Before there was love, before lovers and children born out of wedlock, before we knew the names of things, there were the bath houses of my childhood.
The bath house was the gathering place of women and girls, wherein no boys or their fathers were allowed. Once monthly, our mothers and their girls — good girls and bad girls, girly girls and pretty or not-so-pretty-or-whatever girls, barely-there girls and almost-women girls, girls unwanted because they were girls, girls like me in awe-fear of their mothers, and girls who talked down to their mothers just as their fathers talked down to them — were all there for a common cause. We needed a good sloughing off of ttae (때), meaning dirt in Korean.
Soaking came first. Like slabs of marinating meat, we had to soak, as our mothers had taught us, for as long and as abidingly deep as possible, so that our skins — that unruly sheath of an organ draped and stretched over our out-growing bodies — could, with the grace and redemptive power of water, be lifted, dear lord, of its burdensome ttae, that worldly substance that would otherwise infiltrate our innards and our wants and wantnots. So we listened, and we sat our small asses down in the much too uncomfortable water for a long, long time until our young skins became medium rare, slough-ready, ready for our initiation: the slow tenderizing of girls into women.
We would learn about pain this way, about the many facades used to disguise pain and the delusions of grandeur that came with pain, about how we might stretch ourselves to survive pain, and about the gratification of delayed pain. We would learn about perseverance this way, the waiting, oh the waiting, the many different kinds of waiting a woman needed to master for herself, her children, and her mate, in order that she move through the seasons of her life well. We mustn’t hurry, our mothers said.
Discomfort was the idea. Crammed inside the cracked ceramic-tiled hot tub like little fish cakes swimming in a simmering bowl of ramen noodles were bodies — big and small, more small than big, some vertically inclined, some horizontal. There were busy bodies and lazy bodies and work-in-progress bodies; some were smocked with industrious skins, taut tapestries achieved less through athleticism than toil, seated in touching proximity to those with droopy, wet, wrinkled rag-like skin. These were the different kinds of armor belonging to those who had lived through wars, who were still waiting for husbands or sons gone missing long ago to come home. We watched their bodies, how they wore them, moved them, touched the contours of theirs and others, how they looked inwardly askance toward theirs, and wearily toward ours.
Once, we had a celebrity sighting. A famous actress I recognized from TV, getting ready to step into and share the common pool with everyone. Under the unflattering fluorescent lighting, with her nakedness in full view and without colorful embellishments to contour her face or adorn her body, she didn’t appear half as beautiful or interesting. She was barely noticeable, in fact, and fit right in, a plain Jane. (My mother agreed.) Without the camera, she was allowed to take off her clothes down to her most private layer, the layer that had become ttae-ridden, just like the rest of us common folk. She lowered herself and her average body into the democratizing whirl of the pool. The bath house was a place where the extraordinary wished to be ordinary, and were allowed to be so.
Yet an unspoken hierarchy existed when it came to who had the power to control the water temperature. It was the aging women with aching, arthritic bones and calloused skin who never passed up the opportunity to turn the dial, which only ever went up. These women needed the water hotter than most of us could comfortably take it, their threshold for pain having increased steadily over their long lives, their mettle tested by the traumas that had fractured their people. We couldn’t complain or touch the dial. We couldn’t look away, even if we wanted to, from their breasts, which hung so unimaginably low to their navels, or from the entrenched thickness around their middles. Their bodies conjured up their haunted pasts like the rings of a downed tree. They had mourned their way into and through this life, earning them the right to decide how much heat was enough for all of us. We would learn about doing what our mothers and grandmothers wanted, not what we wanted.
Soon, more pain ensued. When soaking made our skins more pliant to our mothers’ urgings, a violent sloughing session would follow. As if the too-hot-to-touch water were only a test for our capacity for pain, and not rigorous enough, our mothers taught us to wait our turn, to bide our time until the the right moment, to lie down flat in a prone and then supine position on a raised bed (a plastic-covered, wooden plank) so the professionals could get to work.
