January is the month for Americans to waste money on health gimmicks and numb the self-hatred created by the New Year’s Resolution Industrial Complex.
Before you can get yourself right, I recommend a Korean spa experience. This involves thorough use of facility amenities, and a painful Oil Scrub Massage that I like to think of as a light form of hazing before the Koreans accept you as their own. There’s gonna be oil. There’s gonna be a massage. But the key is: there’s gonna be scrubbing.
The Oil Scrub must be the centerpiece of your spa experience because no where else can you get the stimulating mix of terror and relief while being fully naked (at least, in a non-sexual situation). Moving through the semi-public bathing rituals of the Korean spa feels like slipping into a vast vagina of domination and submission: warm, moist and just constricting enough to be pleasurable.
Most Asian countries love using some form of physical pain to rejuvenate you. For example, the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians like to scrape the skin with a coin to release toxins until you look like an Oompa Loompa. Thai massage involves human pretzel-making techniques that’ll get anyone ready to audition for Cirque Du Soleil. The Japanese? I do not know. But I’m sure they have something freakier than shiatsu.
The Koreans are no different. They are an intense people. So when they want to relax, they relax hard. They are not shy about using pain to heighten the curative powers of the spa. I would expect nothing less from a culture that has survived dictatorship, famine, family-decimating war and brutal winters by living off of spoiled spicy cabbage (Also see the Russians). As my buddy Yun-Sook says of the Oil Scrub, “Pain is beauty.”
When you are done, you will be thoroughly humbled. You will be the clean slate necessary to become whatever you wish to be in the New Year but will probably never achieve. No matter what happens, you will have silky smooth skin.
Here are my four tips for making the most out of your first Korean spa experience.
1. Get yourself really drunk in Koreatown within walking distance from your preferred Korean Spa.
When you are young and (mostly) of drinking age, Koreatown is the place to eat spicy food and get hammered until your slurred attempt at cursing in Korean smells like lemon-flavored soju (“Michinom! Shipseki!” burp).
The little-known secret to Korean spas is some of them are 24 hours and they have quiet “resting” rooms where you can essentially sleep off your drank for the price of spa admission. Some spas have multiple resting rooms that are tiny, dark and lined with various rejuvenating stones and earthen material like jade and volcanic soil.
And when you wake up from your sleep-nap you can hit the sauna and the showers to sweat out last night’s regrets.
2. For your first time, go to the spa ALONE.
I first learned about the life-changing experience of the Korean spa from my Korean American friends.
“It’s all single-sex. There’s a men’s side and a women’s side. The catch is at the Korean spa you have to be naked.”
What? The Yang family was not of skinny-dipping stock.
“We should schedule massages at the same time and make a day of it!”
Uh. No thanks.
If I was doing this, I had to do it alone. I was not ready to worry about being fully naked in semi-public while also managing the social anxiety of seeing my friends’ breasts and fun flesh. I can barely make eye contact while talking about my feelings much less hold a friendly conversation while their nipples salute me. I’d rather be around the comforting wallpaper of naked strangers.
For this heterosexual lady in this single-sex space, anonymous tittie is more relaxing than familiar tittie.
3. Book an appointment for the “Oil Scrub Massage”
To get stripped naked literally, culturally and emotionally it’s all about the Oil Scrub massage. You will be humbled.
The massage area is not your own dark and quiet room with a masseuse speaking to you in hushed tones. It is a large room with rows of massage tables under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights - a factory of cleansing brutality. You will be one of many nude oily women being thrown around on plastic tables like fresh fish getting scaled.
You are no longer a special unique snowflake with your very important feelings. You are now just one among the mass of humanity and you are no better than domesticated animals in need of serious grooming.
Each fishmong...erh...masseuse is a middle-aged Korean woman wearing a set of full-coverage black-laced bra and panties with the forearm strength of a thousand kimchi cabbage-kneading housewives. Imagine your stern Asian auntie who is always the first to point out that you’ve gotten fat. That’s your masseuse and you will relax with her, dammit.
And, yes. Just like the Vietnamese ladies at the nail salon who are dealing with your crusty-ass feet, they sometimes talk about you to each other in their native language. Get over it.
At some point in the session you get a massage and a light facial involving freshly-grated cucumber. However the focus is this: they scrub down every inch of your body until all of your dead skin falls off. IT’S DISGUSTING AND AMAZING.
Get there a half an hour before your scrub appointment and hang out in a steam room until your skin is softened and ready for the scrub. You do NOT want to get a scrub down while your skin is as dry as Death Valley dirt crackle. That would be asking for more pain than necessary. And, yes, pain is necessary.
You will feel completely safe in the bionic hands of your masseuse while overflowing with terror at the near death experience that is getting scrubbed down with what amounts to a kitchen sink brillo pad. That scrubber tears away layers of your skin deep enough to puncture internal organs. What’s a spleen for, anyway?
