By Sarah Katin
“It’s not that I don’t like being naked,” I had explained. “And I’m a big fan of bathing. Personal hygiene is one of my all-time favorite hygienes. It’s just that spending the afternoon showering with my eight-year-old student and her mother makes me a bit uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.”
“Of course. I understand completely,” said Ji Young, my Korean co-teacher, nodding earnestly.
A few days later, Mrs. Kim is standing at my door holding a gift bag bursting with fluffy tissue paper.
“Thank you,” I say, taking the bag. “Should I open this now?”
“Yes, yes,” she says with a bright smile.
I rustle through the papery cocoon and retrieve a bottle of jasmine shampoo and a pink pouf. I’m confused.
“It for shower,” Mrs. Kim explains. “You need today.”
Panic ripples through me. Why would I need jasmine-smelling shampoo and a pink pouf today? I was sure this whole business regarding a trip to the public bath was cleared up when I explained to Ji Young that a more suitable activity might involve visiting a Buddhist temple or taking a nice walk in the woods. Koreans do love their mountains.
“Um, I thought Ji Young talked to you about this…”
I wait for her to say more, but she only continues to grin. Maybe she means I’ll need to take a hot shower tonight after my long day of hiking and mingling with mountain monks.
“Ji Young say you ashamed body. But okay. In Korea no problem.”
First of all, I never said I was ashamed of my body. I silently curse Ji Young and her habit of misusing dictionary words — I’ve told her countless times you can’t always translate directly. Secondly, it is a problem. In my country taking baths with elementary school students generally results in prison time. I’d never make it in the slammer. My cellmates would kill me for being a pervert. I’ve heard convicts can be honorable like that.
“We go to sauna. Si Eun wait car. Very happy. Because you come.”
“But…um… the thing is…” My stuttering isn’t helping my case, nor is it diminishing Mrs. Kim’s now Joker-esque grin. With great reluctance but feigned enthusiasm, I pack up my pouf and follow Mrs. Kim to her car.
I’ve been standing at my open locker for ten minutes, and the only thing I’ve taken off are my socks.
“Sarah!” Mrs. Kim calls out, and I see her completely naked body rapidly approaching. She walks without an ounce of insecurity, her steps singing a song of normalcy, as if showering with your daughter’s English teacher is commonplace, like shopping for melons or hailing a cab.
I have to do it. I have to take my clothes off. It’s the fact that I’m still fully clothed that’s making the situation awkward now. I take a deep breath and start stripping with mad ferocity. I pause just briefly when I’m down to my underwear. This is the point of no return: the last barrier between pretending I’m vacationing on a topless beach in Europe and actually being naked. I quickly slip my thumbs under the elastic band, fling them off and stuff them in my locker. I slam the door with a flourish, ostensibly shutting my clothes-wearing life behind me.
I try to wrap myself in the one towel I was given by the stingy locker room attendant, but let’s face it, calling it a towel is like calling a pothole filled with rain the Pacific Ocean. It’s a glorified washcloth.
“Good. You ready. Yogurt. Here,” Mrs. Kim says, handing me a little tub of kiwi-flavored yogurt.
“Oh, will we be using this on our skin?” I ask, bewildered.
“You so funny. Yogurt is snack for hungry!”
Of course: that makes sense. I often get hungry in the shower. I don’t know why I’ve never thought to bring snacks before. Why stop at yogurt? Why not an Italian sub or a nice bundt cake? The steam would keep it moist.
“Sarah tee-cha!” Si Eun squeals as she comes barreling at me naked as a jaybird, happy as a lark. Seemingly oblivious to my nudity, she grabs my hand and pulls me toward the shower room.
“Come now, let’s go!”
I’m shocked. This is the same child who shrieks in horror at the slightest sight of exposed skin when I lift my arm to write near the top of the blackboard. She has even gone so far as to run to the front of the class, tug at the bottom of my shirt, and give me a look as if to say, “Come on, lady, let’s keep it decent.”
“Tee-cha! This way. Baliwa.”
The shower room is hot, steamy, and bubbling over with bodies of all shapes and sizes: fat, thin, tall, small, flat, pert, saggy, smooth, round, tan, creamy. They are everywhere, a sprawling sea of sitting, squatting, walking, talking, lounging, scrubbing, soapy, sudsy bodies – an explosion of flesh. A little girl lies on the wet tile floor with her head lazily resting in the lap of her mother who nonchalantly plays with her hair while chatting to a friend shaving her armpits. Bodies are inching into hot pools, splashing in the cold pools, and brewing in the ones filled with green tea.
