Traditionally, Koreans often go to neighborly bathhouses (mogyoktang or jjimjilbang) as family—mothers with their daughters, fathers with their sons. Of course, there are basic obstacles of awkwardness that inevitably accompany such a place, but the basic philosophy of the practice—of communal togetherness and personal cleanliness—is quite endearing. That’s why, after a long Michigan winter, a couple of close friends and I made the trip to a Korean bathhouse (a quick three-hour’s drive to Chicago) to wash off months of accumulated bodily grime.

At this particular bathhouse, once I made proper payment, the proprietors of the establishment handed me a key and pointed to the appropriate gender-separated sections. As soon as I turned the corner, I was in the men’s locker room that led directly into the bath area. I was immediately thrust into the hubbub of a communal and uninhibited movement towards bodily cleanliness. Around me, men of all ages were in various stages of undress. In here, there’s a new normal, and men go about whistling, chatting as they prepare to bathe together. And it’s from this point that one needs to be very careful where to direct a gaze and uh… swing one’s arms.

Once I stowed away my belongings, I entered the bath area to begin the bathing process. After a quick warm-up shower, I slid into one of the main baths to loosen up my skin. There were three blue-tiled baths of varying temperatures bathhouse, all of them very hot with steam billowing above them. In each sat two or three very naked men. They were very hairy and covered in sweat, and perfectly relaxed.

After sitting there for a while, chatting it up with one of them, who’s now seen as much of me as my parents, I braved the steam sauna. Upon entry, an oppressive heat bore down on every part of my body. There’s so much hot steam in the room that, at first, it’s hard to see. It felt like I wasn’t breathing air but merely gulping in steam. I quickly found a seat and blinked away sweat beads. For the next few minutes, I sat very still and tried not to burst out the door. The old man-turned-bathhouse-small-talk-friend looked like he was turning purple. He’d gone silent now and was sweating from head to toe. Even my own body felt like it was about to become a steamed bun. But I needed to stay long enough so that the older gentlemen in the room don’t think I was a silly wuss.

When I felt like the appropriate amount of time had passed, I went out and set myself up at the scrubbing station and took a coarse towel (provided by the fine establishment) to every pore of my loose and sweaty body. Strings of white, dead skin peel off and the skin left beneath it turns raw and red. This is the highlight of the bathing experience, a combination of sheer horror—that you’ve been carrying this grime around for months—and huge relief—to see that you’re finally shedding it off.

It’s also the part where I need a helping hand. My friend scrubs my back, where I can’t reach, and I scrub his. This constitutes the essential practice of the Korean communal bathing tradition: a literal scrubbing away of a layer of discarded self and clingy filth in a mutual physical exchange.

This is precisely why we come here. Shower, bath, stranger-turned-awkward-friend old man, sauna, and a scrub given and received. The process expels months of grime and releases one to pure freshness. To this end, we help one another. It’s certainly a vulnerable space and one that, by virtue of the public nature of the place, can lead to some strange encounters. Yet, in my family, it’s often the first place we will go after a long trip away from Korea. We also frequent it during the long months of a terrible winter. It’s a place to reclaim relationships and reset one’s body.

If you’re up for it, visit one—but don’t go alone.

1 Comment

  1. Gabe Gunnink

    Greg,

    This reminds me of the “Enter This World” pieces we wrote in Creative Non-Fiction. So, thank you for welcoming us into this interesting little world! It was a pleasure.

    Reply

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