A sisterhood scrub in the jjimjilbang


A sisterhood scrub in the jjimjilbang

ADÉLE CHANGUION longs for home on Christmas Eve in Seoul, but her loneliness is scrubbed away in the bathhouse.


IT is Christmas Eve 2011 in South Korea. Although Christmas is celebrated here, for most people it's a day to recover from the previous night's revelries. My colleagues and I have enjoyed dinner in Seoul and afterwards they want to go to clubs. I'm freezing and longing for a family holiday in South Africa. When the longing for your country becomes too strong, you have to do something exciting or challenging, something that reminds you why you moved 13,000 km away. On the subway, I greet each colleague with a nod and continue walking into the heart of Seoul. Tonight, I'm going to a jjimjilbang.

The jjimjilbang, or bathhouse, is a place for beauty rituals and the maintenance of health, a place where young and old can relax and find refuge from chilly winters and humid summers. Jjimjilbangs in affluent areas have a restaurant, a relaxation lounge with video games and a movie theatre, a gymnasium, and various rooms that offer health benefits, such as steam rooms and clay rooms. There's even a section where you can stay overnight. Men and women don't bathe together, but they can meet on a different storey wearing slippers and short-sleeved clothes (provided). And all of this for a modest fee of R100 to R300.

For a moment I'm unsure, aware that I'm entering this gathering of women as an outsider. I step into the changing room with false confidence, determined to experience this tradition. A group of women sit in their underwear in front of a giant Samsung screen. Each one holds a can of beer and a boiled egg. On the TV, the Korean version of The Bold and the Beautiful plays, and the ladies coo when a young doctor appears on the screen. In front of the long mirror, more women flock together: some carefully paint their lips, others struggle to pull pantyhose over narrow hips. Impractical skirts and high heels will make them slip and slide — the roads are covered in ice and snow.

Layer by layer, I stand in front of a locker and slowly reveal my body to the world; my Afrikaans prudishness rears its head for a moment, but I gather my clothes in the locker and walk naked to the washing area. You have to wash thoroughly before entering the baths. The scent of water triggers memories of warm December vacations in Limpopo — cousins and nephews jumping into the pool with a splash.

I pull a stool closer and sit down, filling a plastic basin with warm water and rinsing away the last remnants of cold with a handheld shower. An elderly woman sits next to me, her chin resting on her fist, her eyes closed in contentment while a younger woman (probably her daughter) gently massages her scalp with soapy fingers. The younger woman fills a basin with water and supports the older woman's neck with her hand; the soapy water slowly flows from her forehead to the ends of her greying hair.


I wrap my wet hair in a small towel and look out over the hall filled with women. It's quite a journey to the hot baths. My courage wavers but a group of elderly women kindly make space in their circle. I nod my head gratefully, greet them softly in Korean and lower my body into the warm water. The women look at me curiously yet kindly. They may not be my own tribe, but my womanhood is enough to temporarily take shelter with them.

With my body submerged, I look around. I am surrounded by a collection of bodies: wrinkled breasts resting tired and empty on round bellies, hunched backs and grey hair concealing parts of the body here and there, knobby knees and sagging buttocks. A pregnant woman supports the bottom of her back with her palms, a perfectly round stomach curving beneath her breasts. Women softly converse with each other here and there, overheated bodies rest on the edge of the bath, others walk and stretch in the water.


I close my eyes, lean my head against the edge of the bath and think of my loved ones who will enjoy chocolate cake and tea after church tomorrow and later gather around a large table laden with favourite dishes. “Where are you from?" someone says, interrupting my self-pitying session. I'm startled, instinctively crossing my arms over my chest. “America?" asks a grey-haired woman. There's no chance to answer because another woman swims closer. “England?" she guesses.

I slowly lower my arms into the water; my shame has no meaning or place here. I bow my head and greet formally in Korean as my colleagues have taught me. The older the person, the deeper the bow should be (I hope the rules are flexible when you're half-submerged in water).

The rest of the group swims closer, eager to converse with a receptive Westerner — a privilege reserved only for their children and grandchildren. Most of the working class's days (and sometimes nights) are rearranged to finance the best and most expensive English lessons. I patiently listen to each guess fired in broken English: Ireland? Australia? Russia? Germany? France? Switzerland? New Zealand? When I finally get a chance to reveal my nationality, the group is taken aback. “But you're white?" the oldest of the group asks, and the others nod their heads. A white child from Africa surpasses their understanding. “Very, very white," says another. In Korea, a porcelain-white complexion is sought after, so I take no offence. Women spend millions of won on body and face creams filled with bleaching agents and sunscreen. I think of my dark-skinned brother who turns almost black after a few days at the beach and wonder what the aunties would say about him.

I introduce myself in broken Korean, a half-page text that I learned precisely for this moment. The women applaud my attempt.

“Africa is so far," someone says empathetically. I want to tell them that tonight Africa feels as far away as Mars, but I simply nod my head. One of the women calls out to an auntie who is mopping the floor, and the group suddenly looks at me with great anticipation. The mop-wielding auntie beckons me closer. I stand up from the bath, wishing the ground would swallow me. The urge to fold my hands over my buttocks is strong. She leads me to a reclining chair and presses me flat on my back, then grabs a washcloth that feels like sandpaper and begins scrubbing vigorously: first from calf to fanny and then further up to my stomach, neck, shoulders and back. The torture session continues until the auntie nods her head in satisfaction. Every corner of my body has been scrubbed. When she shows me the cloth full of dead skin, I'm horrified.

It feels as if someone has beaten me with a belt. She pushes me towards the shower and hands me a bottle of lotion. After carefully drying myself and applying generous amounts of lotion, I walk back to the baths. This time, the path feels a bit shorter. If someone wants to comment on my body, I won't understand it anyway. Ignorance is indeed bliss. The women lie like stretched-out cats on the edge of the bath and nod their heads approvingly as I formally thank and bid them farewell in Korean.

On December 26, we're back in the office. My Korean colleagues listen attentively to the feedback about my first jjimjilbang experience. I roll up my sleeve so they can feel my smooth skin. Apparently, such a scrub session costs almost R600. For a moment, I feel guilty and wonder aloud if I cheated the place. One colleague laughs and shakes her head.

“I think that was a Christmas present, Adéle."

♦ VWB ♦

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