THE JJIMJILBANG DIARIES (Part 1): Six Days Naked in a Hot Tub Full of Old, Dirty Korean Men FOR SURVIVAL
Illustrations by, Jacquie Spadano and Ross Doran.
I had not seen sunlight in over four days, but I knew it was nighttime. I could tell because the Koreans were singing again; their harrowing karaoke tributes to “Gagnam Style” echoed through the corridors of the Jjimjilbang, interspersed with renditions of Rihanna and Beyonce in a make-believe language that resembled English. I rolled over on the heated floor, pressing my ears between the sleeves of my orange jumpsuit.
Gimbap flavor: Green wrapper; four-days-old, decaying vegetables and stale rice.
For a brief, shameful moment, I considered going above ground for the day. I imagined taking a stroll around Seoul, getting some much-needed fresh air and sunlight—maybe even a proper meal—before returning to the Jjimjilbang by evening.
I beat my head against my hard, square pillow. NO.
I wasn’t leaving until the security guards dragged me out of the department store by the ankles.
When a homeless man has been sleeping in your kitchen for two weeks, and stepping over his filthy laundry on your way to work in the morning starts to lose its novelty, I imagine it might be an awkward chore asking him to leave. So for that, I give Johann and Songe a great deal of credit.
Songe placed the bowl of sweet persimmon slices on the table, snapping back her hand as Johann and I descended with our forks. She cleared her throat. “Steve. The landlady complained about the extra noise again this morning… She said that if you’re going to stay with us any longer, she’s going to raise our rent…”
I stopped shoveling fruit in my mouth and looked up to my hosts. I knew I had overstayed my welcome, but in this extreme situation I simply had nowhere else to go but the street. It had been four days since the robbery and I only had $85 left to last me another week, until my replacement bankcards arrived from America.
I considered begging my friends to let me stay a few more days, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.
“Don’t worry,” I nodded. “I’ll leave in the morning.” I still had a backup plan— which originated as a hypothetical joke and was fraught with discomfort and legal risk. I had previously described this plan to Johann as my Jjimjilbang theory…
Before I subject you to the withering absurdity of my theory, you need to understand a few things about Korean culture and Jjimjilbangs (which could vaguely be described as public bathhouses). The Jjimjilbang has two parts: a gender-segregated bathhouse portion, where people strip nude and mingle in hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms, and a second portion that constitutes the Jjimjilbang proper, where everyone lounges around on an ondol heated floor and watches Korean soap operas at ear-shattering volume. The Jjimjilbang holds none of the seedy connotations of bathhouses of the West, and if a Korean employer were to ask his same-sex employee, “How about today after work, you and I go take a long, hot bath together and then afterwards watch some soap operas in our towels. You know, just as friends,” this would be considered totally casual and not gay at all.
A weekly visit to the Jjimjilbang is as pivotal to Korean culture as kimchi. It’s a place you go to spend time with family, catch up on gossip with friends, and bump into co-workers and have awkward small talk while you’re both completely balls naked.
For budget travelers, the Jjimjilbang also provides a form of cheap, unusual accommodation. The Jjimjilbangs stay open 24/7, and after paying the seven dollars entry fee, you’re allowed to sleep on the heated floor with a yoga mat. There’s no specified check out time and, in concept, you’re allowed to stay however long you want…
I theorized that if you kept a low profile and crammed enough water and gimbap (stuffed rice cakes) into a daypack, you might even be able to stay for days—possibly weeks.
“That’s absurd!” scoffed Songe. “It’s seven dollars. Why wouldn’t you just pay each day so you can leave and enjoy the city?”
Johann grinned. “And what happens when you get caught?”
I knew they were probably right. I knew this was likely a terrible idea. But considering my situation, I didn’t see a better option.
By eight o’clock the next morning, I was plodding around 7-11, stuffing my daypack with crackers, bananas, and a mysterious assortment of gimbap.
