THE JJIMJILBANG DIARIES (Parts 1 &2): 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.
Today I discovered that at least one of the old Korean ladies from the Fire Room is still alive. I saw her near the cafeteria; her eyes wide with confusion and alarm, as she frailly attempted to rip a large mirror panel off the wall, apparently mistaking it as a door. This amusing episode lasted several minutes before a girl in a blue jumpsuit appeared, taking the old woman by the arm and gently guiding her away.
I wondered whether the old lady had been above ground since the Fire Room. Perhaps she hadn’t left the Jjimjlbang in weeks. Perhaps she had gone mad. Perhaps soon, I might too.
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?”
“And what happens when you get caught?” grinned Johann.
I knew they were probably right, that this was 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 felt like Disney’s Epcot World Showcase, but bastardized 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 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.
Part Two: “The Gateway to Hell is in The Basement of a Seoul Department Store”
In those five minutes, I learned two things.
One: That a menacing scowl transcends all language barriers.
Two: That I had underestimated Knee Socks, the night manager of the Jjimjilbang; that he was no plebeian, day-walking mortal, but a cantankerous, acid-spitting Olympian god of douchebaggery, an epic prick of lore—the type of callous Jabberwocky whose morning routine involves flicking off ambulances and throwing kittens at a wall.
Gimbap rice cake flavor: Pink wrapper; expired rice and whitefish. I hate whitefish I hate whitefish I hate whitefish.
In the extended absence of sunlight, the human mind and body undergo several curious adaptations. The Jjimjilbang only exacerbates this process with its undulating, hourly extremes: cacophony or calm, heat or cold, darkness or light. As the days pass, the body confusedly tries to make sense of its surroundings, but with no point of reference or routine, it begins to suffer a sort of existential crisis. Biorhythms deteriorate. Night blurs into day. As the body loses its grip, this change manifests itself as a perpetual, subtle, implacable feeling of anxiety.
It also makes you very irritable, especially after you’ve been shaken awake in your massage chair by a growling, burly Korean man, urgently motioning for you to get up for no legitimate reason.
“I told you, no jeonji!” I cried.
Knee Socks snarled again. He pointed to the rest of the massage chairs, which were all occupied except one, then he pointed to a young girl sitting on the floor nearby doing her math homework, then he pointed to me.
I wasn’t using the chair’s painful massage function, but neither were the snoring Koreans sitting next to me. For good reason too—its massage felt as therapeutic as falling down a leather-padded staircase. We simply employed the chairs as an alternative to sleeping on the floor.
“Do you speak English?” I asked the girl. “Would you like to use this chair?”
The girl politely demurred, returning to her homework.
I smiled to Knee Socks. “If she wanted to sit, she would have already used that empty chair,” I gestured, before reclining my seat further.
Knee Socks wasn’t satisfied. “Juh gi yo!” he chuckled to the girl, chattering away as he pointed at me.
She shook her head again.
Knee Socks insisted, putting his hand on my arm and prompting me out of the chair.
The young girl patted her pockets. No money.
At this point, most Jjimjilbang employees would have probably walked away, leaving the young girl to continue her homework and me to resume my nap. But for an unfathomable dickface like Knee Socks, this was not an option.
He pulled a coin out of his pocket and held it out for the girl. I looked to her as her face went red. As in most Asian cultures, it is a loss of face to turn down somebody’s offer of hospitality. She stared uncomfortably at us for a moment, then slowly gathered her papers, bowed slightly to Knee Socks, and sat in the massage chair.
I watched as Knee Socks inserted the coin and the chair let out a low, menacing beep. A moment later, the small girl moaned and the earthquake simulator roared to life, battering her between its unforgiving arm rests like a ping pong ball.
I walked over to sit down on the other, empty chair.
“Anniyo!” cried Knee Socks, pointing to a scrap of paper taped over its motor box, scrawled with what I assume meant ‘Out of Order.’
“It’s okay,” I nodded, “I just want someplace to sit.”
I turned to the chair again, but he suddenly grabbed my arm, “Anniyo!”
“You’re being ridiculous,” I recoiled in surrender. “Fine!”