With the brillo gloves on, your masseuse works in capillary-breaking strokes on every inch of your flesh. Feet bottoms to armpits to your shins and the backs of your knees. And don’t you worry. They get into that crease between your inner thigh and your lady meat. Parts of your body that rarely see the light of day will get more aggressive attention from the scrub than your most passionate lover.
Also, don't use the words “softer” or “slower.” Just accept the full corporeal domination by your new Korean Auntie. She knows better than to let you be the dirty commoner that you are.
The pain of the skinscaping wouldn’t be nearly as horrific if you didn’t also have to see the resulting grey skin waste maggots that surround your body on the plastic table. Let yourself look at these skin worms closely. Confront yourself with who you really are: a carrier of life and a perpetual machine of filth.
Remember: the Oil Scrub massage is not for the faint of heart. It is not a peaceful journey to your “happy place.” Sure the scenery might be just as nice as a “Western-style” spa, like Burke Williams, that is if you only use the facilities. But do not be deceived. Add the Oil Scrub and you will be riding a one-eyed donkey along the edge of a narrow and curving mountain road to that happy place. And when you arrive, you will be reborn with baby-soft skin, and Auntie will be there to tell you that you better get married or your eggs will die.
4. Prepare yourself for “AUNTIE GAZE”
In addition to being broken down physically, you will be broken down psychologically at the Korean spa. Prepare yourself for deeper psychological penetration or outright rejection if you appear “different.” There will be the watchful eyes of the middle-aged and senior citizen Auntie regulars who set the tone for Korean spa culture. I call it AUNTIE GAZE. And if you know AUNTIE GAZE from everyday life, you shall feel it double-fold when you are walking around with every curve and pubic hair of your body open for inspection.
It’s tough for me to gauge what your specific comfort level will be at the spa because I often “pass” as Korean. I am a round-faced younger Chinese American woman from Taiwan with no tattoos or piercings and “gender normal” lady parts.
Just earlier in 2013, veteran Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho famously had a horrible Korean spa experience. She was getting stinkeye and comments about her tattooed body. The management apologized profusely. She chalked it up to the tension between Korean and Korean-American sensibilities. You can read more about it on her blog here.
Do not misconstrue what I am saying. You will probably find perfectly pleasant hospitality. But you must accept some of the subtler dynamics if you tend to be more sensitive about what people think of you. And like every comic who craves attention, I CARE ABOUT WHAT OTHER’S THINK. So this piece of advice comes from my perspective.
My guess? You will probably get some stares if you don’t look Korean or have tattoos. I can’t even begin to consider what it may be like if you are transgender or transsexual. In terms of race, I've seen a range of women (Black, White, Brown) at the Korean spa and they seemed perfectly comfortable.
Most patrons "look Korean." So if you are not used to being in the minority (White folks) here's your chance to do it and be FULLY NUDE. What better way to introduce yourself to a different culture but while completely naked? Either way, if you don't understand the language, at least you won't understand if people talk shit about you.
Despite my ability to blend in, I still felt the penetrating AUNTIE GAZE during my first time at the Korean spa, and I WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
I was showering along the wall of the large wet room. This great room was filled with pools of varying temperatures and a couple rows of waist high shower stalls toward the center. Everyone could see everything going on in this large room.
The moment I made a turn toward the center to rinse out my hair, I realized I was directly facing an older Korean woman who was staring at me. She was seated on a stool at the half-height showers just a few feet away. Before I knew it, she locked eyes with me like a tractor beam and I COULD NOT PULL AWAY.
While she peered into my soul, she furiously scrubbed herself between her legs. Her thighs casually open to the world, she pushed her soapy scrubbing towel up and down with force, as if shredding a heavy metal solo on her vagina electric guitar. She was strumming my pain with her fingers as I involuntarily watched in horror. She had complete disregard for her delicate bits and no shame in cleaning this most intimate body part while making direct eye contact with me, a vulnerable young stranger.
Judging by the wrinkles on her face, the intensity in her eyes, the white streaks of her short, curly "ajumma" perm, and the sagging and lumpy folds of flesh that were her breasts and belly fat, this woman probably had lived more life than I could imagine.
With every second of her stare and harsh stroke of her own lady meat, she was saying to me, “Jenny! What are you? Ashamed of your own body? We all have one.” Gulp. With that, I found my breath again and was able to turn away to finish showering.
Oh. I learned my lesson. You kept it realer than real. You put me in my place, and I liked it. Your work is done, Auntie.
Thanks for reading! What has been YOUR experience at the Korean spa? Have you felt the notorious AUNTIE GAZE? How was your first Oil Scrub massage experience? Was this blog completely over-generalized? Will I keep my Korean American friends? Am I now on some Korean embassy hit list? Comment below and share your story!