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The International Writers Magazine: Y

Thoughts In The Ceasing Rain: South Korea, Jim-jil-bangs and Mountain Temples
Fiona Marion
I am nervous about this job assignment, but grateful to have been chosen to teach this month-long TESOL workshop. When I am not in class trying to give the students all the information they need and challenging their socks off, I want to relax deeply.

Korean Bathhouse

Teaching South Korea's top public school teachers keeps me on my toes, and apparently I am expert enough in my few years' teaching ESL to conduct an intensive TESOL workshop at the Education department of Jinju university. I get tired easily, however. After a 10 hour day, I want to find other things to do, things that will give me more full memories of this time in South Korea. I enjoy the students, but I enjoy my times away from the classroom. I control my classroom completely, but while out of it, I completely lack control. This is invigorating.

Although sometimes I wouldn't mind controlling the food I eat. Today it is raining and I drag my soggy legs off to the cafeteria to get some energy food. On the menu is seaweed soup, spicy squid parts, and anchovies: although it is not my first choice, it pairs perfectly with the squish in my drenched shoes and the hair stuck to the side of my face. I feel like I'm a goliath animal living under the sea, mouth open, allowing all that's around in. It sticks on my teeth, it swishes in my belly, and it has the texture of something raw and earthy. The servers in the cafeteria give their food graciously and are so well-intentioned. If they spoke English, they would probably say, “Good for your health. Get rid of pimple. Give you smile.”

Some of the food they heap onto my plate, sadly, never makes it into my mouth. It goes into the compost. I don't know where the compost goes.

The rain stops temporarily, and dragonflies swarm and chatter near trees, then pass. Together, they make a sound like a hundred flourescent lights flickering to their death. The sound of loose filaments remains electric and unnerving. Inside of the classroom, flourescent lights beam down onto white walls and bright floors. Outside, this university species of dragonfly imitates the sound.

Tonight I'm going to go to the jim-jil-bang, which is my favourite evening place to be during the rains. A jim-jil-bang is a Korean bath house. It is a very special experience, and one that I will never forget, long after I leave Korea. The outside looks sort of like a grand hotel. You are greeted at the entrance, asked for a small fee, and then separated depending on gender. Men and women go into separate areas which open up into a whole variety of baths and saunas. Some baths are enriched with green tea, some fresh spring water, some very hot, some very cold. This is what you must do, I have learned. First, you pay at the entrance and collect a towel, a locker key, and a pair of cotton pyjamas. You then go to your changing room, deposit all of your goods into a locker (except towel, soap, and key) and then proceed to the showering area, nude. In the showering area you bathe, scrub, and clean yourself for about a half hour, until your skin is raw and your hair squeaks. Now you are ready to enter one of the many baths or saunas. There, you can settle into a few hours of relaxation in one of the many baths, trying to ignore people gawking at a westerner's (if that's what you are) naked body. Any people who speak English in the house may come up and talk to you. Either way, sinking into deep relaxation will be interrupted from time to time.

Some rooms offer dry saunas. I really enjoy joining the older women who sit and play cards for hours in the dry sauna, one leaving momentarily to grab a watermelon for the crew, chatter filling the place along with the slap, slap, slap of the small plastic weighted cards. I look at the creased faces and bright eyes and can only imagine that they are teasing each other, saying things like, “Is that all you've got for me? I can imagine your husband gets bored sometimes!” “Oh, Su Yeon, your competitive nature is enough to send your husband crying!” “C'mon, butches, let's get back to the game!” Loose-toothed goosey laughter ensues. These ladies know the secrets to good health-- laughter with friends, saunas, and watermelon.

There is always the option one can get clothed with the spa's provided attire and go into a common area where there are things to eat, massage chairs, and areas to sleep. I have been told that this is where teenagers go on their dates. Jim-jil-bangs are the cheapest option for overnight stay, and although not entirely private, offer dark corners in which to allow hands to wander freely out of parent's view. It is the gateway to time spent in love motels, or pay-by-the-hour hotels, a big business in this land of many secrets.

Tonight will be my third experience at a Korean spa. The first time I went, I met a lovely and lively woman from Boulder Colorado. She instantly offered to show me the most favourite of her places, the Chiri mountains. At the foot of these beautiful Korean mountains is a gorgeous temple called Sangeysa, she said. Can we go tomorrow? I asked. Spontaneity is a traveller's best friend, so we decided to meet early the following morning to get there by train. It was magical and wonderful, and the sky was perfectly clear that day. There were moments we didn't talk, because talking would have been obscene in the grandeur of our experience of being there.

Sangesa The old temples are nestled onto the side of the hill, overlooking a valley. The colour contrast is beautiful, and everything, from the streams to the trees, to the gateways, to the paths going up along the mountain to the higher temples, is harmoniously constructed. Many of the colourful statues greeting us at the series of gateways bore either instruments or weapons. I guess the gateways to heaven on earth must be guarded by sacred music and sharp swords.

On the grounds was a museum, housing very old tapestries of the life stages of Buddha on the top floor, and on the main, the instruments the artists used were displayed behind glass. I learned about sacred geometry there, and after looking at the compassas, rulers, and stencils which were used to craft the huge and intricate tapestries, I exited. Looking outside again, I realized that the surrounding mountains at this monastery's viewpoints had a rough symmetry to them, but that the design of the temple rooftops simultaneously imitated their curve and pointed to them. I felt perfectly balanced between heaven and earth. A lot of thought and prayer carve the stone pathway I traverse.

After the temple, we had lunch at a riverside restaurant. It was a hot day. We sat near a view of the river so we could catch a bit of breeze and laugh at the people bathing in their t-shirts and long shorts. Koreans hide their bodies in attempts at modesty. We drank wooden bowls full of iced makgeolli, the milky white rice wine and traditional drink of Korea, which elated us and brought renewed joy to our conversation. We also shared Padong, a flavorful and oily seafood pancake. It was a gift to receive all of these new experiences. I would have never found this place on my own.

As I prepare for afternoon class, I recall these experiences. I only have four more hours of teaching, and then I can head off to the spa. I wonder if my American friend will be there? I will walk to the jim-jil-bang, I decide, with senses fully heightened and a mind ready to process the thoughts from my day. I am grateful for this month here. I will go home with some great memories of this place. But first, it is time to go teach my afternoon class. I have changed my shoes and dried my hair, and grabbing my books, I set off into the warming day.

© Fiona Marion November 2010
Fiona is an ex-pat Canadian who teaches English in the countries she finds herself in.  She currently resides in Brazil with her partner.  Next year they will move to Germany.  You can read her travel blog at

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