He snarled something else and then stared at me for a tense moment. He finally stomped off, after pointing at me and then crossing his arms in a big X—Korean body language for ‘No,’ or in this case ‘You are no good.’
As soon as he disappeared around the corner, the young girl exploded out of the massage chair, limped a few feet, and then plopped down onto the floor to finish her homework.
I didn’t reclaim my seat; I was already walking on eggshells. I knew that one more confrontation with Knee Socks would spell Game Over.
If I wanted to stay in the Jjimjilbang, it was time to become a ghost.
Gimbap flavor: Grey wrapper; mystery meat (maybe pork) spoiled beyond recognition. I ate it anyway.
It was only safe to walk around the Jjimjilbang during the midday shift change. When the businessmen arrived, I knew that Knee Socks would hence appear for the night shift, so I would have to retreat to the safety of the tub room to quiver and hide like Anne Frank.
The clock in the changing room read 4AM when I finally tapped out of the tubs. I knew Knee Socks was still on patrol, but my soggy, pruned hands were starting to look like raw chicken and I had previously discovered one other place that Knee Socks would never dare to check.
Descending the stairs, I made a risky, frantic dash across the Traditional Stanley Kubrick Hanok Village. I skipped over snoring jumpsuits and scurried past the blaring TV that now flashed epileptic Korean music videos, to a row of pizza oven-shaped dry saunas. Creeping past their tiny doors and windows, they almost resembled stone hobbit houses, except every now and then one of the doors would burst open and a profusely sweating, tomato-faced Korean would stumble out. Some of the stone structures boasted titles, like the mysterious “Pieces of Salt Room,” or the unpopular “Igloo Room.” I browsed for a specific title, my new safe haven, a sauna so hot that it didn’t even qualify as a sauna…
It was simply titled, “The Fire Room.”
I opened the door and crawled into the darkness. It was so volcanically hot that I had to keep my mouth shut or it would turn bone dry within seconds and my tongue would prickle. Eventually my eyes adjusted to the dim, and I discovered to my surprise that I wasn’t alone. Sprawled on the floor across from me were three hyperbolically old, motionless Korean grannies.
“Annyeong haseyo,” I whispered, but there was no response. They just lied there still, so unnervingly still.
I watched them for at least ten minutes before it dawned on me—what on earth are these ninety year old grannies doing in a blistering sauna in the basement of a department store at four o’clock in the morning?
Perhaps they had died.
“Annyeong haseyo,” I whispered again.
Perhaps the heat had mummified them in place. I wanted to poke one of them, but instead I just sat there watching for what felt like an hour, waiting for one of them to stir or for their silver perms to burst into flames.
Can air boil? I abruptly thought.
And then, an epiphany: What on earth am I doing in a blistering sauna in the basement of a department store at four o’clock in the morning? Wait– I’m intently sitting over three old women and watching them sleep like Ted Bundy.
These ladies are probably fine—but I’m not.
I can feel myself starting to go completely, Cabin Fever insane.
For the first time, I contemplated leaving the Jjimjilbang and paying each day to come and go. I would get sunlight, fresh air, and fresh food. I wouldn’t have to keep playing cat and mouse with Knee Socks. I wouldn’t have to be paranoid and anxious.
NO! I had already committed to the Jjimjilbang theory; I wasn’t going to give up so quickly. I was going to stretch that fifteen dollars I’d spent for at least one week—if only to prove to myself that it could be done. This wasn’t just a matter of budgeting—it was a matter of ruinous, pigheaded pride.
Gimbap flavor: Teal wrapper; rancid beef, food poisoning, and sadness; I threw it out and ventured into the cafeteria, hoping to find muffins or a banana. Instead, the cashier offered me squid chips and a piping hot, barbecued egg.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I suddenly woke up and found myself in one of the Hanok houses, lying on my back in one of the sterile, white rooms furnished with nothing but a flat screen blasting soap operas. What scared me wasn’t the fact that I had no recollection of how I got there, but the way in which I responded to the situation.
