Four Tiny Jews in Korea: Jacobs Family Vacation Part 5
September 14, 2013
The final two days of my trip to Korea were by far the weirdest and most wonderful of the entire week. Unfortunately, I spent the vast majority of both days by myself, as Phil was working and my parents were in China. So aside from the people I met along the way, this blog is the best way to share my experience.
I judged my first day on my own as a moderate success; I ate some weird shit, wandered around some decent markets and saw some interesting sights. But it wasn’t up to par with my expectations. When I wander, I wander to find the weirdest and wildest. So on Day 6, I was on a mission.
I started the day at the Garak Fish Market. It was a lot like Noryangjin Fish Market, except dirtier. All told, I wasn’t blown away. But my spirits were still aloft. I hightailed it from Garak to Insadong, which is an artists neighborhood. That basically translates to tons of shopping for ‘traditional Korean stuff,’ like painting prints, ceramics, ‘antiques’ and more. It was touristy, sure, but still had an intrinsic Korean feel — I didn’t sense that I was being catered to because I was white, which I liked.
For lunch, I was on the hunt for something unique that I hadn’t tried before. I found it in a marvelously crispy fried dough ball filled with spicy peanut sauce. Good god, I can still taste it now.
Insadong was easily one of my favorite neighborhoods, brimming with little secret spots (they certainly weren’t secret, but they felt that way) offering great food, weird shit to buy and lots of smiling Koreans.
I’d spoken to Grace about trying out a Jimjilbang, and when my time in Insadong came to its logical conclusion, I made my way towards Gangnam to see what the fuss was all about. What is a jimjilbang? Seriously, that’s not common American knowledge by now? A jimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse and massage parlor, where Korean families will often take a day to treat themselves like kings and queens. I didn’t quite understand what made them different from other spas, but I very quickly found out.
You see, there are signs for massage parlors all over Seoul. But, as Phil instructed me, a spinning barber’s pole advertising massages generally means that an old Korean woman will rub my back then offer a happy ending. That’s not really my bag, so I was looking for a clean, family friendly Korean experience.
Grace suggested I check out the Gold Spa in Gangnam. I had no idea what I was about to walk into. And, unsurprisingly, the woman at the front desk didn’t speak enough (any) English to explain. So I paid my entry fee and said fuck it. I was given a shirt, shorts, a towel and a locker key. I left my shoes upstairs and walked down into the jimjilbang. Separated by gender, Gold Spa is basically a (nonsexual) playground for all sorts of relaxation. There’s the spa itself, a massage room, a barber, a movie theater and several different rooms with mats on the floor for napping. No matter how you like to nap (in a heated room with low light; in a bunk bed; in a reclining chair), there is a room for you.
I put on my jimjilbang gear and walked towards the massage room, where there was a menu of options, none of which I could read. Thankfully, after a few minutes, a dude walked over to me and explained that I could designate how much time I wanted to be massaged, and if I wanted it hard or soft. Long and hard, obviously. I didn’t know the protocol, so I sat down on a nearby couch facing away from the massage tables, where two women were massaging two dudes. I immediately thought of how ignorant I was of Asian massage culture. Do you tip? If they’re going to start touching your junk, do they ask? Is that just part of the agreement when you lay down on the table? Naturally, the fact that I couldn’t see the massage tables just augmented my thoughts. Would it be awkward if I had to say, “Please don’t give me a happy ending”? What if they got offended because I didn’t want them to start going to town on my manparts?
Just then, a very large Korean man walked over, extended his hand and invited me to his table. I was immediately less and more nervous. This dude started the massage and just destroyed my back. It was amazing — all elbows and knuckles digging into my super-tense body. It became pretty apparent early on that he wasn’t the happy ending guy, and I doubted that this jimjilbang dipped into that messy business at all. After 45 minutes, I was thoroughly tenderized and it was time for the spa.
Let me just put this out there first: being the only naked white guy in a spa full of naked Korean guys is a surreal experience. It’s always weird to be the only person who looks like you in any given circumstance. Everyone being completely naked just makes it weirder. And I’ll go one further: Koreans, or at least the hundred or so that I saw naked, have almost completely hairless bodies but incredibly hairy groins. Is that interesting to anyone? Just me? Ok, we’ll move on.
The spa included several super-hot whirlpools, a few super-cold pools, a sauna and steam room, some showers and a few personal spots to lie down in the water alone. All the dudes definitely looked at me funny, but none menacingly. I was just another naked guy hangin’ out with a bunch of naked guys. You know, like it was nothing. There was one fat kid, and one obscenely hairy Korean 20-something, but almost everyone else was 50, hairless and very focused on not talking or doing anything else but sitting in the water. Definitely no “How are ya, how’s your mother?” types of conversations.
