THE JJIMJILBANG DIARIES (Part 2): The Gateway to Hell is in The Basement of a Seoul Department Store
This is the second half of the two part saga The Jjimjilbang Diaries. To read the first half, check out “The Jjimjilbang Diaries (Part One): Six Days Naked in a Hot Tub Full of Old, Dirty Korean Men FOR SURVIVAL“
Illustrations by, Jacquie Spadano and Ross Doran.
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, 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 other occupied massage chairs, pointed to a young girl sitting on the floor nearby doing her math homework, and then pointed to me.
I wasn’t using the chair’s painful massage function, but neither were the snoring Koreans sitting next to me. It was 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?”
She shook her head.
I smiled to Knee Socks, before reclining my seat further.
He wasn’t satisfied. He chuckled to the girl, pointing at me. “Juh gi yo!” he chattered.
She shook her head again.
Knee Socks insisted, putting his hand on my arm and lifting me out of the chair.
The young girl patted her pockets. No money.
Knee Socks smiled kindly, pulling a coin out of his pocket and holding it out for the girl.
“You’re such a fuck,” I blurted.
It is a loss of face in Korea to turn down somebody’s offer of hospitality. The girl’s face went red. 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.
Knee Socks pointed at me and then crossed his arms in a big X—Korean body language for ‘No,’ or in this case ‘You are no good’—before turning and stomping off.
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. After the businessmen arrived, I knew that Knee Socks would hence appear for the night shift, so I would 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 hands were turning into raw chicken, and I knew another hiding place that no employee would ever dare to check.
I made a risky, frantic dash across the Traditional Stanley Kubrick Hanok Village, skipping over snoring jumpsuits and scurrying past the TV flashing 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?
And then I thought, Oh yeah, I’m standing over old Korean ladies watching them sleep.
The ladies may have been healthy, but clearly I wasn’t. I could 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 was determined 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 shameless pride.
Gimbap flavor: Teal wrapper; rancid beef with 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.
I suddenly woke up and found myself in one of the Hanok houses, lying on my back in a sterile, white room 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 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. It was awful. 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 was a barren sandbox of a room filled with rock salt.
I stared at it for several moments.
Then I lied down in the salt 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 itchy), 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, while I was away in my own little world, a wide-eyed Korean man had arrived and was watching me with 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.
Upon leaving the ‘Pieces of Salt Room,’ I discovered that 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.
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,” croaked 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. A heavy silence followed.
Jin Ho splashed 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 wanted 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 after midnight, 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 frowned. “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. “No, no, no.”
Knee Socks glared, emitting a low roar from his frothing jaws.
I was ready to give up when I caught him throw the word ‘Migug’ (Korean for ‘American’) again. 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.
Suddenly I nodded. “OOhhhhh!” I rose out of my chair.
Knee Socks pointed down the hall.
“Thank you,” I beamed. 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. 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 threw 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 $60 of comfort cash to spare.
I tore off my jumpsuit and donned my clothes. I could already taste my victory feast, I could imagine the waitresses setting down platters of glorious, barbecued samgyeopsal and bulgogi, as I shovel 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 and I heard a grunting noise, like a dwarf choking on a burning rag. She reemerged 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 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”