I rolled over, wondered if perhaps the Fire Room had given me heat stroke, and then, I proceed to watch Korean soap operas for four and a half hours straight. That’s nine episodes in row, with no break, not even to eat my gimbap ration. I was hypnotized; I didn’t understand a single word of what was happening, but I didn’t need to. The episodes were all the same—a series of abrupt zooms on the mother in law, ham-fisted flashback sequences, and extended sobbing scenes set to shitty Korean soft rock.
When I finally tore myself away, I wandered aimlessly to the ‘Pieces of Salt Room,’ which I discovered to be a barren sandbox of a room filled with rock salt. I stared at it for several moments.
I lied down in it and waited for something to happen. When nothing did, I decided to roll back and forth in it. And when that yielded no effect (other than feeling scratchy), I began picking up handfuls of salt and vigorously rubbing it on my skin.
This lasted for several minutes.
Eventually I looked up and noticed that, whilst I was off in my own little world, a skinny Korean man had entered and now watching me with wide-eyed bewilderment and concern.
It would have been awkward to stop what I was doing upon noticing him, so I gave him a casual nod and continued sluicing myself with fistfuls of salt.
When I eventually left the ‘Pieces of Salt Room,’ I came to a shocking revelation: not only had the businessmen arrived, but they were already drunkenly singing karaoke—I had somehow been sitting in the salt room for hours. I scanned the Hanok Village for any signs of Knee Socks, before making a freedom dash for the tub room.
The changing room clock displayed that it was nearly midnight—it was almost time for me to meet Jin Ho, and set into motion the final domino chain of my undoing.
Gimbap flavor: ——–
He was sitting in the ginseng tub, following me with his eyes as I plodded towards the cold pool. Perhaps it was my paranoia, but I couldn’t help noticing that the old man had been following me from tub to tub for the last hour, trying to make intense eye-contact throughout.
I closed my eye and slid into the icy pool, as tingling waves shot up my spine. Just as I began to doze asleep, the water around me started to ripple.
“I like Americans very much.”
“Oh god!” I startled. I opened my eyes to find the man’s wrinkled, weathered face bobbing a foot away from mine.
“I am Jin Ho. I like Americans because they brought modern to Korea,” said the feeble, old man. He had a friendly smile and clean English. “What is your name?”
“Uh. I’m Steve.”
“My mother is Japanese,” he continued.
“Oh,” I nodded, and a heavy silence followed.
Jin Ho splashed some water between his hands. “My father—”
“Your father is Korean?”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“Cool,” I replied, then closed my eyes and pretended to fall asleep. I ignored him like this for several minutes until I thought I heard him getting out of the pool and walking away. I opened my eyes.
He was still there.
“I have no job, Steve,” he pouted.
“Oh, I, well– That’s– I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I am seventy years old!” he exclaimed.
I stared at him for a moment, struggling to discern if he was trying to do something illicit with me, or if he was simply retarded.
“That’s good for you,” I nodded, “You seem very active. Do you have the time?”
Jin Ho checked his watch. “It’s two-thirty in the morning. I am a Korean War veteran.”
He suddenly stood up out of the water, his horrible old man dick now inches from my face. “I was shot twice in my leg,” he declared, pointing to two nickel-sized scars on his inner thigh.
I whipped my head away. Jin Ho clearly wasn’t a sex predator, but a genuinely friendly old man who just wanted to strike up a conversation with a stranger, while completely naked, and also show him the bullet wounds around his nutsack.
I quickly excused myself and fled from the tub room.
I knew it was dangerous heading down into the Jjimjilbang at this hour, but in my fragile mental state, I no longer had the resolve to deal with Jin Ho’s awkward banter.
Even if that meant risking the wrath of Knee Socks.
I snapped awake in my massage chair to find the beast lurking over me, growling nonsense and wagging his massive fist.
I knew this was it; le duel final. The outcome seemed inevitable, but I wasn’t about to be ejected onto the streets in the middle of the night—at least not without mulish resistance.
I smiled. “Raaaawwr,” I shook my fist playfully.
Knee Socks gnashed his teeth, pointing with his massive forearm towards the exit.
“I don’t speak Korean,” I grinned. “But how have you been?”
