APA Blog Contest Series: “The Grain in the Dossot Pot” by Arin Esther Kim

To go to a mokyoktang, all you need to bring is the fee and your body. With a bored cashier, you exchange the few rumpled bills for a locker key, then walk through an opaque curtain. You lock your shoes outside and enter barefoot—that was the easy part. Next, you begin to peel away every article of clothing from your body, even the underwear that is so adamant in bidding your buttocks farewell. You keep thinking, you need something, something to clutch onto, or wrap around your body. Your antsy fingers gnarl or flicker uneasily at your side. But the only thing you have on you are your hands, which are too small to cover up the expanse of your body. You involuntarily hunch over, and even your bare toes curl inward as you take wobbly steps along the slippery tiles. With your peripheral vision, you see the other women, and are astonished at their poise, chest outward as their breasts bounce in plain sight. The assortment of female bodies fascinates you: a naked batch of females varying from scrawny six year olds to grandmas lugging around the mammaries that have nursed four or five babies in their day. But alas, you keep your head down because you know making the slightest eye contact will have you running back for your brassiere and panties.

This is the Westerner’s first encounter with the Korean public bath—and was mine when I returned to my homeland at age thirteen after living in Pennsylvania for seven years. While the average American is at once abashed and aghast at the idea of a public bathhouse (or as my Bostonian roommate exclaimed, “They still exist??”), nearly one in every five Korean city blocks has one. Called mokyoktang, public baths cater to Koreans across socioeconomic backgrounds, with a meager entrance fee of typically 4000 won for women and 2500 won for men.[1] (In the age of anti-gender discrimination, these fees differ because statistics, and common knowledge, dictate that women use about three times as much water as men.)

Although all mokyoktangs have similar facilities, people come to frequent a particular one. The one my mother and I patronize is underground, with only a door jutting out into the crowded city streets to proclaim its presence. Once we have gotten past removing our clothing, we enter through two steamy glass doors to the wash area. The individual wash stations are each equipped with a plastic stool, mirror, and movable shower head to soap and rinse before the actual bathing process begins. Depending on the size of the bath house, the number and variety of tubs, or “tang,” will differ. Generally there are at least three temperatures: cold, warm, and very hot (not for sissies). But the variety doesn’t yield there. Demonstrating the Korean obsession with health, each tang offers different medicinal benefits. My favorite is the green tea and clay tangs but also popular are salt, ginseng, and pine tree, which are said to cure anything from rheumatism to irregular menstruation, according to our ancestors’ millennia of investigation. There are also forceful waterfalls and bubble jets that massage the body with water. Only the older women, those old enough to have gone through childbirth and sufficient distresses of life, expel gentle sighs of “how refreshing”; the young girls never understand it because the powerful jets of water hurt their still-delicate skins.

Even after the initial shower and ten to thirty minutes of tang, the fun is not over until the grand finale—exfoliating “dde.” To exfoliate every inch of the body is utterly alien to the Westerner. However, “pushing dde,” as it is called, is a weekly to monthly bathing ritual along with our regular daily showers. We take a green, rough square glove and moisten it lightly. We tap it onto a special dde-pushing soap and begin to scrub the body. After being primed in the hot tangs, our bodies (American or Korean) peel away tiny greenish-gray rolls of dead skin and grime. Even though this procedure sounds dirty, even the cleanest individual is secretly covered in dde. Mokyoktang workers have a business charging bathers to have their dde pushed. But more often, when we come with a relative or friend, we push each other’s backs, an exchange that has always held great symbolic meaning for Koreans. The expression “I have even pushed your dde for you” is synonymous with “We have an intimate relationship.”

Separated by gender, mokyoktangs reinforce single-sex friendships much like Western traditions of guys or girls night out. Because we bath regardless of how busy we are, public baths create the perfect excuse for a group of old friends to get together, push each other’s dde, and chat about the old and the new. But the bath is not only a place for long-time cronies. Business meetings take place there too. Taking a business deal to the public baths can give that extra sense of camaraderie we need to seal the deal. When the Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Hong and Chinese minister Jiaxuan wanted to tighten ties between the two countries, they scouted out a public bath for their diplomatic needs. The location choice, beyond a conference room or even a coffee shop, signaled friendship between the two ministers and the two countries as well. Public baths, however, symbolize more than friendship. In a culture that is much more obsessed with rank and status, public baths are the great equalizer. When the designer shirts and yacht-club pins come off, we are all stripped to as we were at birth—empty. Public baths nurture camaraderie by washing away barriers of rank.