I failed to account for the fact that it’s difficult to keep a low profile in a Korean bathhouse when you’re giant and bumbling and white. It took less than sixty seconds for me to cause my first major scene; upon entering through the turnstile, I promptly began marching into the women’s sauna.
“NO! NO! NO!” screamed the horrified younger receptionist, redirecting me to the correct hallway and a cluster of tiny lockers—impossibly tiny, in fact; fitting anything more than jeans and a pair of sneakers inside would be a magic trick.
I glided my hands to my belt, took a deep breath, and swallowed my pride. I couldn’t believe how exposed the locker room was; I could still plainly see the two receptionists and half of the lobby.
The moment of truth.
I unclasped my belt and unzipped my pants.
“NO! NO! NO!” screamed the younger receptionist again, as the other crumpled over laughing. “NO! NO! NO!” she wailed, gesturing towards my feet. “Shoes! Shoe locker! Shoes only!!”
Gimbap flavor: Blue wrapper, tasty ham and tuna.
My body tingled as I eased into the steaming tub, tilting back my head with a contented sigh. When I slowly opened my eyes, I found the six Koreans opposite me staring intently through the waters at my special no-no place. I self-consciously crossed my legs and tried to avoid eye contact.
In the dim light, I could see a half dozen tubs ranging in size, clarity, and temperature, from volcanically hot to paralyzing cold. The idea of the Korean bath is to alternate between these extremes; the temperature shifts improve blood circulation and are extremely pleasurable. The largest and hottest tubs were enshrined beneath elegant gazeboes with sloping eaves (I had coughed up the extra cash to stay in one of Seoul’s more swish Jjimjilbangs, housed in the basement of an upmarket department store). Some of the tubs even varied in color, having been infused with a variety of plants and herbs.
One tub smelled of pine. Another, ginseng.
I couldn’t tell if one particular tub was filled with green tea, and for an unthinking moment I almost took a sip. I quickly stopped myself, remembering that I was sitting in a boiling cauldron of Korean nutsack stew.
After forty minutes of floating in tea, I showered off and a very portly, naked attendant directed me to a changing room. Here I received a bright orange jumpsuit and an emasculating towel head wrap that resembled Princess Leia. If any of this seemed at all strange, none of it prepared me for the acid tab of what came next.
After descending a staircase, I found myself in a cavernous, unground chamber housing what appeared to be a bucolic, 18th century Korean village. Plastic trees and wooden footbridges framed a central “square,” where dozens upon dozens of Seoulites sprawled before a television in their orange jumpsuits, watching deafening Korean soap operas with Princess Leia towel hats. Behind the square sat a handful of traditional Hanok houses with beckoning, open doors. Inside these doors, curious visitors were rewarded with sterile, white rooms containing nothing but further televisions blaring Korean soap operas. It was like the Epcot World Showcase, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Hanging above this whole Twilight Zone scene, a wooden sign explained: “Hanok Traditional Korean Culture Experience.”
It took ten minutes of wandering before I grasped the massive scale of the Jjimjilbang, which offered every amenity you would expect from an underground prison. There was a cafeteria, a massage parlor, a beauty salon, dry saunas, a game room, an internet café, a karaoke station, an indoor waterfall, more traditional Hanok gazebos, and a network of tranquil nooks and crannies fitted with even more blaring televisions.
I made camp a safe distance away from the soap operas, next to the most noisy and ferocious massage chairs the limited human imagination can fathom. I watched in horror at the insertion of each 1000 Won note, as the selected chair would grumble to life and a tiny, moaning Korean woman would start violently vibrating to the point of whiplash like an electroshock patient.
The massage chairs afforded me a more practical function than entertainment: they provided the only accessible electrical outlets in the Jjimjilbang, allowing me to charge the iPad I had borrowed from my friends—my only tether to the outside world.
I wasn’t ready when the tether was cut.
“Anniyo!” came the cry.
I looked up to see a muscular, middle-aged attendant with a mushroom cut and black knee-socks galloping towards me down the hall.
