Birthday Suit

One day, long ago, the daughter of God flew down from heaven to bathe in the hot springs of Korea. A huntsman saw her spashing in the water and stole her clothes, as lovestruck men are wont to do. Unable to leave, she married him. A wiseman advised the huntsman not to return his wife's clothes until after they had three children, or she'd carry them back to heaven. But she cried so piteously that he relented, and returned her clothes after the birth of their second child. The daughter of God flew straight back to heaven, a child under each arm. "Tonight," my friend added as she finished her story, "we are the daughters of God."

She splashed her feet in the moonlit water, and I noticed the cord of her locker key wrapped around her ankle. This daugher of God was nobody's fool.

Any prospective huntsmen were sealed behind the massive stone wall that seperated the men's and women's pools. There probably weren't any men there that night. There weren't even any women besides the four of us, two Koreans and two Americans, sitting naked in a pool halfway up a mountainside. The streetlights of Suanbo sparkled below us like a festival, and as we looked out over the beautiful scene, at least one of us was wondering when she'd get to put her clothes back on.

We'd come to the spa at Lisa's and my request. At first my Korean friends didn't believe we fully grasped the sans-clothing experience we were getting into, but they obligingly cleared their Friday night. In Korea, hanging out at a spa or jjimjilbang (public bath) is as normal as going to a coffee shop. To us prudish Americans, the dress code was intimidating. Which was why we wanted to come--to get a bit of culture shock.

I had just notched up another year and was in the mood for a birthday adventure. Of course, aging and public baths don't generally compliment each other. All the same, it was probably a good idea to get this in before I got any older.

After the hot tub we hit the sauna, which, conveniently, had a kitchen timer to tell you when you were done. Then, we poured buckets of cold water over our heads and, to our surprise, were guided back to the shower room by our Korean friends.

The shower stations were arranged in rows like vanity tables, with white stools and oval mirrors. We had washed extensively coming in and hadn't expected to be doing it again any time soon. Was the evening already over? I rinsed off and fingered my locker key, waiting for the others to finish.

They didn't; at least, my Korean friends didn't. They lathered and rubbed themselves minutely with exfoliating towels. They shampooed their hair, rinsed, and scrubbed. After a while, they shooed Lisa and I out to the hot tub again. We clearly didn't understand the full implications of a Korean shower.

We sat in the hot water, looking at the stars and chatting lightly. Lisa was about to cram herself back onto a plane for thirty hours or travel, and needed all the relaxation she could get. Occasionally, I craned around to check our companions' progress.

"What are they doing in there?"

"Um..." I peered through the steamy glass door. "Scrubbing their feet?"

"Wow," Lisa observed as I turn carefully back. "They must be really clean by now."

She smiled, chin up, eyes on mine. I smiled deliberately back. We were are all about the eye contact that evening.

Eventually, we sloshed back inside, half-cooked, to find them rinsing off the last of the soap. It was time to call it a night.

The weirdest thing about the experience was how unweird it became over time. At first it was terrifying. Then it was strange. By the end of the night, it was just what it was. Perhaps I was finally comfortable with Korean culture.

One of my Korean friends leaned close with a mischievous smile. "Erin? Next time we come, we'll bring our daughters along."

Or maybe not.