I try to stand casually, but don’t know how. My body betrays me with clumsy gestures that are designed to make me appear confident but achieve the exact opposite effect. Usually when I’m naked I’m alone. Or, if another person is involved, we’re horizontal and the lights are dimmed. Luckily, I don’t have to continue with this charade for long. Mrs. Kim is already leading me through the tangle of naked masses toward a tiny plastic shower stool, on which she promptly plunks me down. To my dismay, I’m now looking at myself in all my barren glory in the giant mirror facing me. I must mention that crouching on a miniature stool doesn’t produce the most flattering of angles. I’m still letting the image sink in when I feel someone scrubbing my back, hard.
“Many spots. No good. Spots bye-bye,” Mrs. Kim says gaily.
“Ouch. Um…actually, those are freckles and they don’t come off.”
“We make spots come off,” she responds with a sudden fierce determination.
“Si Eun, help wash tee-cha!”
“Okay. Really, this isn’t necessary. Si Eun doesn’t need to wash my back. That’s just…weird…” I trail off.
But Mrs. Kim isn’t relenting. Finally, I jump up, grab the soap, and begin demonstrating that I’m fully capable of cleaning myself, having done it for twenty-eight years now. Mrs. Kim doesn’t seem pleased but gives up and instead uses her steel glove of death, similar to a cheese grater, to scour Si Eun’s skin raw and red. When her daughter resembles a shriveled red chili pepper, Mrs. Kim is satisfied.
“Tee-cha, we play swimming now!” Si Eun says excitedly.
“Korea have special water,” Mrs. Kim declares proudly as we come to a warm ginseng pool. “All baths water different. Secret for beautiful skin,” I can’t help but notice that Mrs. Kim does have lovely skin. In fact, most Korean women look ten years younger than their age and have a glow to them. This isn’t the first I’ve heard about the “magical” sauna water, and I’m eager to slide into the mineral-rich magic where I can not only hide, but also emerge sleeker, newer, fresher.
Slowly, I begin to feel comforted and even a little liberated by the utter lack of modesty of the women surrounding me. My experience with naked women until now has been limited to my ex-boyfriend’s girlie magazines, and it’s a relief to see women who aren’t airbrushed or surgically sculpted, who are real and fleshy and succumbing to gravity. Strange bodies are everywhere: flat butts, mismatched nipples, jiggly limbs, and way too much hair down south–yet in the myriad variations, I feel a perfect sense of unity, because nobody cares.
I suddenly realize that I like being naked. I like being naked with these women. Instead of quietly slipping into the next pool, instantly submerging myself to my shoulders, I surprise myself and begin frolicking and splashing about with Si Eun, leaping from pool to pool.
“Sarah, shower time!” Mrs. Kim calls out to me. Didn’t we already do that? I think. But who am I to question the system? They’re the ones with the silky youthful skin.
Mrs. Kim eagerly ushers me to another area where we get to stand and wash the old-fashioned way. The showers are crowded, some sharing two to a nozzle. I stand back to allow room and wait my turn.
“Okay. In Korea no problem,” Mrs. Kim says as she gives me a shove forward. I’m sandwiched between two ladies brushing their teeth, talking, and spitting gobs of toothpaste down the drain. They’re enamored with the smell of my jasmine shampoo, so they borrow it. They don’t actually ask, but in their defense, they speak no English and they do give me cursory smiles before taking it. I don’t mind. I smile back, a gesture understood no matter which country your sauna is in.
“Coffee?” Mrs. Kim asks from the nozzle next to mine.
“Sure,” I answer. “Sounds good. Should we get dressed?”
“No, no. Coffee here,” she gestures toward the dry sauna room. “With more mothers!”
I can honestly say that not once in my life did I imagine I would someday conduct a parent-teacher conference in the buff.
Inside the sauna, the mothers squat shamelessly around a punch bowl on the floor filled with iced coffee. One of them ladles a cup and hands it to me expectantly. They are boisterous, eager, and all at once begin asking about their children. Does my daughter study hard? Does my son pay attention? How is her English progressing? Does he behave? Given the circumstances, I find it easiest to simply say, “Oh, yes, very good student,” which makes everyone happy.
As the mothers continue to ply me with questions and iced coffee, I squat beside them, sipping slowly. I am content, unhurried, and the thought of putting my clothes back on now seems constricting. I suppose I’ll have to do it sooner or later, though. It is winter, after all.
Sarah Katin has been a television host in Korea, professor in Japan, treehouse dweller in Laos, house painter in New Orleans, sangria swiller in Spain, dragon hunter in Indonesia, and fishmonger in Australia. These days she can be found in her Southern California office (the cushy chair by the window at–insert cafÃ© du jour) where she writes for film and television. Or in Costa Rica bathing baby sloths. You never can tell about these things. Find out by following @SaresKat on Twitter.Â