By Nam Sang-so
Dear Pablo, after you were free from diapers, I used to take you to a public bathhouse in Seoul. I do not think you would remember that.
Public bathhouses are abundant here. I enjoy visiting them. For a mere 4,000 won (less than $4), people can enjoy unlimited time in hot spas, saunas and hot or cold showers with free soap and ``Italy towels.” Someone gave them the snappy honorific. They are made of sieve-like knitted nylon, woven pink or blue for the purpose of removing the grime by scrubbing your skin.
A large sign in the steam filled bathroom says; 5,000 won for a back scrub, 10,000 won for a whole body soaping, 20,000 won for a back massage, 40,000 won for a whole body massage. I’ve once tried a back scrub and the attendant almost peeled my skin off.
This spa I frequent is quite comfortable when you visit during business hours as it belongs to one of the clubhouses of a military branch. On Sunday afternoons the hot tub looks like a washing pan for a bunch of potatoes. No one wears anything, no military insignias, not even dog-tags. Retired soldiers are allowed. But the clients are mostly active servicemen with well-developed muscles.
A two-year-old baby girl was happily playing with a small bucket of water. Her father (not mother) was busy washing himself sitting on a low-plastic stool. I’m in the men’s bathing area with a dozen other servicemen. Everyone accepts the scene inherently. It is not the first time for me to encounter this, if I may quote your words, peculiar and startling and unique culture of Korea, but today it was different.
The baby girl looked up and smiled at me. She probably thought I was a friend as my head looks like a newborn baby’s. Then she toddled over to me and whispered, ``I’m cold,” in such a cute, helpless way, pointing her small foreign body at the tub. She meant she wanted to go into the hot water. The bath is four feet deep at 41 degrees Celsius. I scooped her up and slowly put her feet first in the water and said, ``I think it is too hot for you,” unconsciously in English. I went back 17 years and thought I was holding you. Everyone’s eyes and ears in the tub turned to me and the baby.
Her young father walked over to the edge of the tub, stood straight on the tiled floor and made a military hand salute at me in the tub holding his baby girl. ``Thank you, sir,” he said. The young soldier looked well disciplined. He might have thought that I was a retired army general. I tried to hand her over to her father. The baby tightened her grip on my neck. She did not want to go back to her daddy. ``So, you scrubbed her with Italian towel,” I said in a scolding tone. He smiled wryly. People here do not shrug, you know.
Grace Kelly and William Holden, with their two daughters, had an opportunity to experience mixed male and female bathing at a Tokyo spa in ``The Bridge of Tokori” ― a Korean War film, Holden being a Navy fighter pilot and Grace Kelly as his wife. Koreans and the Japanese in my opinion have far more cleaner or unstained thought about the opposed sex than some Westerners’ ``dirty minds.” Moms could not have scrubbed your back at a bathhouse in New York once you were five years old. It is against the statutes called domestic violence in America.
Someday, maybe, I would be honored to take my great-grandson to Seoul’s bathhouse, but if it were my great-granddaughter, no fear, it would certainly be your grandmother’s privilege.
The writer is a retired architect-specifications writer, who lives in Seoul and New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.