“Anniyo!” he scolded.
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Anniyo!” he repeated, barking in Korean and making a nonsensical gesture.
I stared at his knee socks.
“Jeongi!” he continued.
In my four weeks in Seoul, I had found South Koreans to be extremely kind, respectful, and non-confrontational people.
But not this guy. Not Knee Socks. This guy had a chopstick up his ass and something to prove.
By the time he pointed at my charger and I finally understood my transgression, his voice had almost risen to a shout. I was about to unplug the cable and apologize, when I heard him spit the word, “Migug”—the Korean phrase for American. I couldn’t understand the rest of the words, but I understood from his tone that Migug—in this context—was being used in a very condescending, probably bigoted, manner. Heads poked up from their massage chairs to watch in rapt attention.
In retrospect, I should have reacted differently. I wasn’t taking a moral stance, as I could have easily saved face and let his narrow-mindedness go unpunished. But that would have involved forfeiting the iPad.
If somebody is going to make groundless assumptions about my intelligence based on where I was born, then I have absolutely no qualms in milking it to my benefit. I can play the Dumb Tourist Card like a symphony harp.
“Anniyo!” he pointed from the iPad to the outlet, then waved his finger.
I responded as if I were having a stroke: I slowly unplugged my iPad, pointed my finger at the outlet several times, and then carefully plugged it back in.
Knee Socks exploded into Korean. “Jeongi!” he snapped, furiously pointing to my iPad.
I lifted it up, checked underneath it, and shook my head. I sighed. “No jeongi.”
“No, no jeongi,” I apologized.
Knee Socks launched into an angry stream of expletives. The massage chairs ladies burst into giggles.
I giggled too. “I wish I understood what you were saying.”
“No! No!” he stammered.
I shook my head. “I don’t speak English.”
The massage chairs ladies began pointing helpfully at the iPad. “Jeongi, Jeongi!”
I lifted the iPad once more and checked underneath. “Nope.”
I couldn’t tell if Knee Socks was flexing or just restraining himself from hitting me. For a long moment, he just stood there boiling, then with an exasperated grunt he exclaimed something in Korean and turned to stalk away—leaving me to charge my iPad in peace.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the horrible mistake I had made.
Gimbap flavor: Yellow wrapper; chicken.
The physical and mental effects of living in a Jjimjilbang began to set in early on the second day, after the baths lost their novelty and I made the horrifying realization that the only other activity was to stare vacantly at Korean soap operas. When this lack of mental stimulation compounds with the absence of sunshine or the reference of a timepiece (I had ditched my wristwatch along with my clothes), the Jjimjilbang’s perpetual, fluorescent daylight plays bewildering tricks on the mind. As my biorhythms weakened, I began dozing to sleep and jolting awake throughout the day. It was comparable to jetlag, except I had no way of telling what time would be appropriate to sleep or not.
At one point, I startled awake in my massage chair to find Knee Socks looming at the far end of the corridor. He was watching me intently, not with anger, but with dark suspicion. I suddenly realized the error I made the day before. By defending my iPad, I had squandered my chances of skating under the radar—at least with Knee Socks. By winning the battle, I had screwed my odds of winning the war.
Before Knee Socks could take a step towards me and instigate another showdown, I hastily dashed away, raced upstairs, flung off my clothes, and retreated to the naked safety of the tub room.
I made the decision then not to use the iPad anymore. But it mattered little. The stage had already been set; Act One was about to begin.
I spent that night in the bath bobbing between shores of consciousness, dreaming stormy dreams of a sea of green tea, steeped with a dozen hairy teabags as ominous and loathsome as icebergs.
Continue to part two: “The Gateway to Hell is in The Basement of a Seoul Department Store“
To hear about the robbery that lead to this story, check out “A Dream Deferred: The End of Backpackology?“
For another lengthy saga so epic I had to break it in two halves, check out my Indian foodie adventure “A Hyderabad Idea: A 500 Mile Foodie Pilgrimage By Train”