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Living Abroad

Horror in the Bathhouse

Some people have nightmares about standing in the middle of the street, completely naked, with everyone staring at them. I lived it. . . . The first week of my year-long contract as an English teacher in the Land of the Morning Calm was not conducive to world peace and cross-cultural understanding. The tiny bathroom in the tiny apartment I shared with three people had no shower pressure and no hot water. The apartment was also unheated—the frugal habits of our Korean landlady dictated that the heat (and hot water) were turned off on March 1, regardless of the temperature outside. Cold when I woke up, cold as I washed, I became colder and crankier once I got to work, where I started each day with a 7:30 a.m. business English class. Each and everyone of its 12 students hated me—or at least wouldn’t talk to me, which in a language class amounted to pretty much the same thing. Looking at this sea of stolidly expressionless faces after a cold night’s sleep and an even colder shower left me little energy—or desire—to get to know Korea.

On the seventh day I rested, cried, and thought about running back home. To cheer me up, and knowing that I longed for a hot shower, my veteran roommate recommended a bathhouse.

“A bathhouse?” I protested, scenes from Fire Island and One Thousand and One Nights dancing in my head.

“It’s not like that,” he assured me. “It’s very respectable. Everyone in Korea does it—you think we’re the only ones with lousy plumbing? You pay your 2,500 won, you get a sliver of soap and a towel and all the hot water you could possibly want, and you shower till your heart’s content.”

After determining that the bathhouse was sexually segregated, I couldn’t wait to go.

“You’ll probably get stared at a bit,” my roommate tried to curb my enthusiasm, “being a tall, red-haired Caucasian woman and all.” I nodded and grabbed my toiletry bag. What was a bit of staring weighed against the luxury of an unlimited supply of hot water?

The bathhouse was built much like a swimming pool. I first walked into a locker room that looked like every locker room at every swimming pool I’d ever been to. I undressed in peace, listening to the voices coming from the bathhouse proper. It sounded very full and very noisy.

I thought, “Good, it’s crowded. I won’t draw much attention.”

Naked, I slung the tiny towel—I could cover my face with it, but not much else—over my shoulder, grabbed my shampoo and soap, and walked into the bathhouse.

For the first time I understood why silence can cut like a knife.

The second my naked white body crossed the threshold the voices of the 30 Korean women who up to that point were laughing, talking, and arguing stopped. All at once. Completely. And there I was, naked and cold, surrounded by sheer silence.

I stood immobile for what seemed like forever. Finally, I managed to take in the geography of the room and noticed that the showers were at the very end. Of course.

I tentatively took a step forward. Thirty pairs of eyes followed me. I took a second step, then a third. The eyes came along. Finally, still conscious of orbs boring into my back and behind, I made it to the showers. I sat down (Korean showers are designed to be used while sitting down; actually, a very effective way of washing yourself), put down my soap and shampoo, slung my towel onto the towel hook, and looked over my shoulder.

Thirty pairs of eyes looked back at me. I looked away and turned on the water. I reached for the soap, and stole another quick look. Sixty eyes met mine. I dropped the soap.

I could not do this. I could not wash myself with all those women staring at me!

Almost by accident, I made eye contact with one of the older women, a tiny grandmother. I looked at her imploringly. Her eyes blinked. I smiled tentatively. I’m not sure, but she may have smiled back. More importantly, she turned to the woman sitting next to her (her daughter perhaps?) and started talking to her.

Slowly, the other women followed suit. The eyes slowly began to move away, and conversations once again began to flow.

Occasionally, I became aware of a stare or accidentally encountered a curious look, but after the fiery baptism of my entrance, those were nothing.

Clean for the first time in a week, I decided to soak in one of the bathing pools. I felt like Goldilocks: the first one I checked out was too hot, the next too cold, and the third, finally, just right. I hopped in, stretched out, and closed my eyes. I felt deliciously relaxed and warm. . . . Then I became aware of someone staring at me, again. I reluctantly opened my eyes.

A small girl, three or four years old, was straddling my legs.

I smiled.

Her eyes grew very large and round.

I made my smile wider.

Her eyes grew larger and rounder.

I smiled again.

Taking that as permission, she stretched out her right hand and, with her thumb and index finger, grabbed my left nipple.

I yelped. I left. And the next day, after I told the bathhouse story to my 7:30 a.m. class, I became an instant success.

Over the course of my contract I retold my bathhouse story once or twice a month to new classes. It never failed to break the ice. I also continued my bathhouse visits. On my third visit I was introduced to the custom of washing a fellow bather’s back; by my tenth, I was a regular.

And so my landlady’s refusal to heat our apartment in the spring and the apartment’s lousy plumbing did contribute to world peace and cross-cultural understanding after all. It just took a little effort.