From the locker room as I looked at the bathing area through the glass partition wall, the first thing that caught my attention was a completely unclothed teenage girl being vigorously and voraciously scrubbed by an elderly naked woman. A little later the girl rolled over onto her stomach, allowing her nether regions to undergo the same treatment and after it was done, they just exchanged places and the entire procedure was repeated.
I am in jjimjilbang, a traditional Korean bath house surrounded by a plethora of female species all busy with the business of showering and scrubbing. I had docked in Korea for almost a month and had been to all the must-see places and done most of the must-do things baring a trip to this place. My boss, a motherly lady by the name of Kim, had strongly recommended a visit to the jjimjilbang, stressing that without it my understanding of the country would remain incomplete. She even offered to accompany me, but I had refused, driven by an awkward fear about the mandatory nudity that one needed to embrace once within the walls. Finally on the eve of my departure, I decided to give it a shot. I purposefully went solo, for the unclothed state seemed somewhat less intriguing in the company of total strangers than familiar faces.
In the locker room, I shed my inhibition first and clothes next, entering the bathing area in my birthday suit and with my closed eyes to avoid embarrassing or being embarrassed. However within a few minutes, all my apprehensions simply evaporated and being nude in a public bath seemed just the most natural thing to do. Liberated from the compulsion to cover up and reduced to my basic components, I was beginning to enjoy the experience.
What impressed me the most was the manner in which these ladies, in spite of not possessing the perfect bodies in terms of shape or size, were completely at ease with themselves. They were glowing with an inner radiance that can come only with contentment and confidence. Uniquely beautiful in their own way, they are motherly bodies, proudly showing off the battle-wounds of child bearing.
Their attitude taught me a very important lesson- if we want others to accept us, it is crucial that first we accept ourselves as we are. We need to be proud of and in love with our bodies rather than crave for that perfect hourglass figure and fret about the flaws.
I was standing under the shower trying to scrub my back with “itaeri tawol” a coarse wiry cloth given at the front desk when a friendly pat on the back made me turn around and ………………in terrified horror, my breathe stalled and feet froze -for fronting me was none other than Kim, my boss.
Kim was however quite nonchalant. Noticing my inability to scrub myself properly, she immediately offered to do so and without waiting for my consent proceeded with the act. I stood bewildered while she worked up a pearly lather with the sponge and gave my back a good deserving rub -scrubbing in a manner which resembled scraping off a fish’s scales. Soon the ground near my feet was covered with chunks of dark dull dead skin - 35 years of build up taken off in less than 35 minutes. Nowhere else in the world could I have imagined me and my senior colleague showering together and rubbing each other’s back and bums! Such an experience can happen only in Korea where the people, confident about what they are, bear no qualms in opening the doors of their heart and lives to the interested outsider.
The Korean stance of scrupulous cleaning extends well beyond the surface of the skin—it involves taking off the dead layer and paving the way for a fresh beginning –totally in tune with the indomitable national spirit which focuses on achieving excellence and refuses to rest till it has realized its goal.