Three Nights in a Jjimjilbang

25 Jan

I recently did some venturing about Korea, not for any terribly specific reason other than I wanted to ride around on trains a lot.  I decided to check out Andong, for I’ve heard it’s an intransigently Korean place and I like intransigent stick-in-the-muds.  Being short on cash, I decided to sleep in a jjimjilbang, like many Koreans do when they travel.

Normally I’m rather averse to marinating myself in the various bodily fluids, bacteria, sloughed skin, and expectorate of total strangers, but I decided to give it a try.  For I’d recently gotten a blood test and my Hepatitis B antibodies turned out to be naturally almost four times higher than an ordinary vaccinated person.  I felt lucky.

Andong Oncheon

Once I got in and started looked around Andong Oncheon, the jjimjilbang pictured above, I was kicking myself for not having come to one of these places sooner.  I mean, a shower, water from a hot spring (the meaning of 온천), sauna, baking yourself inside a kiln, roasting your back on lava rocks, freezing yourself in a room lined with ice-encrusted pipes, plus a restaurant, PC room, DVDs, a space on the floor to crash — all for 7 bucks — 7 bucks — how is anything wrong with this picture?  I was to discover later, though, that there was.

It being winter vacation, there were a lot of college students traveling and nearly all of them seemed to be using these establishments for their lodging.  With a small bookbag, most of them were just bouncing around on week-long cheap train passes, trying to see as much as possible.  I talked with several of them.  Two young guys, one with a glistening cubic zirconia earring, playing hwatu together on the mat next to me, had just finished their second year of university, which meant that it was the customary time to do their compulsory military service.  Except the Military Manpower Administration wasn’t sure whether they would send these two off in February or March or when.  Ear Ring Kim’s parents lived in Hong Kong and had insisted that he go to university in Daegu so his grandparents could keep an eye on him.  Well, he wasn’t having any of that right now.  He and his friend were just going to kick around the country doing whatever they felt like until the military let them know when it was time to report for training.  Nice guys, as most of the people there seemed — a real family establishment.  I felt fairly comfortable.  Actually, I almost always feel far less ill will for my skin color outside the main urban areas.  Usually country people look at me as a curiosity instead of with suspicion or loathing.  One big-nosed, leather-skinned rustic on the train even made the effort to catch my attention and give a wave and smile as he got off at a rural station.  It is indeed the people you meet that make or break any physical place you come across.

But the most, shall we say, memorable character at the jjimjilbang was the ajeossi in the hot pool.  He had surprisingly tan skin all over.  His hair was unusually curly on top and suffered from a orangish hue, making him look like a Korean Jerry Stiller.  He made his way to the corner reclining section of the big bubbling warm pool, which I too stood in, albeit on the opposite side.  He laid down and I lost track of him, zoning out for several minutes.

When I came back to the present, I happened to glance across the pool.  The orange-haired old guy lay in his corner, but was looking about with a wide-eyed, almost paranoid look.  I saw his arm moving back and forth and some movement down by his crotch.  Gross, I thought, that old dude’s cleaning himself in this pool.  It seemed odd, but, then again, there were naked grown men over in the shower room scrubbing each other’s backs with rough cloths.  It’s Korea, after all, and things are just different in a lot of ways.  So I brushed it off.

But I kept feeling the old guy’s stare flitting about the room like a schizophrenic lighthouse beam.  No one else seems to notice him, but he’s still glancing around nervously.  Looking back over, I see that the man’s former motion is continuing, only at a more frantic pace, and a certain part of his anatomy has, by this point . . . emerged . . . from the water.  It suddenly struck me that this weird looking ajeossi was gratifying himself in a public pool.  And I was sitting it the same water.

I stood up immediately and climbed out of that pool without a second look.  I went into the sauna, shut the door, and sat down.  No way I’m getting back in that pool, I thought.  The heater next to me banged and clanged and I sat, wondering if this was normal behavior in a jjimjilbang and if anyone else had seen it.  But no one makes conversations in the jjimjilbang.  You sit there and avoid eye contact as you sweat and scrub.  So I was left with the mystery all to myself.

Those who wander seek out authentic experiences, ones which illuminate either the universal or the particular.  We want a full spectrum of experiences, a broad, diverse array that will enable us to both make generalizations.  But on occasion you see something that just leaves you at a loss, that fails to fit into any preconceived categories you have or can be considered a rare outlier that conforms nonetheless in its own way.  Just because you spend three nights in a jjimjilbang doesn’t mean you’ll see the same thing that I did.  And that, my friends, is why you keep your eyes open, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t.

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