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My first time at a Korean Spa

It feels like entering an Asian household to take off my shoes at the door. My mom and I place them in lockers and enter the women’s side of a Korean Spa. The room is lined with lockers and little desks holding hair dryers, combs, q-tips, and other amenities you’d find in a bathroom. A handful of people were in the room, all of them naked. We change into the clothes given to us, orange and gray cotton shirts and shorts resembling PJs. Ajumma, the Korean word for a married or middle-aged woman, walk around the room, casually naked. I don’t know where to look.

walls lined with lockers

I was running on adrenaline and a free airplane sandwich at that point. We actually visited a Japanese spa right before our redeye flight from Bangkok to Seoul, but all feelings of cleanliness washed away after landing at Incheon Airport. My hair hadn’t been cleaned in two days, and I felt grimy from the airplane. The Korean scrub was the perfect solution in my mom’s eyes. Her favorite quote is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” because she’s always preaching it to me.

“Come on, Bridgette! Eat a guinea pig! It’s what Ecuadorians do!” “You should totally do a Korean spa. I was horrified when I did it, but it’s still a good experience!” I was terrified when she suggested this, but how could I not do as the Koreans did? I’m in Korea, after all, and my mom said so.

The first thing we did was to do the spa wrong. While in search of a Korean scrub, a staff member leads us into a room lined with small round huts with tubes connecting them to the ceiling. They look like big fireplaces. My mom and I are the blind leading the blind as we try all of the huts- hot, dry rooms with rocks, salt, and straw mats as floors. The last room is my favorite, an ice room. A petite Korean lady from Australia and her three adorable kids join us in the cold. We take this opportunity to ask about the scrub.

“Oh! You want the Korean scrub… yeah, you were supposed to do that first. I just did that before I came here.”

Our answer is “oh,” and we excuse ourselves back upstairs to the baths.

the door directly in front of us is the ice room :)

“Scrub, we want a scrub” We pretend to scrub our arms as we communicate with the staff. She finally seems to understand what we want and shouts at a Korean lady behind us. I turn my head to face a fierce middle-aged Korean woman in a leopard print bra and underwear, her gray frizzy hair tied back in a messy ponytail. I assume she is a regular at this spa helping translate. She then proceeds to shout at us in Korean, using her hands to point here and there. We somehow figure out that we are supposed to strip naked and go into the baths. My mom and I head back to our lockers, put away our cotton PJs, and make our way through sliding glass doors.

Steam immediately hits my face. Our bare feet walk across the wet, cool tiled floor to the showers. Before enjoying the thermal baths, it is mandatory to wash yourself off. Small stools sit by their shower head, and I claim one to wash off. The leopard print bra and underwear lady appears again and ushers us into a circular bath in the middle of the room with an aggressive jet in the center of the water. Old ladies sit on the side, nonchalant, exposing their bare privates. I slowly get into the heated water, letting my skin adjust to the burning sensation before fully submerging myself. I close my eyes to ignore the warmth following the initial numbing as the wild bath jet spits hot water in my direction. I feel attacked. The heat hugs my skin as I struggle with the urge to get out while the ajumma quietly soak in their respective seats.

“How long do we have to be here?” I ask my mom just as the leopard print bra and underwear lady appears again. She speaks loudly to us, in Korean, of course. My mom and I look at each other in confusion, trying to figure out what to do next. She starts shuffling over to the back corner of the room, and I soon follow suit. In a small nook are three spa beds made of slippery pink plastic. The leopard print bra and underwear lady pat the middle spa bed for me to lay on. My heart starts to pound as I lay on my stomach. I cope with my fear with humor. My deathbed is hot pink! I’m dying at the hands of this middle-aged Korean woman in a leopard print bra and underwear! My mom told me about her experience of the Korean scrub like a horror story. The middle-aged ladies scrub you like a slab of meat. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s uncomfortable. They just flip you around and scrub your boobs all over. I close my eyes and try to relax my body.

The leopard print bra and underwear lady puts on big gloves, resembling oven mitts, made of sandpaper-like material. I clench my eyes and brace for impact as the scrub begins. She got everywhere on my body, but I’ll try not to get too graphic. To my surprise, I enjoyed it! My body relaxes as she exfoliates my back in rhythmic circles. It felt like the Bath and Body Works scrubs I do in my own shower. I close my eyes and try to enjoy the feeling. I calm down, not even squirming when she asks me to extend my arms, and she rubs her rough gloves over my armpits. The leopard print bra and underwear lady gets every inch of my back before she flips me over and scrubs from my feet to my arms, casually scrubbing my boobs and legs like every Thursday activity.

After about 30 minutes of scrubbing, the leopard print bra and underwear lady tells me to get up. She’s finished. I look at the pink deathbed and see gray rolls of dead skin scattered around the hot pink surface.

“Woah,” I rub my hands over my arms and touch my soft tofu skin, like a snake who just shed its skin. Silky smooth replaces the normal dry skin over my arms, and I feel absolutely glowing and refreshing after the exhilarating experience.

“Kamsahamnida!” My mom and I thank the ajumma staff and change back into the cotton PJs. We meet with my dad downstairs and talk over a bowl of spicy ramen and iced coffee. It was such a thrilling experience!

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