The professional ttae scrapers were a specialized breed of technicians known for their mighty upper-body strength and their uncanny ability to size up clients’ life stories in mere seconds and hurl all sorts of unsolicited advice at them. Armed with their trusty old tool, the ttae catcher — an industrial strength loofah with a pocket to hold the hard soap — they would work expeditiously, single-mindedly, to catch, scrape, and slough every last ttae off of their clients. Small beads of ttae, dark-hued and concentrated like thimblefuls of dark clouds, came off bodies in copious amounts, one epithelial layer after another, revealing the inner pith of a woman. Then, with a stream of water, the beads rained over the valleys of a body, slid down and off the wooden bed, before disappearing into a storm drain that carried them to the underlayer of the bath house.
The most skilled among these technicians were instinctively good at taking stock of their client’s body, moving swiftly around her, quickly seeing where their hands needed to be and moving in that direction, pursuing the problem areas with the precision of a surgeon. Highly poised in their craft, they observed and bided their time, working in silence with great intensity before offering a keen assessment:
“It must have been a while since your last visit. You look and feel so tired.”
Or: “Your skin feels lazy.” (Read: you’re getting old.) “Are your children giving you trouble? Your husband?”
Sometimes she offered up discreet advice about up-and-comers like me: “She’s a darling little one. You’d better be careful, Mom.”
Or a stinging commentary: “She’s a stocky one. You must have wanted a boy when you were pregnant with her, isn’t that right, Mom?”
To be sloughed off of ttae was to shed the dirt of mother and wife, those thick and tired layers, the world-weary layers. The men-weary layers: of having to wait for bad or sometimes-good-except-always-drunken husbands to come home and not die on the streets. These are the layers that birthed us, the same layers that primed us into women. Inside the bath house, one hot soak and violent sloughing at a time, as our mothers shed theirs, we gained ours. Our pain was their relief. And one day, when it’s our turn, we, too, will be poised to turn up the dial, never down, so that we may shed the layers of our own pain-body.
Water was a rare, and therefore valuable, commodity in 1970s Seoul. This was what I was told by my mother, who brought me to live with her in the big city when I turned six, an age deemed appropriate to attend school instead of being left alone at my grandmother’s home in the outskirts. The water supply was low in the tiny apartment where my mother and I lived, on the top floor of a five-story complex, the same modest sort that was popping up everywhere in the fast-industrializing South Korean capital at the time. Like the propane gas used for cooking, water, when not in use, had to be turned off and disconnected from the main supply. To wash one’s face or bottom, one had to turn on first the main line and then the faucet, measure out the exact amount needed into a shallow basin (or more likely a plastic bucket), set it down on the concrete bathroom floor, and use every last drop inside the basin — and then turn everything off in reverse sequence. Inconvenience was the idea, to discourage excess.
The term, “bathroom,” was a misnomer, since the space wasn’t used for bathing. We didn’t take baths there or wash our hair every day or every other day or even every third, fourth, fifth, seventh or twenty-ninth day. The practice was rooted in the philosophy that the seldom, the least, the minimal, is always the better way. So said my mother and grandmother, whose sensibilities had been shaped by wars and totalizing, generations-defining losses. A follower of the Seldom Bathing school of thought knew not to fuss over or fear-monger about germs. We relied on just enough water to survive smell-free and guilt-free, and we bided our time for our monthly redemptive soak at the bath house.
Inside the new home I shared with my mother, I had to learn the idiosyncrasies that she had developed since leaving when I was a toddler. We’d practically become strangers to each other in the intervening years. My mother, who had to move away to the big city to take a job, who suited up and wore heels every day to go to her office, seemed sophisticated, urbane, and foreign to me. Up until then, my grandmother had raised me in a traditional Korean home with no indoor bathroom, only an outhouse. Before I moved to the city, I had never been to a bath house. I had never bathed in a tub, and no such thing existed in my imagination. How did I keep myself clean? I don’t know, and I don’t remember ever being worried about it.
