Monday, 1 February 2010

Korea puts on a show

I know I'm not the first to observe that Glasgow seems to 'put on a show' for new people: it seems that on your first trip, chances are you will witness something stereotypically Glaswegian, like a fight in the street, or someone waving a bottle of Buckfast. Well, this weekend Korea put on quite the show. There are definite similarities: public alcoholism and black-outs spring to mind, but I've never seen a man walking down the street with a golf club, periodically stopping to practice his swing, anywhere else. The black-out we saw was actually kind of sweet: it seemed the young man in question had started out sitting in a doorway and just laid down for a snooze. His friends had covered him with a coat, and patiently stood guard.

Indeed, Saturday was full of “only in Korea” moments, including one probably-drunk taxi driver, another friendly driver who seemed to have issues with clean things (driving gloves and a dish-cloth over the gear stick), and a karaoke singer who demonstrated a sincerity and unselfconsciousness usually reserved for bathroom mirrors and hairbrushes. Like the man with the golf club, he was totally absorbed in what he was doing, and loving every minute.

But the best part of the 'show' was Sunday evening, at the jjimjilbang. After an afternoon hike, a long overdue visit to the bath-house was in order. Its a big part of the culture here, and the only reason I put it off was the small matter of getting naked in front of bajillions of strangers. Memories of awkward gym-class changing rooms really had me worried, especially given that, as a foreigner, one does get stared at in the street. When one has clothes on. So it was with not a little trepidation that we approached the local bath-house, Worldpia.

Aafter some awkwardness at the front desk, and payment of the entrance fee – a whole 4,500won (about £2.25) - we walked into the changing rooms with our tiny towels and wash bag. Being clothed was actually really awkward: everyone else was naked, so it all made more sense once disrobed. Before soaking in the baths, everyone has to shower, and a lot of people brush their teeth too (in the shower). The shower part was relaxing in itself: the water pressure was fantabulous and doing something so ordinary made the whole thing less intimidating. Plus, it quickly became clear that staring really wasn't going to be an issue. Next was a good soak in the 40ºC bath, followed by an outdoor mineral spa (in an enclosed balcony). While soaking, two young girls next to us consulted for a few minutes, before politely asking where we were from, in very good English. Their teacher should be proud. (Their cuteness was later matched by a little girl who was so animated and serious while talking to herself that it looked like an audition for a K-drama.) We also tried a sauna, but the coolest one, also at 40ºC, was bearable for only a few minutes and a quick dunk in the freezing cold pool was needed to recover.

After so much soaking and steaming, it seemed appropriate to get into the Koreans' favourite bath-time activity: scrubbing the bejeezus out of your skin. This is clearly a crucial part of the jjimjilbang experience and everyone gets into it: mothers scrub daughter's backs, grandmothers scrub mother's backs and everyone generally shows serious commitment to the removal of dead skin cells. It really does leave your skin feeling super wonderfully soft.

Dried off, and once again clothed, I left the jjimjilbang feeling like I was in a cosy cocoon. Everything felt a little softer and a little kinder. It really does a person good to spend hours just relaxing with others, and without worrying about what you look like. Without doubt, the best 2 quid I've spent in a long time.

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