In the corner, there were two stout Koreans wearing bikini bottoms who were massaging naked dudes. Naturally interested, I walked over and asked what the deal was, as I couldn’t read the menu.
“This scrub-eh. This massage-eh.”
Oh, alright, that made total sense. (I laughed to myself, remembering Phil’s friend who had told me that the best way to speak Korean was just to add ‘eh’ to every word). I’d already been massaged, so I said cheerfully, “Scrub-eh, please!” He told me to sit and wait my turn.
When he was finished giving some naked dude a massage, he poured some water on the table and told me to get on. I’m assured myself that both the prior naked guy had no communicable diseases, and that the water was antibacterial, but I didn’t know either for sure. No matter, I climbed on and laid on my back. What followed was one of the weirder experiences of my whole life.
My scrub-eh guy was about 5’6″ and shaped roughly like my father, except wearing just about nothing. He smelled a lot like garlic. And he proceeded to scrub every single part of my naked body. He wrapped a sand-papery cloth around his hand and slowly, methodically, began scrubbing. First my arms. Then my shoulders. He was literally scrubbing all the dead skin off my body, and every minute or so he’d point to the dead skin collecting and laugh. It was truly incredible — he was peeling my skin off, and it felt amazing. I couldn’t believe how much skin was coming off.
From my shoulders, he scrubbed down to my chest, then my stomach. It was about then that I wondered what he was going to do about my penis. I mean, to scrub or not to scrub? And (if I’m going to write this story, I’m going to write it how it happened) if there suddenly was a garlic-y Korean scrubbing my junk, and it felt good, what would, um, happen then? I’m pretty firmly hetero, but a good penis scrub, coming from anywhere, feels good. I’m only human.
So here’s what happened. He made his way down there, and ever so gently held it in his hands while he scrubbed around it. There were about 3 seconds where a Korean man was gently holding my penis with his left hand while scrubbing the surrounding areas with his right hand. So that happened.
He soon flipped me over and repeated the process on my backside. I can now also say that for about 3 seconds, a garlic-y Korean man held my buttcheeks open while he scrubbed away between them. But honestly, the weirdest part came next. With all my skin scrubbed fresh, it was now time to wash me down. My scrubber man soaped up his hands and thoroughly washed every inch of my body. He then washed me with warm water. The whole thing was pretty matter of fact, as he scrubs and washes dozens of naked dudes a day, but still, I’d like to think he did an extra good job with me. And that was it. He clapped my shoulders and said, “Thank-eh you.”
I felt the cleanest I’d ever felt in my life. I went over to one of the showers and further washed off, then took this picture to commemorate forever that this is what I looked like when I was at my all-time cleanest:
I spent some time laying down in a nap room with super low ceilings. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to be more relaxed than I was at that moment: massaged, sauna’d, scrubbed, washed and napped. This is what heaven must feel like, but with more sexy angels and less naked, old Korean men.
Walking around Gangnam, I noted just how good it looked. The place may be a shitshow at night, but during the day it’s all class.
Largest bouquet of flowers in Korea
One building is a significantly better dancer than the other.
I met Phil, Grace and their friend Lacey in town for dinner, and thus ended a truly epic day.
Go big or go home, they say. So on my last day in Korea, I did both.
Much has been made of Korean’s affinity for eating dogs, so I had to check it out for myself. Bottom line: it happens!
Phil was off to work, and so I headed a few metro stops away to Moran, a shithole of a town outside of Seoul, which is home to the famous and infamous Moran dog market. The place was pretty easy to find — just a gigantic market in the middle of an otherwise faceless city. I followed the crowds, which were huge, and within a few minutes of getting off the metro was faced with this:
The dog market works as follows: Several days a month, dog vendors bring a few dozen dogs each to the market. They’re kept in shitty, overcrowded cages. People who want to buy a dog to eat can point one out to be rather publicly killed and prepared, or just grab some dog meat to go in the un-refrigerated bins in front of the cages. I’m not going to make any morality calls here, because one man’s best friend is another man’s favorite meal. It’s shitty from my vantage point, but I’m an American who loves dogs as pets, not someone in Korea who loves dog meat. I love eating a steak, and I’m sure there are some folks out there who just love cows. But I will say that the conditions are terrible.
