The Korean Bath House
A few years ago, the chorus I sang in was asked to sing in Korea, in a competition held during the APEC Summit. President Bush was going to attend the meetings, and the organizers were hoping to get an American chorus to participate in honor of him attending.
Well, anyway....long story short, we were selected. The trip lasted 10 days, and is a million posts by itself. But, there was one story, in particular, I'd love to share.
Elaine (the member of our chorus that was organizing the trip), used to be the USO liaison in Korea. She lived there for a number of years before moving back to the states. She suggested we spend one night experiencing a local Korean bath house.
After spending a week with 20 women (and assorted husbands) touring around Korea, singing on military bases, teaching music classes, and competing in the choral competition.....let me say, the idea of massages and such sounded wonderful!!! There were quite a few of us who signed up.
The bus that had been driving us around was only available during the day, so we had to be taken to the bath house in small groups...via mini vans. We were one of the first vans to leave the hotel. None of us spoke a lick of Korean, except for the occasional hello and thank you (and "no thank you, I don't want to buy your products").
The small Korean lady who was driving our vehicle drove us around and through the city. We had no idea where we were. After driving through some of the creepiest looking alleyways, she finally stopped the van and got out. We all sat there for a minute, then decided she must have wanted us to follow her.
She led us through a door in the building she was standing behind, and into a small lobby (lobby = small 5 x 5 foot area, with nothing in it, but an elevator door). She pushed the elevator button, and ushered us in. Just as the door was closing, she rushed out of the elevator, into the lobby. As the door was closing it's final 2 or 3 inches, she waved...and ran away.
All of us stood in the elevator, not wanting to say what we were thinking. Finally someone spoke....... "Where we just sold into some sort of prostitution ring?" I rummaged through my pockets, and found I had nothing that could be used as a weapon if needed.
The elevator 'dinged' and we all took a deep breath. The doors opened to a small reception desk, with two ladies. They were looking at us with huge, uncertain eyes. We stepped up to the counter, and tried to tell them why we were there. They spoke zero English, and we spoke zero Korean. Eventually both parties were speaking louder than they needed to. Somehow, speaking louder makes it easier to understand a language you don't know?????
Who knows how long this would have continued if Elaine hadn't finally stepped off that same elevator with the next van load of girls. She explained everything to the flustered women behind the counter.
The whole group was led into a small locker room, and were each handed a set of clothing. Shorts and a shirt....pajama style. We were to wear them, and nothing else....and change right there. The door to the room was still open to the lobby, and we all just stood there. Finally, one of ladies signed and closed to the door for us. Silly shy American girls!!
(if only we knew how un-shy we were going to be by the end of the night)
After we were changed, we were taken into the first of many rooms. This was stage one. I call it "The Oven."
Technically, it was a dry sauna. A very, very, very hot sauna. There were no chairs and no benches...so everyone had to sit on the floor. Each of us had our own wooden pillow to place our heads on while we laid on the floor.
After 45 minutes of baking time, two women came into the room. They literally walked from person to person, pinching everyone's knees.
Some people must have been more "done" than others....because they asked some of our group to leave with them.
15 minutes later, we decided it was our time to leave as well. We walked through the door and found the main dressing room. As we walked into the room, a group of three local women walked in from the lobby. They proceeded to strip naked right in front of us, then walk over to these.....well.........stalls.
Within each stall was an outhouse looking seat. Basically a bench with a toilet seat on it. They all sat down on the toilet seats (naked) and zipped themselves in. Yes, I said zipped. There was a "cover" that went around the whole stall, and zipped up to their neck. All you could see where their heads. Under the bench seats, were.....well......containers of steaming fluids. Once they were zipped into the stalls.....whatever was under the benches, steamed up through the toilet seat holes onto (into?) them.
I've seen some strange things in my life....but that took the cake. These ladies were giggling like school girls. And I never did figure out what treatment they were receiving. I thought it better to not ask. I probably didn't want to know.
Just as they got themselves zipped in, our bath house ladies walked in from another door. They were less than happy we'd taken ourselves out of the 'oven' without their permission, and shoo'd us back in, with obvious frustration.
As we returned to the oven, I couldn't help but wonder what was behind the door those bath house ladies had just come through. The noises coming from the room were less than reassuring.
I looked around at those of us still left in the oven, and wondered what happened to the ones that had been taken out. Were they in the room behind that door? What had I gotten myself into??
(to be continued)