My mother was a different kind of woman than my grandmother. She was highly literate and harbored dreams of one day becoming a prominent writer. My grandmother’s early forewarnings against an intellectual path for her daughter seemed to have backfired, as my mother’s dedication to her craft only deepened following her divorce from my father. She promptly got herself a professional career, and delighted in going to the movies by herself as often as she could, at a time in Korea when women, married or single, didn’t do that sort of thing. She liked to smoke cigarettes in private, and sometimes she would stay up drinking into the night and devolving into debauchery with her boyfriend after putting me to bed. (I eavesdropped from my room.) On the weekends, she set out to hike up the mountains by herself, carrying a full set of gear on her back — enough to last a whole winter. I would watch from the veranda of our fifth-floor walk-up, her tiny figure disappearing around the bend, and feel a kind of release. Alone at last, I could breathe deeply and comfortably, in my own silence. When she returned, her kindly spirits would peek through like aromatic mushrooms sprouting out of dead wood after a storm. Up inside the woods, deep in its throes, she found her most true self. I know this now.
Sometimes my mother and I missed each other. Literally. She on one floor, I on another. Once, at the bath house, I watched her, as I often did, amid the hundreds of women floating in and out, as she undressed in a corner. Her body was like a smooth, white-barked tree, strong, upright, unforgiving. When she was done undressing, she turned and walked away without me, expecting me to follow her. With her buttocks at my eye level, I was sure I was close behind her. Soon I ran up to her, instinctively, wrapping my arms around her plush thigh. I hugged the lower half of my mother’s tree trunk for a long time before the lady I’d actually been hugging gently unwrapped my arms from her thigh and asked where my mother was.
I missed my grandmother. Her silence was what I missed. We were alike in this way — she preferred to be inside her own thoughts, and her outward expressions were never bitter or angry. She was a listener. She listened even when I was silent. I was her faithful assistant: we cooked together in her bunker-like, prewar kitchen, in the house with the outhouse. She taught me how to perfectly mold rice cakes into a moon shape and pan-fry them for the whole family. Inside the warmth of my grandmother’s wood-burning kitchen, we were like two mute children harboring the secrets of our hearts, mutually broken and put back together by our shared silence.
My mother was less a listener, more a speaker. Often she spoke in ways that my seven-year-old heart didn’t understand. Sometimes she spoke in an angry tone that showed her passions. Or she spoke to me, a seven-year-old, in a kind of opaque, learned way:
“Jung Hae ya, please lower your voice when you talk. But talk in a firm way, make yourself understood,” she would say.
Often, I chose silence over any other replies. I must have not understood her heady instructions. I would remain very still and very quiet for long stretches of time, for fear of upsetting the delicate equilibrium that seemed in need of constant balancing by nature and by me, the child.
My mother taught differently, too. In my new habitat, my cosmopolitan mother taught me, and I learned, the right way to wash my body, and how to care for the insides of my female parts:
1. Curl your dominant hand, turning your upturned palm into a “bowl,” and fill it with fresh water (never, ever, under any circumstances, use sitting water!).
2. With the other hand, gently tease apart the labial folds and place the “bowl” underneath the folds.
3. Uncurl your palm holding the water and propel it upwards, allowing the contents to rise like a small fountain (think: the shooting action of a bidet).
4. Wash in this order: first, the outer, exposed layer with skin like mountains and tortoises; second, the layer of the inner folds, tender as heartaches and autumn rain; and last, the bottom-most, secret layer, private as the myths of your own making. Protect this layer. Always move from front to back.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 several times, for the rest of your life.
These moments between my mother and me, of our washing together in warm, scarce water, were a rarefied pocket tucked within the vast tundra of loneliness that was my life with her. Sometimes we talked like ordinary people while washing. Sometimes we would remain quiet and just wash, slowly, methodically, thoughtfully sloughing all that ttae off each other’s backs with the kind of care we’d learned from visiting the bath house together. In those moments, our silence reminded me of that between me and my grandmother, a kind of an unquantifiable understanding that exists between two humans with a difficult shared past. It was the lack — of readily available water and of my mother’s instinctive mothering — that made these things precious, and swelled my desire for them.
