So the more time I spend here in Korea the more I realize why I like being in new places so much. Unlike when I'm having fun in the states at a sporting event, a bar, or just with my friends, it's something I have done before in one form or another. But here not only are things fun, they are new too. It brings a refreshing perspective to your daily activities (not that one form of fun is "better" then another, it's just a little different). Well believe me, this posting will be about a fun night, but also about a very different type of night as well. I'm scared as to how long this entry might be, but if you were going to read just one of my postings, this should be the one (so far).
This Saturday started out like many others; a small soju hangover, and sleeping in till noon. But this day was a little different because this was my first weekend in Korea with a cell phone. Yes that's right, up until last week whenever I went home I couldn't contact anyone. I couldn't call anyone to go to dinner, or see a movie, or go hiking...nothing. When I went home, I was home alone, and it was not as cool as when Macaulay Culkin was home alone. Instead of making booby-traps, and eating big bowls of ice cream, I was reading and making peanut butter & Jelly sandwiches. But with the addition of a cell phone into my life I was really hoping it would expand my social network. And just moments after waking up on Saturday afternoon, that's exactly what it did.
A student I tutored in New York City, but is now back in Korea, called me and asked if I was doing anything today. Still in bed, hungry, and half naked my schedule looked about as open as it could possibly be. I ended up taking about a 40minute subway ride down to have dinner with her. Dinner was great. She took me to a restaurant that apparently has its own television show, so it was not the type of place I'd be going on my own. While the dinner with her was a wonderful time, it was what we did after that I will remember for the rest of my life.
We went to a Jim-jil-bong. A jim-jil-bong is a type of Korean sauna. Think YMCA mixed with a New York City gym, yoga, and the movies...all in one. I had read about it a little in my Korean research but really nothing could have prepared me for what was actually going to take place.
I was completely oblivious. On the drive there I was wondering if we were going to go into a sauna together...just the two of us. It's not exactly the prime scenery for a platonic "teacher - student" relationship to flourish. I'm even starting to wonder if we go in naked. I swear I remember something I read saying that you are naked at the sauna's. I'm starting to freak out a little, but because she doesn't speak much English at all, I can't ask her what's on my mind.
We pull up to a huge building and go inside. I couldn't imagine the whole place was dedicated to sauna rooms, but that's what she said. We payed a few dollars at the entrance, were given locker keys, and we took rolled up pieces of cloth. A pink roll for her, and a grey one for me. Then she says to me "meet you at 8". And in an instant my whole perspective changes for the worse.
I'm realizing that we are separating. I will not have to bare myself to her, but now I'm thinking I'm going to have to spend my hours here surrounded by naked Korean men. I still don't know where I'm supposed to go or what I'm supposed to do, but hand gestures are universal, and I separate from the only person I know. She goes downstairs, while I venture upward.
Only two steps into the "men's floor" I can see about 30 naked Korean men. Some are walking around, some are sitting watching tv, some are young, and some are old, but all are naked. I tried to act normal and went in search for my locker. After trying to fit all of my clothes into the "shoes" locker, and kind and fully dressed man took pity on me and led me to my larger locker. I started to disrobe and realized I had no idea what I was doing. I had no towel, no bathing suit, no clue, so I took a look around and just tried to fit in. You know "when in Rome", so I followed were most of the other people were going and I entered another large room. This room looks something like what I would imagine Korean heaven to look like...well Korean heaven full of naked men at least. There were about 7 or 8 different pools, or hot tubs. Some with waterfalls, some with flowing currents, some with statues, and some with beautiful picture backgrounds, and all with elegant overhead lighting. There was an area of men getting massages, and all around the edges of this floor were individual showers. My first stop was at a shower, followed by a dip in the hot tub. Everyone in the hot tub was just watching Korean television on a nice flat screen tv, which were also hanging everywhere in the room. By this time I had basically resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to hang out with these naked men for the next few hours, so I might as well relax. I started talking to another guy, who spoke good English, and his friend who lived in California. They told me there are other floors to this building. Not only a men's and a women's floor, but a coed floor too. Again my mind started to race as if there might be some huge orgy going on, on the floor above me. They quickly put my thoughts to rest by telling me that floor is clothed. Since I told them I came with a lady they suggested I take a look at that floor for her. We went to our lockers, and took out those rolled up pieces of cloth I mentioned earlier. They were shorts and a t-shirt, very baggy, almost like smocks. Then we headed to the other floor.
Right after walking into the coed floor I saw my friend Stella. She looked much cuter in her pink smocks then I did in my grey ones. It was here where we would spend the remainder of the night. It was basically just a communal area. There was a snack stand, a movie theater sized tv screen, pads to sit on all over the floor, and people everywhere. Surrounding the room were little doors, that looked like backyard sheds. However, when you opened these doors, bent over and walked in, they opened up into larger rooms. The rooms were maybe 20'x15' but were shaped like pyramids. Some had walls of intricate gem stone, while others were made of gold, and others still of marble. You would just go into these rooms and "sweat out your impurities". I found them unbelievably relaxing. Each were different levels of hotness, the hottest ones you couldn't take deep breaths in. They even had a cold room too, where everything was white an covered with frost. Two large snowmen kept you company in there.
Throughout the rest of the night it was shifts between the common area, the hot rooms, the cold rooms, and then back to the common area. I ended up meeting about 4 or 5 other English speakers and we all hung out together for the rest of the time. We bought them ice pops, they bought us drinks, and in the middle we talked. There was a period of business card exchange too. We were interested to find out the people we had met were actors on a Korean TV show, and it was then when I found out something really interesting about my friend Stella. She was Miss Korea 1995. Up until that point I just thought she was a beautiful, smart girl, who told me she was a Korean bronze medalist in water skiing. But no, she was a former Miss Korea. Now all of a sudden my day had an even sweeter ring to it. A girl didn't just take me out to dinner, Miss Korea did. And a friend of mine didn't just take me to a Jim-jil-bang, Miss Korea did. I already had a high view of her for going to school in New York, trying to learn English, and wanting to create her own business, but now I think even higher of her. The night ended with an exchange of numbers and a trip down to the lockeroom for one more final shower.
I am sure there are details I am leaving out, and I am sorry for that, but there were so many things to keep track of it would have been near impossible to remember them all. I'm also sorry I couldn't have more pictures for you to see but being the only American brought enough attention to me, I didn't need to be snapping pictures.