Bamboo wives, Italy towels and other mysteries

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Bamboo wives, Italy towels and other mysteries

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Clockwise, starting left: A pack of two guieegae, or earpicks; a bamboo wife that is slept with at night to cool off in the humidity; a collection of back scratchers, or hyojason; two Italy towels made with coarse fabric for exfoliating skin


What on earth is this for?

While roaming around the streets of Korea, strange-looking gadgets and tools draw our attention. Without knowing their purpose, they might seem bizarre before we actually see the locals use them in their daily lives. Here is a list of a few items that help explain the culture and customs of Korea.





Earpick (Guieegae)

Have you seen these tiny silver spoons? Did you think they were some kind of fancy eco-friendly stir stick? Although they do look like miniature teaspoons, do not ever use it when you add sugar to your coffee!

Gui means an ear in Korean, and a gui-ee-gae is an Korean-style ear cleaner. They come in all shapes and sizes, but usually resemble a small spoon and are made of various materials, such as silver, steel, bamboo or plastic.

Apparently, its original purpose was to clean ears by removing ear wax, but it was also used for decorative purposes. It is uncertain when exactly it was invented, but we can assume that it became widely used during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, as similar tools have been found in ancient tombs across Korea.

They also functioned as hair accessories, and some glitzy ones were decorated with bells and butterfly-shaped ornaments, and even gold, silver and jade in later time periods.

To keep these colorful and valuable accessories-cum-earpicks safe and sound, correspondingly fancy jewelry cabinets and boxes were made to store them as well.

Befitting Korea’s status as a high-tech innovative country, modern gui-ee-gae can be found with attached lights and springs to help you clean your ears in an easy and safe manner.





Bamboo wife (Jukbuin)

In the past, it was common for Korean men to have a second “wife” during the long hot summers. Most husbands would wrap their arms around her, especially during the humid nights.

It was not an actual person, but rather a large cylinder woven from thin bamboo pieces called a “bamboo wife,” or jukbuin.

When the temperature and humidity rise, blankets quickly become damp and suffocating. The last thing you want to do is hold onto another hot sweaty person. That’s why people made this contraption by weaving long strands of bamboo into the shape of a long hollow cylinder with big holes so that air flows through and lets the surface remain cool.

A man could sleep comfortably with his arms and legs wrapped around his bamboo wife, especially on the wooden floors in hanok, the traditional houses in which the science of air circulation and temperature control were extremely important.

It’s a sort of pillow, and who knows how many hundreds of people have slept on the same hotel pillow as you did. It didn’t matter who used which bamboo wife in general. However, it is said that a son never used his father’s jukbuin out of respect.

Recently, jukbuin for infants have become available, and you can find modern jukbuin fans that combine tradition with technology.





Back scratcher (Hyojason)

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But what if there’s no one around to help you out? Reach for a fingers-attached tool to relieve your frustration!

There’s a theory that the first back scratcher dates back to the Tang Dynasty of China when a retainer helped out an itchy emperor by offering as tribute a scratcher he had made of splayed bamboo. A back scratcher is a long, wooden stick with a hand-shaped attachment and outstretched fingers at the end, perfect for those unreachable parts that dutiful children should be taking care of.

Although it has originated in China, the back scratcher didn’t make much of a cultural impact. As it was passed on to Korea, though, the tool got the nickname “hand of a devoted child,” which is “hyoja” in Korean.

Since most households had one, many parents used it for corporal punishment like a belt in the West. This may also explain the origin of the name hyojason, or the filial child’s hand.

In modern days, plastic scratchers are common, but among various materials, bamboo is the best as this natural material is allergy-free, even if you scratch your back so hard until it turns red.

This trusty companion has evolved into a smarter version with comb-like bumps on the top side that function as a massager as well. There’s even an application that shows the X and Y coordinates equivalent to a person’s back so one can explain the exact spot on their back that needs to be scratched by others.





Italy towels

Towels made in Italy? Are these from some luxurious designer’s collection? They don’t seem to look like much and they actually have nothing to do with the country of every girl’s dream handbag.

Technically, the towel does have Italian roots, as the main material used to produce these towels, viscose rayon, was imported from the European country. Italy towels were invented in the late 1960s by a worker at a textile company in Korea.

He made a coarse fabric from this material, which turned out to be great for exfoliating skin. Then it was developed into a towel in the shape of a mitten to make scrubbing easier, so the inventor named them Italy towels.

This vivid green scrubbing mitten is widely used in Korea, and many Asian tourists and Hollywood celebrities visit Korean saunas to get scrub massages using Italy towels in the hopes of having perfectly soft and smooth skin.

Those trying it for the first time might cringe at the burning sensation of having layers of dead skin rubbed off, but it’s addictive once you feel the soft baby skin revealed after every wash.

Now that you know what these odd-looking items are and the story behind them, you may find them quite handy at home, and they are great gifts for your family and friends overseas.

By Michelle Kang[michyk@sba.seoul.kr]
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