LIKE MANY Korean mothers, my mother is extremely overprotective. It was only fitting then, that my mother would accompany me to assist with “settling in” when I decided to go on exchange to South Korea. It would be my first time visiting my motherland. Before I arrived here, my main source of Korean culture were the Korean dramas my mother and I would watch together, and for as long as I can remember, we’ve wanted to visit a jjim-jil-bang. For the uninitiated, a jjim-jil-bang is a large, public bathhouse that is a common part of the Korean cleansing regimen. I had visions of us perspiring in the heat of a clay sauna, wrapping “lamb head” towels over our hair and cracking baked eggs on each other’s foreheads. I had very clear expectations for our visit to the jjim-jil-bang, but what I could never have anticipated was that the baths would not only cleanse my body, but also my mind.
Growing up as a second-generation Korean in Australia comes with a myriad of unique experiences. My life was different from that of my white-Australian friends. While my friends got ham and cheese sandwiches and juice boxes for lunch, I got barley tea and “smelly” kimchi fried rice. While my friends spent New Year’s Day hungover from partying the night before, I would spend New Year’s Day bowing to my grandparents and eating tteok-guk, or Korean rice cake soup. While my friends would play sports on Saturday mornings, I would spend every Saturday at Korean school at our Presbyterian Church, where the mothers at our church would attempt to teach their second-generation children Korean. My life was torn between never feeling fully accepted by my white-Australian friends, but also never being fully embraced by the Korean community in Australia.
My confusion with my identity was further exacerbated by the conflicting messages I was told about what my role was as a Korean female in Australia. Growing up, I was fed paradoxical messages. At the age of 16, my grandfather would tell me that I needed to learn how to make kimchi to prepare to be a “good wife,” while the world told me that women could be whatever they wanted to be. I was taught that education was the single most important tool for female autonomy and empowerment, yet I deliberately gloated about the poor grades I would get in school in order to deflect the “Asian nerd” stereotype that was cast upon me because of the way I looked. When I was younger, boys would make fun of my disproportionately large calves, the thick, dark hair that grew out of my legs, and the fact that I wore a bralette up until high school. They would call me derogatory words like “chink” and “gook,” but as I got older, I found myself yearning for the approval and attention of those same boys. Who would have known that later in life, Asian women like me would become the object of male fetishization, with Western popular culture bolstering the dangerous stereotype that Asian women are small, exotic and submissive.
To my mother, dressing conservatively is key to diverting the male gaze. We arrived in Korea during the 40-degree heat wave and every morning I’d be greeted by my mother’s chagrin towards the clothes I had packed. I would change at least four times because my camisole was too revealing, or my shorts were a little too short. I wore the same high-necked dress that she picked out for me for five days straight.
From the moment you enter thejjim-jil-bang building, there is a striking sense of comfort, camaraderie and community. Families and strangers alike all lay together on a heated floor, called ondol, and sleep peacefully, share a meal, and watch television together. This place is like a blissful, communal living room.
It is in the gender-segregated spas, known as mok-yok-tang, where I begin to feel uncomfortable. Here, there are upwards of seven spas, all varying in size and temperature, where women bathe completely naked. Any physical semblance of my Korean-ness in my outer appearance is now overridden by the clear discomfort in my eyes that reveals that, indeed, I am a foreigner. Considering how much my mother had chastised me over my outfit choices in Korea, it is almost ironic that it is now the same woman who encourages me to not be so self-conscious and to strip down. As I take my clothes off, I am sharply reminded that my mother has not seen my naked body since I was a young child. As I enter the spa area, I attempt to cover my private areas with whatever limbs I can contort.
As women, we grow up policing our body; removing hair from uncomfortable parts of our bodies in the most unnatural ways, spending hours staring at ourselves in the mirror, poking and prodding at portions of our body that we wish looked different. We wear uncomfortable garments that squeeze and suffocate us to accentuate curves that we don’t have while being simultaneously forced to hide natural features of the body, like the nipple, because of the discomfort that it may cause others if they saw. While I like to believe I am a firm proponent of body positivity and self-love, it is at this moment that I realize that I am the most self-conscious person in the area. Shame and embarrassment in my nakedness is what I feel here in the baths. Perhaps this is the discomfort that I have always felt in my body, a constant barrage of conflicting messages leading to the objectification, sexualization and commodification of my body.
Here in the spa, I get to observe the bodies of other women in a way that has never previously been made available to me. The nonchalance of Korean women toward the concept of nudity in this space is extraordinary. Women of different shapes and sizes, completely losing themselves to the water, unmindful of anyone else present in the spa. I spot untamed thick, dark body hair and women with similar sized calves as mine. I wonder why I feel the guilt of feeling like a voyeur when there is no shame and nothing sexual about these women’s overwhelming unapologetic nakedness? These women are here to simply bathe and cleanse themselves. Getting naked for the baths forced me into a new awareness of my own body. This is the first time I have looked at my naked body in a de-sexualized way.
It is at this moment where I, too, submit myself to the water.
The novelty of visiting ajjim-jil-bang for the first time afforded me the privilege of experiencing what it feels like to be fully liberated from a relentless and exhausting scrutiny of the female body, at least just for a couple of hours. For women in Korea, thejjim-jil-bang experience is largely a part of the everyday, menial ritual of cleansing oneself. At the core, this difference in perspective is what makes thejjim-jil-banga powerful tenet of Korean culture. There is something powerful in the mundane. These bath houses are not revolutionary, political spaces that are dismantling the patriarchy. This work is already being done outside of the jjim-jil-bang. In Korea, feminists are already fighting for safety and autonomy over their bodies through the movement against “spy cam” porn and for safe abortion rights. It’s a good start, but there is always more to do.
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The first thing you do when you enter a jjim-jil-bang is shed yourself of worldly possessions, surrendering everything you own to the locker room. Still, I came into the bath house with baggage. This baggage was the hope that visiting this country would reconcile all the confusion that comes from my paradoxical understanding of my cultural identity and femininity. It is in spaces like the jjim-jil-bang, in my stark nakedness, where I reclaim my body by returning the power that was stripped from my body and identity back to its rightful owner, myself. Reconciling that in a Korean bath house? Now that’s an unlikely baptism.