Now imagine President Obama and Secretary of Treasury Geithner baring their buttocks and exfoliating each other’s backs as they discuss the Economic Crisis. Even the mere suggestion would have Americans jumping up and down indignantly. Needless to say, the East and West have their differences, but some are more clearly illuminated through these public baths. First, public baths demonstrate a different sense of prudishness. On the whole, Korean culture is much more sexually conservative. Although Korean music videos and movies alike are shifting towards a more sexually liberating mind frame, such liberalism still draws extensive criticism. And while Americans don’t bat an eye at bikinis or condoms, the idea of public baths is shocking. Nearly all squirm uncomfortably on imagining dozens of naked strangers, much less getting in the same tub with them. This shows a distinction in prudishness between East and West. While Koreans seem to demonstrate much greater conservatism, this is only true when the opposite sex is around; in a single-sex setting, Koreans are actually much more confident with their bodies.

Furthermore, Koreans enjoy group activities, whereas Westerners value individualistic lifestyles. For instance, an American is taught not to judge others, and the notion of “every man for himself” is prevalent. In contrast, Koreans are quick to judge when anyone steps out of conformity. Lacking America’s diversity, we are virtually 100% of the same ethnic make-up and culture. An anomaly stands out in the sea of a black-headed crowd like a single grain of white rice in a dossot pot.[2] Even highly private, individualistic activities like bathing are more thoroughly enjoyed as a group. In this sense, mokyoktangs cannot be translated to simply “public baths”; we see them also as fortresses, a place where we can strip off our identities and confirm that we belong to a larger group. And in such a society, to stand out is to betray.

Since I was six years old, I have kept one foot each in two different boats, Korean and American. But sometimes, the two drift apart so radically that I fall out of both, lost on where I stand. Mokyoktangs in themselves are characteristic of Korea: attention shifts from the individual to the group. They offer countless benefits: hygiene, medicine, relaxation, and rejuvenation are a few. The most important, however, is the sisterhood (or brotherhood) that the baths create, nurture, and preserve through centuries. This preservation is so central to Koreans that they will sacrifice individual distinctions to retain the conformity, and thus unity, of the group. For example, in such a society, homosexual intolerance is the consensus. Although recently there have been several major movies dealing with homosexual themes, the issue is still taboo, and coming out in Korea is a sure way to become a permanent outcast. Many Americans believe that sexual orientation is a personal freedom; however, in Korea, the group matters more. Homosexuality threatens to destroy the centuries of traditional public bath culture because Koreans don’t want an outsider within their fortress. It is a betrayal against the own sex, a cut that tears at the strongest seams of sisterhood (or brotherhood). To preserve the group-centered feature of Koreans, individuals deviating from the norm in any way—sexual orientation, ethnicity, weight, appearance, manners, mental and physical ability, an infinite list—are shunned from society.

There is something surreal about climbing the stairs out of the bathhouse back to the city. Is it the lingering aroma of the tangs or the lightness of having pushed dde? These certainly alter my perception, but there is also something that jars: the other women on leaving the bathhouse. I see a polished career woman getting into her Benz, brushing by an overweight woman who is harassing her tattered coin purse for the bus fare while screaming into her phone in a Southern accent.  As if the exalted fortress they have just left was a mirage, a puddle of false hope. As if to show identities cannot be dissolved away by even the hottest tangs. As if to prove that no matter how hard they try to pick out every grain of white rice in the dossot pot, all they are really doing is pretending the grains don’t exist.

Endnotes:

  1. “The Naked Truth.” <http://www.seoulstyle.com/art_naked.htm> (visited 3/20/2009) KEYWORDS: “cure anything from rheumatism…”
  1. “Hong, Tang Enganged in Spa Diplomacy.” Korea Times, December 12th, 1999. KEYWORDS: “When the Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Hong…”

[1] Roughly $4 and $2.50 USD

[2] Black, stone pot used to keep foods warm

One thought on “APA Blog Contest Series: “The Grain in the Dossot Pot” by Arin Esther Kim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>