Awkward Tales from the Korean Bath House

A boundary-bending experience from May 2010.

Photo courtesy of Plate Full of Onions

In Korea, there’s a huge bath house culture. Everyone, foreigners included, love going to the Jjimjilbang (찜질방). I started hearing about these magical places shortly after I arrived in the country. For a mere 5,000 won ($5), you can relax and pamper yourself all day. For 10,000 won, you can stay overnight. It sounded amazing, but I was a little intimidated by one thing: You have to be completely naked.

After a couple of months and many stories about how much my teacher friends enjoyed their Jjimjilbang experiences, I decided to put my modesty aside and check it out.

The first time you go, it’s kind of confusing, so I’ll break it down.

Step 1: Check in at the desk to receive a couple of mini towels and a locker key.
Step 2: Men go to one side, women to the other.
Step 3: Enter a small room, take off your shoes and put them in a small locker.
Step 4: Enter a big room, exchange your small-locker key for a stretchy bracelet that holds a big-locker key.
Step 5: Strip down to nothing except your key bracelet and lock up your things.
Step 6: Grab your mini towels, go to one of the many showers and wash off.
Step 7: Take your pick of hot tubs, cold tubs, wet saunas, dry saunas.
Step 8: Stay as long as you want, get comfortable in your nakedness and relax.

The first time I went to the jjimjilbang, I made it all the way to Step 6, but realized I needed to go to the restroom, so I left my two girlfriends and went out to the toilet. When I got back, I rinsed off and joined them in a tub filled with green tea. (Pretty awesome!)

As I entered the tea water — one leg in and one leg out — I was met with big eyes and big smiles, not from my friends, but from two of my third-grade students.

“Angela teacher,” they announced with wonder and delight.

I glanced at my friends, paused a moment, then quickly submerged myself as I forced a smile. “Hi girls!”

Seriously. My first trip to the jjimjilbang and this is what happens? In the first five minutes? All sorts of thoughts rushed through my head:

“Oh my God! My students are seeing me naked!”

“What do I do now?”

“This would never happen in America.”

I slid through the all-too-clear water to sit with my friends. My students lingered nearby, looking at us like dolls they wanted to touch but wouldn’t. After awhile, they wandered off, then came back to our tub. When we moved to the cold tub, they got in the cold tub. When we went to the sauna, they stood outside the door for a moment but didn’t come in. When we left the sauna and went to one of the tubs, they appeared moments later. Finally, I decided to ask, “How are you?” They both replied, “Great,” then wandered off again.

My friends reminded me that this was completely normal in Korean culture, but when I later told one of my Korean co-teachers about the experience, she said, “I would not like that.”

Yeah, it was definitely awkward. So was walking into English class the following day. But it didn’t prevent me from trying again.

In the two years I lived in Korea, I went to the jjimjilbang several times. I even convinced my mom to stay overnight in one when she came to visit (don’t worry, we didn’t have to sleep naked). Yet, despite my attempts, I was never able to fully relax and feel truly comfortable in my nakedness. Maybe it’s a result of that first experience and the unexpected boundaries that were crossed. Or maybe I’m just a little too modest. Either way, I’m thankful I stretched myself and took part in such a big part of Korean culture, no matter how awkward the experience was.

What stories of extreme awkwardness do you have to share?


12 thoughts on “Awkward Tales from the Korean Bath House

  1. Haha! That would DEFINITELY have made me feel awkward, too. =) Your own students seeing your “stuff”? Yeah, that would be a strange feeling.

    My extreme awkward and embarrassing moment: Speaking publicly in front of a room of about 80-100 for a business event… my GOAL was to say, “It’s so wonderful to see so many families have success together”; what came OUT of my mouth, however, was “it’s so fun to see so many families having sex together”. OMG. While my comment created quite a roar of laughter – thankfully – it was really difficult to regain composure for the additional 45 minutes I had to speak…and, I felt as naked as you were at your bath house. Even 7 years later, I still have people today who love to bring up “Remember that time you ____?”. Ugh.

  2. Congratulations on stepping (rather, wading) outside your comfort zone! The students probably didn’t share the feeling of awkwardness since they lingered for a while. I’d feel quite intimidated by the bath house experience but it looks so nice, I’d have to try it at least once. Albeit, I’d be like The Flash travelling between one tub to another 😀

  3. In Finland it’s common to go to sauna together and be naked in front of other people but when I was in Holland and a friend of mine got a gift certificate to a local sauna…It was mixed!!! I died then sniggered like a teenage girl, died some more and tried to keep myself covered. It didn’t succeed as the shower was shared too. Awful. Just awful. Naturally, me and my friend got cornered in the steam room by two greasy dutchmen. Horrible experience although now I can laugh about it.

    • Thank you! And I understand the feeling about bathing suits. It’s so hard to find a good one! You know what’s funny … Koreans go naked in the bath houses, but at the beach, they go swimming fully clothed.

  4. Hahaha. This made me LOL literally…Although I did not have any awkward moments quite like yours, the first time my friends and I ventured out into one we could not stop laughing. I mean bent over laughing. One of those moments where you know you are not supposed to laugh so it makes it even funnier. You can imagine the stares we recieved. How is that for maturity?

  5. hahahaha I totally remember this! you played it off so well!!!
    were you there when i was singing the ABC song with my kids naked in the jimjilbang?! It happened near the end of our year. crazy how its totally normal there.

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