A Scrub at the Jjimjilbang, Or: How I Got to Third Base With an Ajeoshi
Say what you will about regulating a cottage industry like massage therapy, but in this case, regulation has definite benefits: by standardizing the certification process, the customer has something to lean on as he is stripping down to underwear or less. I’m naked with a stranger, but this is a professional environment. Nothing weird is going to happen. Massage therapists employ a long list of comfort-bolstering rituals—all geared at preventing that molesty vibe—but the sine quibus non of the professional massage are as follows: anything not currently being massaged stays happily hidden beneath a drape or towel; going much below the waist requires permission; and genitalia, inner thighs and butt cracks are all OFF LIMITS.
These industry standards, more than all the aromatherapy and bing-bong music in the world, are what make a professional, Western-style massage feel how it feels. Thanks to the strange miracle that occurs when capital-R Rules meet sweet, willful avoidance, something dangerously transgressive and sexually charged—naked touching with a total stranger—is brought back into the realm of the normal. What am I doing today? Oh, I’m just gonna go get naked and let some dude rub on me for an hour. No biggie. Every massage therapist in the world has been asked 8.2 gajillion times about the whole “happy ending” thing, not because we’re all perverts looking for a raunchy story, but because only 6000 years of culture’s civilizing influence could transform something so intimate and straightforward into a polite, ritualized, rule-bound exchange.
Recently, Korea gave me cause to think more deeply about all this by (gasp!) exploding my expectations of personal space and professional boundaries. I’ll elaborate.
Just before returning to California in June, I decided to treat myself to what ended up being a horizon-broadening experience: a visit to a Korean sauna, or jjimjilbang. The jjimjilbang I visited was essentially a mega-spa, containing everything from massage tables and a scrubbing area (more on that later) to a snack bar and a videogame arcade. As with everything, I am thankful for the guidance of those who have come before me because, if not for their gentle warnings, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the prolonged nudity and spectacle apparently consistent to all Korean saunas. Although there are areas of the jjimjilbang that require clothing, anywhere hot and spa-like is a strictly “No clothing, no towel” affair. (Sidenote: I was warned—and can now confirm—that Westerners get stared at. Not in a creepy way. People are just… curious.)
Upon arriving at the jjimjjillbang, I selected a spa package (Gold: a Korean-style “scrub” and a one-hour massage because, as a professor’s wife, I need maximum pampering). My extras selected, I stripped down, showered off and was set free to wander, naked, hot tub to hot tub until it was my turn at the scrub station. I had heard many very good things about this whole scrubbing thing, so I watched the clock anxiously until it was my turn.
Unlike with most US massages, in this bodywork tradition, there is no drapery to save the bashful, so when my number was called, I just laid down on a water-proof massage table in the middle of a communal scrubbing room with all my bits and pieces flopping in the wind. As soon as I hit that table, things got rolling. No incense, no soothing music; this was business. The scrubber—in my case a rather taciturn ajeoshi—grabbed a pair of raspy hand sheaths and started to brush from crown of head to soles of feet in short but continuous strokes. It doesn’t take much to realize that there are “personal” areas somewhere along that route, but personal areas be damned, there’s a job that needs doing! Blessedly, the scrubbing pads were not applied directly to my sex organ, but it was close enough that some amount of grazing did take place. Let me stress that point: “stuff” got grazed. Unless the bathing suit in question is a thong, it seems that the “bathing suit area” boundary is not really a legible measurement in jjimjilbang culture. Having survived the thoroughly exhilarating experience of being grazed at the root, I flipped over and received a commensurate treatment on my backside. Refreshed doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The scrubbing is nothing if not effective, so at this point I was covered in a truly repulsive quantity of pilled up, grayish dead skin. After the scrubbing, the suds. I am an initiated member of Santa Cruz counterculture and I have a comfortable grasp of the philosophical underpinnings that make something like the First Rain Naked Run possible, but I wasn’t prepared for the suds. As with the scrubbing gloves, a pair of soapy washcloths followed that same path from head to toe, except with greater meticulousness and no fear of “grazing.” What I’m trying to say is… y’all, he soaped my penis and testicles, and although he was quick, he was thorough. Very thorough. Same on the flip-side. Yes—what you think I’m saying, I am saying.
Some of you may be wondering if this older Korean dude was just a creeper, but nothing about the experience actually felt like I was being messed with. During the experience, three images flashed, on repeat, through my head: a race horse being groomed; a car going through a car wash; and a whale being cleaned by a school of fish. There was nothing sexual about it. It was interesting really. We’re taught that there are two environments in which another person can touch what we consider our private areas: during consensual sex and a doctor’s visit. The former is personal and sensual, the later impersonal and diagnostic. My experience at the jjimjilbang exposed me to a third configuration: sensual—but non-sexual—impersonal touching. Because, if I ignore how shocking it was to have an old Korean guy suds up mah ballz, the whole experience—from scrubbing to suds—it wasn’t a terrible sensation. Not that I got aroused or anything, but from a purely sensory perspective, if I could ignore the “point to the place on the doll where the bad man touched you” part of my brain, the experience, taken in total, was really very nice. In a non-sexual way! I swear! Even ignoring the silky softness of my freshly exfoliated EVERYTHING, trying to redefine such a powerful cultural boundary—What is private and to whom does that privacy apply?—was, itself, interesting enough a project to be worth the price of admission.
And hell, now I can say that I’ve gotten to third base with an ajeoshi!