[Viewpoint] At the sauna, privacy in publicWhen I first came to Korea just out of university in 2002, it was a magical time. Everything was interesting. “They eat dog here!” (Gasp!) “Korea is still technically at war with the North!” (Exciting!) “Kimbap is only 1,000 won!” (Assah!) “There’s an ‘F’ instead of a “4” in the elevator!” (Charming!) “Koreans go to a public sauna - and everyone gets completely naked!” (Silence...)
“Michelle? Did you hear me?” my friend said. “We’re going to the sauna. Do you want to come?”
My friend waited for my reply.
Now, I had just moved here from a small town of 7,000 people in New Hampshire, a state in the northeastern part of the U.S. In this region, we pride ourselves on being modest and conservative. Even when we’re not, we need to at least project that image - one of normalcy, success and decency - to strangers and acquaintances, even to friends and neighbors.
And in my town, we’re all friends and neighbors. We all go to church, brag about our kids’ grades, compliment Mr. Jones on his lawn, help Mrs. Mills carry her groceries and then go home - where we can finally be dysfunctional in perfect privacy.
We would never admit that we fed our family cereal for dinner three nights in a row last week. Nobody has an unhappy marriage. Nobody’s dad had to take a second job. And nobody gets naked - especially not in front of the neighbors. I had never in my adult life seen any of my friends or family members wearing anything less than a swimsuit. You are only ever naked in private.
So, in responding to my friend, I said: “What?! No! Of course I do not want to go to the public sauna!”
I was in shock. People didn’t really go to those saunas, did they? It was only in the guidebooks! It wasn’t the norm. But my seemingly normal American friend was going to the sauna - with another girl! They were going to see each other naked! They wanted me to go with them!
The thought of it made me laugh out loud. “You’re kidding! Oh my God. You guys! I thought you were serious!” I giggled at my gullibility. Friends seeing each other naked. (Ridiculous!) But no, they were not kidding. “It’s fun!” my foolish friend said. “It’s so relaxing!” the heathen encouraged.
So off they went, while I stayed and had another kimbap. (Bargain!) But the thought intrigued me. I decided to look at my guidebook again. “Hmmm, it seems quite normal to go to the sauna here!”
I made up my mind to attempt the impossible. At 2 a.m., I went to the sauna. Alone. “Dear God, please don’t let me run into anyone I know.” My whole body was blushing when I stepped up to pay the lady the entrance fee. “This lady must think I’m a pervert.” But she just handed me some towels and a key without a second glance. “She must see a lot of perverts,” I thought.
As I undressed, I was sure I could feel the eyes of all the other naked women on me, but when I’d glance up, no one seemed to notice me. I held the “towel” up in front of me as I walked into the shower room. This is not a towel! It’s no bigger than a facecloth! I quickly showered so I could get into a tub and out of sight.
Once submerged, I felt I could finally observe the scandalous scene. Kids?! They let kids into this place?! Moms were washing their children. Friends were scrubbing each other’s backs. Everyone was acting like this was completely normal! No one seemed to care that there was a flabbergasted foreigner in their midst.
After a while, I relaxed, but the heat from the water forced me to get out of the tub. Oh no. A short distance feels much further when you have to walk it naked, and my locker was at least a mile away.
Safe at home, I expected to feel ashamed, but instead I felt refreshed and exhilarated. People saw me naked, and I survived! I couldn’t believe the feeling of privacy that I’d had in such a vulnerable and public place. Privacy in public. It seems like a contradiction, but it is the reality at the public sauna in Korea. Freedom! I had actually really liked it. I couldn’t believe it.
I told my mom, who was stunned. “You did what?!” She actually sounded scared.
“Don’t worry mom! It was clean, the water was warm, my skin felt so soft afterwards, and no one was weird. They just minded their own business!”
We both felt sad. My mom, thinking that I’d misplaced my morals. Me, seeing my mom struggling to stay locked in her prison of privacy.
Now, I love the sauna. My mom still fidgets and tries to change the subject when I talk about it. But as long as the neighbors back home don’t find out, she might even be willing to give it a try someday. Right, Mom?!
*The writer is a foreign client relationship manager at Shinhan Bank.
By Michelle Farnsworth
More in Columns
A new epicenter of social conflict
Lessons from a president
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action