Once, while washing me, my mother noticed a bruise on the side of my leg. “What is this bruise from?” she asked innocently, like a child asking her mommy about the birds and the bees for the first time.
I thought it curious that she didn’t remember. I hesitated to answer, for fear of upsetting her. A week earlier, my mother had been upset about something. She often was. Whenever she was, my silence would grow louder, supplying oxygen to the anger in the air. In these moments, my mother became another spirit. As if possessed, she would pounce at me like I was someone who owed her something from a past life. There was no negotiating with the force of this spirit, no way to pay her back.
“That was from last week,” I reminded her, after a pause. She seemed shocked.
The evening after that high drama, when she became dislodged from the other spirit, she had asked if I wanted to go live with my father. She was crying more than asking. Or if she was asking, it was not to elicit an answer from me, but to request that I go away for a while, so the mother in her could be sloughed off, one weary layer at a time, until she became well enough to receive her child again.
My beautiful, brilliant, distant mother.
The next day, she dropped me off at his door. I waited there until a woman I didn’t recognize answered and brought me inside. She had on a brightly colored lipstick, and her demeanor was perky.
“Have you been waiting here long?” she said with the energy of a young mother.
I offered her my signature silence.
The woman, I would later learn, was the recently installed wife of my father. He had been estranged from me and my mother since the night she fled from that house, with the infant me in her arms. My brother and sister, who had been left behind, were there too, to greet me, the new recruit. I hadn’t seen my older sister in so many years and was surprised to find that she didn’t look anything like me. She smiled at me. I didn’t smile back.
The new wife was a different kind of woman than my mother. In my eyes, she was unremarkable. She was less beautiful, less educated, less everything than my mythologically excellent mother. That much was obvious. She lived with my father and my siblings in the same house where I was born, where all of us had once lived together, and where I had not been since the night my mother left — a house riddled with anguish. It was a traditional Korean home like my grandmother’s, complete with an outhouse and a courtyard, except that it was in a more well-to-do neighborhood. The house had been passed down to my father from his wealthy ancestors. He now worked at a big job, unlike when he was married to my mother, when she often had to sell off her books and her hair to keep food on the table. Spoiled by his family’s fortune early on, he hadn’t been accustomed to working for a living when he was married to my mother. He had cleaned himself up a little for the new wife. She cooked a feast the first night I arrived, a special kind of fish soup I’d never had before. It was delicious.
The next day, the wife took me and my sister to a bath house, as if to mark the day I was inducted into the family. She was shrewd to do this, with her already trained stepdaughter in tow, as the bath house was a place of initiation. She knew that in order to earn my cooperation, she needed to give me proper (re)training.
The bath house was fancier than the modest one I was used to going to with my mother. The pool didn’t pack us in like bloated fish cakes, and there were steam rooms and saunas, and even vendors offering yakult, a probiotic drink, in case patrons became thirsty during their long soaking sessions. Everything was gleaming.
My sister called this woman umma, the Korean version of the universal syllables for mother or mommy, thickly imbued with intimacy. She smiled when she said it. Why was she smiling? I never smiled when I called my mommy umma.
The wife pointed at me, while looking in my sister’s direction.
“She’s so skinny,” she remarked. “What is her mother feeding her? And what is this bruise from?” she wanted to know.
The wife never talked to me directly, perhaps because she knew instinctively that I was never going to call her umma, if I could help it. But she kissed me, painting my cheek with her cherry lips.
“Umma, Jung Hae has your ruby lips on her cheek!” my sister exclaimed, pointing her little finger at my cheek, exploding with a great belly laughter.
I cringed. What excess, I thought. With my mother, laughter was scarce, just as water was scarce. Happiness, too. Laughter, happiness, or any expression of emotion for that matter, needed to be earned. Ask any woman at the bath house of my childhood, sitting solemn-faced, grief-sodden, with their buttocks numbed, in that inferno of a pool. Pain, if withstood, was a thing of merit. Not gratuitous laughter. Not an umma who hasn’t earned her name.
