Some coworkers go out for lunch or fancy dinners to get to know each other. Others have expensive wines and cheese, while others go to the bar. But us? We strip down naked in a hot steam house full of old Asian women and scrub the weeks of dead skin off of each others backs.
That is not a metaphor—that is entirely literal.
It’s called a 찜질방 jimjilbang and anyone who’s ever watched any part of a Korean drama/tv show knows that it is extremely…awesome.
First we got in the stereotypical orange prisonmate jumpsuits and tried out some of the saunas. There are many, but the most popular one was about 40 degrees C, tile floor and ceiling, everyone just laying out with their heads on wooden blocks, courtesy of this jimjilbang. It’s comfortable hot. And it’s dark so it’s not like being burned by the sun. As I laid on that floor, I could literally feel my muscles relaxing. My myosin and actin were letting go of their tight grip and just letting everything…rest. My joints loosened and my heart even slowed.
While I wouldn’t say I’ve been feeling “stressed” I think, subconciously, my body has been taking a hit. All the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches—a five-sided assault against my poor joints and limbs and muscles and bones. My brain has been able to focus on the task at hand and ignore the physical strains, and it wasn’t until I was laying on that hot floor surrounded by ahjummas and my 3 foreign co-teachers that I felt my shoulders droop and realize they had been shrugged up for weeks.
We then moved to some other rooms that literally looked like giant pizza ovens. I don’t know much korean, but I know the word 불 fire, which was stamped prominently above the dwarf sized door. Inside you could just see neon orange lights and a bright steaming floor.
We skipped the kilns and instead went to a “salt” room which hovered around 80 degrees celsius and the floor was giant chunks of warm salt and you just laid on it and made a little cove for yourself like you do in the sand on the beach. And then we moved next door to “charcoal” room which which was like the first room but twice as hot and the ceiling was maid of burnt logs.
I think the funniest part though was that these oven hot rooms had wipi. So the old people were reading books and everyone else was on the phone–just like the subway.
And then, after about an hour, it was time for the main event.
We went to change clothes, or rather strip down. It’s very strange at first. There’s all these women from ages 20-60 walking around and you’re just like
You’re given three bright orange towels smaller than fig leaves and you try to be modest because it’s weird but then there comes a point, after you’ve sat in a few hot tubs and jumped in a freezing cold tub and back into steaming hot tub where you’re just like, “I’m me, and you’re you, and we’re here. And you know what? yoko.”
And then you’re sitting there scrubbing weeks of dead skin off of each other’s backs with the little vicious hand scrubby thing and chatting and laughing just like you were two hours ago—bundled up in coats in scarves over ddokboki and sundae.
Then you’re showering sharing the weird shampoos and body rinses you bought from a lady outside. I put a pink viscous “strawberry yogurt rinse” in my hair that both and smelled and tasted like the strawberry milk in my fridge.
And you walk out, an hour later, feeling like an entirely new person. In fact—I may actually be a new person with all the skin and stress that is no longer burdening me. Bring on Thursday.