Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Calla Moses

“Teacher you must cover your secret!” said Ji Soo. I felt a little pair of hands grab the back of my shirt and pull it down over the one inch of flesh that was revealed as I bent over. It was January and minus six in the capital of South Korea but inside my heated classroom it was over 25◦C. Yet anytime the slightest slither of flesh on my lower back was exposed my English class ran to my rescue to cover my “secret”.

Coming from Queensland I had spent the last month on the Gold Coast wearing little more than a bikini. Thus it was new for me to be donning seven layers of thermal clothing. I was also surprised to discover that hipster jeans were considered indecent winter attire in South Korea even with three pairs of tights on underneath.

But the more time I spent in Tae Hamingu the more secrets I uncovered.  Down the tiny lanes of Insadong I sat in a tea house with yellow finches flying around my table; I drank Bokbunja, a mulled raspberry wine said to make men’s pee strong enough to make  a chamber pot explode; I’d even used a heated toilet and pressed the ‘modesty bell’ while I went to mask any impolite sounds.  I’d visited all Seoul’s tourist spots: Dongdaemun Market, Gyeongbok Palace and walked along the 6km of Cheonggyecheon: a man made river stretching through downtown Seoul.

 But I wanted more than the highlights and asked Zoe, one of the Korean teacher aids, for a  “real South Korean experience”. Excited I was so interested in her culture she replied, “I’m going to the Jim Jil Bang tomorrow; it’s a Korean bath house.  You should come it’s very relaxing.” Curious more than convinced I agreed to join her.

I paid 6000 Won (AUD$7) to enter the Jim Jil Bang and nervously followed Zoe into the locker room. I was taken aback by what I saw: a room full of Korean women of all ages, and sizes, totally starkers doing their hair, chatting and lining up to buy toiletries as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  My Korean companion immediately went to her locker and stripped. I quickly realised this would be very different from wearing a bikini down at Burleigh. 

Before you enter the bath house you’re required to wash yourself thoroughly from head to toe. So wearing nothing but a nervous smile I obliged and headed for the open showers. By the time I finished shampooing my long blond hair I noticed we had drawn a bit of a crowd. It seemed to be Grandma and granddaughter day at the bath house and several pre-pubescent Korean girls had gathered near us unashamedly staring and giggling at me. Unabashed Zoe headed for the lemongrass bath. As I turned to follow her the giggling increased. But it was not my big wobbly bum they we’re laughing at but my tan line.  Summer on the Gold Coast had left me with brown legs but a very white bum. White skin is revered in South Korea where whitening beauty creams are widely used. These girls must have thought I’d applied a large portion on my rear end!

Self conscious I jumped into the hot lemongrass bath and slowly forgot my inhibitions in the potently infused water. Any hint of a winter sniffle quickly disappeared as I inhaled the lemon scented steam. Next we soaked in the bubbling Lavender bath and I began to relax. In a purple haze I looked around the room at the old ladies washing their grand daughter’s hair and socially soaking in the Ginseng bath. I couldn’t imagine any of these women on the beach in a bikini but they seemed perfectly comfortable nude in a bath house.

I was feeling braver and decided to plunge into the pungent Ginseng bath too. It was hotter still and the water was the brown colour of old coffee. It had an earthy smell like hot ginger root and potato peelings but when I got out and headed for the sauna my hair had never felt as soft.

 In the sauna I watched the three old women rubbing salt into their wrinkled skin. I attempted to follow suit grabbing a pinch of salt and gingerly rubbed some on my arm. The lady beside me began talking in rapid Hangul; apparently I was doing it all wrong. Next the two ladies opposite me grabbed fistfuls of salt and began rubbing is vigorously over my naked back, shoulders, ***, legs and…everywhere else. It was an invigoratingly bizarre exfoliation experience.

I was feeling discombobulated from the heat and salt so headed out of the 50◦C sauna and into the 15◦C fresh water bath. I dove in and came up gasping for breath. Laughing at my antics two teenage girls on the side of the pool pointed at the power shower I was supposed to go under. The pressure was incredible as needles of icy water kneaded my back like a kind of aqua acupuncture.

By now I needed to dry out so lay down on a heated tile bed where red lamps shine down on your skin.  As I lay under the incandescent light I realised there was not a lot of difference between the Korean bath house experience and that of a day on the Australian beach. Under the red heat lamp I could easily imagine I was lying on the sand in the sun after getting wet and salty in the surf with my family back home.

However, while Australians think nothing of prancing around in a bikini on a public beach, we would never get in the bath with our grandma and scrub her back for her. My previous impression of Koreans being overly conservative suddenly seemed hypocritical. While both cultures are out-going in our own ways we also have things we’d like to keep secret.