It would be a long time — until my sister and I met in our adult years, when she would be the one to join our mother, our brother, and me in the States to attend university — before we recollected that day at the bath house. It would take many more years of revisiting our pasts, and of sitting alone and contemplating our lives, separated by geography and by our individual battles, for me to understand that, like me, my sister had learned to keep her affairs to herself, her smiles never betraying the many layers of her own pain.
But in that moment, I was hot with anger, though I did not show it — not my anger at them for their excessive outward expressions, not my anger at my mother for having abandoned me among them. In that moment, I did the only thing I knew how to do: go silent. My silence, the deeply brooding, troubling kind that had been gathering like bad weather all of the years of my life, those brief yet boundless years, hung thickly in the humid air, relentless, unwilling, unable to fold into the atmosphere of that bath house loaded with excess. I realized then I wasn’t going to make it in this new family.
So I was more than glad to see my grandmother, who showed up at my father’s doorstep after just three days to take me home. She had insisted, I would later learn, that my mother take me back, that she would disown her if she didn’t. My grandmother, my surrogate umma, whose life had become a waiting since her husband was taken to the North during the war. The early years she’d spent with him as a young bride may as well have been a mirage. By now, she’d all but given up any hope of reuniting with him. Instead, she waited for me to come home to her. I let out a joy-cry at seeing her. My grandmother, my mute twin, who sometimes mouthed words only I could hear, with a grieving heart-in-waiting only I could touch.
By the time I was reunited with my mother in our small apartment, I knew this was our only chance to reaffirm our bond forged in scarcity — of resources and emotion. Despite and through all of our unwitting silences and mishaps and unhappinesses, we would come to know each other. Our monthly ritual of soaking and sloughing would go on.
Recently, I took my eleven-year-old daughter to a bath house. Tucked away behind an alley in the city of Palisades Park, New Jersey, where the majority of residents are Asian, the establishment boasted of having ten different types of saunas. With golden arches and lion statues lining the entryway, the grandiosity of its interior decor seemed to match its name, King Spa.
To prepare my daughter for our adventure, I showed her YouTube videos of jjimjilbang, the kind of bath houses now popular in Korea — ultra fancy and loaded with excess, entirely unlike the ones I grew up with. She watched video after video, mesmerized by the idea of public bathing.
“Is it true you have to be naked to use the pools?” she asked.
“Well, sure,” I replied. Did she really need to ask? “It’s the most natural thing.”
It wasn’t until we were inside the locker room, getting ready to change out of our street clothes, that I realized it had been decades since I had been to a bath house. It had been years since I took my clothes off in front of anyone other than a lover. I felt a tinge of shame and even awkwardness, taking my clothes off in front of my own daughter. She hadn’t seen me undressed down to this layer.
My daughter, on the other hand, adjusted to this new context without a hitch. She tore off her clothes and shoved them into a locker. She skipped ahead of me, pulling me toward the main pool. Once inside, we inched our way into the hot pool, testing our tolerance, one limb at a time. Of course, the hot pool wasn’t hot enough for me. Thankfully, there was the extra-hot pool, for the too-tired-to-be-bothered bodies like mine, where the initial shock — the heat, the pain — soon slides into relief.
The extra-hot pool was empty: I could experience its intensity, soak in its whirls of pain, all by myself. My daughter complained how hot the water was in the regular pool, preferring instead to shower in the lukewarm water she was used to. But I did not tell her to come back into the too-hot-to-touch water. I will not tell her to soak in pain until her skin becomes slough-ready; that will not be her initiation into being a woman. My daughter will be in charge of setting her own pain tolerance. I prefer that she sing, dance, laugh unprompted. That she speak as she wishes, not bury herself in silence.
What was the point of all that soaking and sloughing? How many of our mothers and grandmothers’ skins must we shed before our own can shine through?