship and make demands of someone who acts like this? Get through the year and find a different place to work? But where does that leave the people who come to this branch after me? And will they have to live in this shithole, slum apartment?
Who else out there is having similar experiences in Korea, or are we at a particularly troublesome school/location?
I was trying to find a Festivus clip, but this was way funnier:
I love that musicians are finally using their music to take a stand again. I’ve never had much of a talent for writing these kinds of songs.
Actually it was what felt like most of Saturday and Sunday. One of my absolute favorite things about Korea is the subway system that connects the entire northwest quad of the country. But, I feel like I am on the thing all of the time.
So this is how I looked all weekend. Frazzled hair, huge bag full of books, and standing holding a subway loop. Actually I got to sit, a wonderous luxury, on a large part of the ride to go see Bybee, who lives near Asan. We had a great weekend chatting it up about books, boys…. and riding the subway.
A lot of people read on the subway. I love living in a place where reading is not just for the academics and dorks. They read on the subway so much, there are vending machines for books on the subway platforms.
I actually had enough time to read an entire book on the subway ride down to see her. In the Name of Honor, the story of a Pakastani woman who is condemned by a village court to gang rape after her brother is accused of “looking the in an unhonarable way” at another woman. She manages to get worldwide attention to her case and prosecutes her captors and several other men in the village. She uses the money she won from the case to start the first school for girls in her region.
Bybee’s house was my first experience being inside the ever-present, high-rise, apartment clusters. They are like ant colonies. Dozens of buildings all in one place, exactly the same, 20+ stories high, with hundreds of people living in them. They are very functional, very unattractive, and dominate the Korean landscape.
We ended the day with another, very long subway ride back to Itaewon for the bookswap at The Wolfhound. Plus some only semi-successful cheese shopping at the Foreign Food Mart. It was a good solid weekend, they go by so quick now…
“Why is it that when Robert Redford – cum Denys Finch Hatton flies away in the golden glow out in Africa, he is pursuing his destiny? And when I walk away I’m just a chick who’s scared of commitment and on the run, who’s weird for ignoring Glamour magazine’s prediction of her eggs drying up?”
From Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the Worldby Holly Morris
Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.
Filed under: Travel
Someone I know from back home in Maine has just started teaching English in Oman. He just started a quite interesting blog here: