Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Like a swimming pool...but not.

This was how my friends first described jimjilbang to me when they suggested going when I was in Korea two years ago. 

I have often been asked by Korean friends and foreign friends alike, "What is the most embarrassing experience you've had in Korea?" and 'When was the moment when you really began to embrace / 'get' Korean culture?". 

The answer to both of these is always my jimjilbang story. 

Two years ago, I was in Seoul, it was my second trip to Korea except this time I was doing it alone - the first time I'd stayed with friends and had everything done for me. This time I was completely "혼자" or "alone!" 

A lot of people blog factually about jimjilbang. How it works exactly, the tradition of it, the history of it, its role in Korean culture and society but to be completely honest, when my friend first suggested going, I had no clue what she was on about. 

My Korean level was pretty appalling at that time..."Jimjilbang?" ...even the word sounded strange.

"It's like a swimming pool but not", she said "but you can sleep there too". 

"So, I should bring a swim suit?" I asked. 

"Yes, they have a swimming pool too...and bring whatever you need for a sleepover..except pyjamas...they give you those", she said. 

Utterly confused but somewhat desperately trying to embrace Korean culture as much as a culturally disorientated 17 year old could, I swallowed any essence of doubt and agreed to go. 

I mean it can't be that wear a swimming costume...right? 





We arrived in the dragon hill spa jimjilbang (it's a very big, fancy jimjilbang in Yongsan, Seoul) as a group of 4. Myself and three of my Korean friends - (2 of whom were ethnically Korean, raised overseas). 

So, we walked into the changing room and I was hit by the sight of nakedness. Everyone. All ages. All shapes and sizes. Naked. My rather prude "When-we-go-swimming-we-get-changed-in-cubicle" eyes didn't know wear to look and my brain didn't even know how to process. 

At this point, alarms bells should have started ringing. 

So we went to our lockers to get changed and I got straight into my swimsuit. I looked up to see my friends, utterly starkers, looking at me weirdly. 

"What?" Hurry up, I want to see what all the fuss is about!", I said. 

Awkward silence ensued. 

"Why are you wearing a bathing suit?" they asked me.

"What do you mean 'Why am I wearing a bathing suit?"?" I asked... "Surely the question is why aren't you wearing yours!" 

Then came the laughing. 

"No, Anna, in jimjilbang you don't wear a bathing suit. You only need that for one we actually go to the swimming pool because that section is mixed. This is the don't wear anything here" they said. 

I felt the colour drain from my face - which is pretty impressive because I'm rather pale already.


In front of other people? 


No. No. No. No. NO! 

My friends got pretty tired of my resistance pretty quickly and after about 5-10 minutes of me saying " clothes?!" they got rather frustrated and presented me with an ultimatum : get my swimsuit off and go or sit here on my own for the next 90 minutes or so and wait for them. 

The prospect of sitting all on my own in the changing room, surrounded by naked ajummas was almost worse than the prospect of getting my own kit off ... but 90 minutes? 

It had to be done. 

Swimsuit off. 

I looked up. 

No one was laughing. Or pointing. A few people were staring but I already mentioned I'm pretty pale so that was kind of to be expected. This wasn't half as bad as expected. 

We had been given a towel to use. I held it up expecting that at least I could hide until we got to the bath and I could do the really cool "cover-yourself-with-the-towel-until-the-last-second" thing.... 

However, what qualifies as a towel in Korea would probably not be considered much more than a flannel or a face towel anywhere else in the world. This was going to be fun. 

I spent a few minutes pondering what exactly I was meant to do with this towel. It wasn't really big enough to cover anything... it definitely couldn't cover "both areas". It was question of one or the other...but that would just look weird. 

Oh stuff it. I threw it over my shoulder. Adopted the fake confidence I keep reserved for moments like this and walked boldly across the changing room...not really knowing where I was going. 

We went downstairs to the bath area and it's custom that everyone has a shower before using the bath. While this can be done standing up, there's a large area where you can sit down so we went over there and had a shower. 

That's when she started to scrub my back. 

I spun round in horror. "What are you doing?" I asked my friend. I was already naked, the prospect of being scrubbed by someone else...well...! 

"I'm scrubbing your back! she said. 

"....Why?" I replied. 

"Because we're friends and you can't reach it. I'm just helping" she said. 

"But I'm naked!!" I spluttered. 

"Yes, I can see that" she replied coolly. 


"Oh... ok then" I said, turning round as she continued to scrub me. She finished and then looked at me .."My turn!" she said, grinning. 

I swallowed my 'I-am-English-we-don't-do-this' mindset and started scrubbing. 

After about 15 minutes of walking around in my birthday suit, I was utterly at home in the jimjilbang. 

Even the ajumma complimenting me on the size of my chest couldn't throw me off.

(I simply replied with "감사합니다~" (formal - thank you) much to the amusement of my friends, who found the whole situation utterly hilarious. 


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  3. Great article, thanks for sharing, fun to read !

  4. That is why ignorance is a bliss. I had an idea about this so I've never been to a jimjilbang yet but just a regular swimming pool. And yes, the locker and shower room are just another culture shock. But I wannna go swimming so I'm trying to suck it up. :(