You could buy just about any non-exotic animal you wanted at the Moran Market: chickens, rabbits, dogs, goats, ducks, all sorts of fish. For just a few dollars, you could also buy the guts of any of the above cooked on a grill.
But here’s the truly head-spinning aspect of the Moran Market. As you walk down one of the main corridors, you’ve got cage after cage after cage of dogs waiting to be slaughtered. And on the very same corridor, on the left side, you’ve got a puppy market — as pets, not as food. So as you walk, you look left and see countless, beautiful, innocent puppies being bought as family pets; you look right and you see dogs literally waiting to become lunch. Even weirder — these dogs can see each other. I don’t believe dogs can think much more than “I love the person who gives me food and I want to lick them” and “Oh, look, something colorful,” but goddamn if that isn’t some high drama. These puppies looking across the way and seeing their very possible, and extremely grim future. And, of course, these things are as cute as you could possibly imagine.
And my personal favorite:
I wandered through the assorted alleyways of the Moran Market and came upon a crowd of people gathered around a bunch of colorful umbrellas. I poked my head through to see what was what. In the middle of the crowd stood a short man who was happily yelling things and making hand gestures. It was immediately clear that he was selling something, but not clear what. Next to him were two boxes, each with a guinea pig on top. A bamboo rod spanned the gap between the boxes. Behind him was a gigantic sword and several framed pictures of Korean people. Every few seconds, the crowd clapped enthusiastically.
He pulled out a tube of cream from a third box and found two volunteers, quickly squeezing too much cream into their hands. The lady volunteer rubbed it on her legs without complaint. But the guy wasn’t too pleased to have a whole handful of weird cream and nowhere to put it. So he just kind of sat there with his hand out, the cream dripping to the ground. But what did this have to do with the guinea pigs?
He then pulled out three large stones and asked people to tap them, ensuring they were real. Yep, they’re rocks! He didn’t pay attention to the stones for the rest of the presentation. But he did put red dye in a cup of water, then dripped some of the cream into the water and — whoa! — the water became clear again. Then he started selling the tubes of cream; I still had no idea what they did, or what the fuck the guinea pigs were doing there.
To my surprise, about half the audience shelled out cash and grabbed tubes of this magic cream.
The man with the magic cream. Please note the guinea pigs.
I was about a second from walking away when he spotted the one white guy face in the audience.
“Whe-yah ah you from?”
The whole crowd cheered. The old man next to me started rubbing my shoulders, and an old woman grabbed my hand and lifted it into the air, like I had just won an Olympic medal. The man took my hand and squeezed an obscene glob of cream into my palm, then used his hands to motion that I rub it on my back. I wasn’t about to take my shirt off, so I hesitantly, slowly just rubbed it all over my arms.
The man motioned for me to join him in the center of the crowd. So, duh, I walked in and sat down in a chair, right between the guinea pigs. None of us had any idea what we were doing there (the guinea pigs and I, that is). The man poured cream all over my neck and upper back and briefly rubbed it into my skin. Then, in an unbelievable series of quick chopping motions, he cracked my neck and back like some magical shaman chiropractor. The cracks were so loud that the entire crowd heard, and exploded into whistling, clapping and shouting.
“How you feel?”
I raised my arms and said, “Amazing-eh!”
The crowd dispersed and I was left sticky from the magic cream. I still have no idea what the cream actually did, nor do I know the purpose of the guinea pigs. Some things in life are meant to remain a mystery. Anyway, that’s how I became the most famous man in Moran for 4 minutes. The time was drawing near, so I hopped a metro back to Phil’s apartment and packed up my stuff. When he got home, we quickly left for Seoul, commuting all the way up to Hongdae for my fourth and final time. We wanted to end the trip with a bang. Or, with a beer and chicken place. Beer and chicken joints are huge in Korea. And though that may seem odd, I think it makes sense. Koreans love good food and getting drunk. And what’s better than fried chicken and beer? Almost nothing, that’s what.
We downed an entire chicken and jetted, running into an underground bar for one last drink in Korea. Phil never steers me wrong. Here was their shot menu:
I said my goodbyes to my brother and that was that. At that point, I wasn’t sure when I’d see him next. Thankfully, the answer now is in November.
But in the moment, it was a scary thought that we were so far across the world, with no plan of reuniting. Having an open-ended life is exciting, but it can also mean certain questions that you want answered (When you’ll see your family) must remain questions.
The trip was an amazing splatter painting of foods, places, people and octopi that I will never forget. Luckily, my travels are just heating up. It’s summer in Tel Aviv, and I’m off to Hungary and Thailand this month. Staying put? Not quite yet.