“No! No! No!” he barked, pointing down the hall again.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No! No! No!”
I nodded in agreement. “Definitely, no, no, no.”
Knee Socks glared, emitting a low roar from his frothing jaws.
I knew my proselytizing wasn’t going to work this time, and I was ready to give up when I caught him throw the word ‘Migug’ (Korean for ‘American’). This was the second time that I heard him pull the race card—affirming that he deserved neither my compliance, nor respect.
If this bigoted, curmudgeonly toad wanted a dumb American, I would show him new horizons of stupidity.
“Chulbal!” his tirade continued, gesturing for me to stand up and pointing down the hallway.
Suddenly I nodded. “OOhhhhh!” I rose out of my chair.
Knee Socks pointed.
“Thank you,” I gushed. I waddled about halfway down the hallway, before I stopped beneath the glowing exit sign and stared confusedly at it for a minute. Then I sat on the floor.
Knee Socks clenched his fists, as angry, varicose veins snaked up his forearms. Suddenly he exploded into a stream of shouts. A few sleeping Koreans stirred, lifting their heads to watch.
He pointed in my face and grabbed my wrist.
I responded by dropping my jaw in sheer terror and catatonically staring at my lap.
I continued holding this face for another minute or so, until eventually he gave up shouting and stalked off down the hall.
This was a job for the security guards.
I tore across the changing room and threw open my locker. I had been saving the iPad’s last sliver of battery for an emergency, and if the security guards appeared to throw me to the streets, I wanted to know where to find my next Jjimjilbang.
I had just opened Google Maps when the tablet vibrated; it was a new message from Johann.
“An envelope came for you today! If you escape the jjimjilbang, come on over and pick it up. And give me back my iPad.”
I flicked off the screen.
I had won. After facing hell and hot water I had persevered, surviving off of nothing more than sheer obstinacy and diaper-flavored gimbap. I had soaked and sweated and seen more shriveled, geriatric genitals than a Tommy Bahama fitting room in purgatory. I had beaten the Jjimjilbang, and with about sixty dollars of comfort cash to spare.
I tore off my jumpsuit and donned my clothes. I could already taste my victory feast; I could see the waitresses setting down platters of glorious, barbecued samgyeopsal and bulgogi, as I hunch over the table, shoveling handfuls of grilled beef into my fat, gluttonous maw. I could see sunlight pouring through the windows, and no fucking gimbap rice cakes for miles.
Before Knee Socks could return with the cavalry, I strolled into the lobby and opened my shoe locker.
My shoes were gone.
I stared for a long moment, and then turned my head towards the receptionist.
She smiled and bowed.
I wondered if I could make it back to my friend’s without sneakers.
I awkwardly moseyed towards the reception counter.
“Uhhhh… Hi… Can I have my shoes?”
The receptionist kept smiling, “Oh no, no.”
She then disappeared behind the counter, before I heard a grunting sound like a dwarf choking on a burning rag. She reemerged a moment later, holding my foul sneakers at arms length.
With her free hand she punched ₩60,000 on a calculator (the equivalent of sixty dollars), then pointed to the calendar and slid her finger along the week.
“Oh…” I said, staring at the calculator. “How about that…”
The receptionist grinned.
Instead of drinking in warm, golden sunlight, I stepped out of the department store to find Dongdaemun-Ro cold, dark, and abandoned. The sun wouldn’t rise for several more hours.
After paying for six days in Seoul’s most expensive Jjimjilbang, I had only enough change for a subway ticket home, or a small, un-victory meal. This would have been a difficult decision if the subway had been open.
Or any restaurants.
I would need to make the long, frigid trek home on foot, with nothing to keep me warm but my own burning shame.
I set off down the road, into the flickering neon of Dongdaemun. Eventually, I saw the familiar, green-and-orange glow of a 7-11. My stomach growled.
I bought the most expensive package. It was adorned with elaborate, gold leaf Hangeul letters. I could only afford two before I hadn’t another penny to my name.
Gimbap flavor: Black wrapper; whitefish and I-don’t-care. I fucking hate whitefish.
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”