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
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