Saturday, August 28, 2010

South Korea, Asians, and Bathtubs

I had met Allison and Jeremy on a tour of Egypt and Jordan two years ago. When you share a Turkish bath, a hookah, and forays into the land of Jesus together, I guess you are eternally bonded. So when I discovered they were teaching English in Suwon, I promptly invited myself over.

They lived in a charming little apartment decorated with paper lanterns. I was surprised by how native they had become, since both were white as apple pie. Allison pranced to the sounds of K-pop, catchy songs with one or two words in English. "Oh baby, oh baby," she'd moan before breaking into a barrage of Korean syllables, synchronized to tunes of a synthesizer.

Jeremy took me to eat kimchi and galbi, yelling at the waiter with a ferocity I'd never seen. "Yokyo!" "Don't worry," he'd tell me, noting my embarassment. "They don't come unless you are loud. In Korea, they don't get tips so they make no pretense at being nice. They want to serve you and be done with it."

They taught me to wave down a taxi by fluttering my fingers like a butterfly. Apparently, waving to someone with upright fingers is offensive, equivalent to giving them the finger. Well, I'd already made that mistake at the airport. There I was, carting my mother's suitcases overflowing with just-in-case crackers and cookies, wondering why taxis honked and sped up when I tried to flag them down. We finally took the train.

Then they introduced me to the bathroom. There were clever heating pads on the toilet seat, by which I am deeply impressed. And there was the bathub. Or lack of it. The tile floor extended another three feet from the sink. Breaking the continuity was a drain, sitting like a pothole in the middle of traffic. A shower head dangled from above.

"Oh, didn't you know?" Allison asked me, "Asians don't take baths." Actually, I didn't. Or maybe I did. The only time I recall ever taking a bath was when we couldn't go to the beach and my mother filled the tub as a makeshift swimming pool. I was six. Otherwise, I took showers all my life. Hmm...

It's funny what grabs hold of our imagination. Suddenly, it became clear. We don't take baths in our bathtubs. My mother stocks unopened cosmetics there. My aunt has a lovely Jacuzzi chock full of dusty VHS tapes. My great-aunt's greenhouse resides in her tub, complete with a sunroof.

But it was true beyond my Vietnamese family. My best friend's parents, South Indians in San Diego, store a repository of clothes in their hot tub. I surveyed my Chinese and Filipino friends on their parents' use of bathtubs, layering in the geographic diversity of Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, and Texas.

The response was unanimous: STORAGE. Plants, clothes, toys kids had outgrown, unused but functional electronics, extra linen, knick-knacks, wedding paraphernalia, etc. Apparently, whatever our parents didn't know what to do with, they put in the bathtub. Kind of like the kitchen sink. It's an Asian parent thing.

Okay, I don't admit to knowing what that's all about. Maybe they are practical people who don't understand space without utility. Maybe it's about holding on to culture, this stubborn tradition of not taking baths. Maybe they don't want to waste water. Maybe it's about baggage. Maybe it's about not letting go of certain things.

I wonder if we will ever understand the enigma of our parents.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Me and My Scar Go to the Jingabong

The first stop on this journey was South Korea, galvanized by friends who were teaching English in Suwon (never underestimate the power of a friend to get you out of your comfort zone). Suwon is twenty miles from Seoul and an industrial center where companies like Samsung have their headquarters.

Straight away, I was awed by the grace of Korean women and the chauvinism of Korean men. In airports, ladies nimbly push carts of luggage while men walk behind them empty-handed. In trying to get an oversized suitcase off the baggage conveyor belt, I appealed to a strapping young Korean man beside me. He seemed bewildered, pointed at me, pointed to himself, shrugged and stalked off. So much for chivalry.

Another custom is the love of communal heated baths, affectionately referred to as the Jingabong. Everyone swims stark naked in these 100 degree pools, most often filled with spring water. Reminiscent of old Roman baths, this is a social activity with folks chatting, reading magazines, etc. and yes, they can be co-ed. Being a fan of spas, saunas, whirlpools, and anything that causes me to sweat on a cold day, you'd think I'd be first to hit the Jingabong, right?

Wrong. Remember that ordeal with my body? It culminated in a pretty conspicuous scar. Let's just say the contrast is startling and my belly has not seen the light of day since. So I decided to stay away. And I found out how smokers felt trying to quit. For four days, it was torturous. Then I did the classic American thing: I gave in.

Before I knew it, I donned a cotton robe and rushed down to the Jingabong. Gingerly, I stepped into the water and remembered the humiliation of my eight year old self when someone pointed out that my fly was unzipped. I waited for someone to point out the zipper in my flesh. I imagined those beautiful Korean women, preening themselves like swans, wrinkling their noses at my imperfection. I could almost hear the snickers.

Then I looked up and realized that no one was looking at me. They were carrying on conversations, checking out tabloids, falling asleep in recliners in that blissful state between sleep and relaxation. No one even bat an eyelash when I moved from one side of the pool to another.

I discovered that I was not nearly as important to everyone else as I thought I was. That's the strange thing about insecurity; we expect people to spend far more time thinking about us (and our faults) than they actually do.

My scar? It finally got some fresh air. And I got to sit in a heated thermal spa brimming with spring water. It was fabulous. Some people say that you can touch divinity through meditation. I think a Jingabong could get you there with a lot less work.