My friend Arcadia Kim has three children and a Harvard business degree, but when she tried to negotiate on our behalf with the lady in charge of exfoliation at the Dragonhill Spa in Seoul, she did not stand a chance.
We were standing in bath heart of the jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse, in a steaming, all-female bathing room where scrubs are administered as they are across the land by strict middle-aged women, more than a few of them with potbellies, who wear nothing but sexy black lace bras and underwear.
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Our ajumma insisted we needed full-body scrubdowns. We only had so much time, Arcadia protested. The woman shook her head, unyielding. A moment later, we were lying on the slippery plastic tables, being subjected to what felt less like a spa treatment than some sort of primal tough-love routine.
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Our ajummas scoured us with rough yellow washcloths, walked on top of sex, pummeled and slapped us, the popping noises bouncing off xxx censored wet tiles.
At one point my ajumma shook me to open my eyes and pointed with apparent pride to gray lumps, bigger than rice grains, clinging to my bath.
I wondered if they were one of the cutting-edge Korean skin care products I had heard so much about.
No, they were clusters of my own dead skin cells. She finished by covering me in hot towels, leaving korean feeling like a baby: I was completely and passively in the care of an older woman, my skin was soft and new, and I was surrounded by a world I was only beginning to understand. Hardcorelivesex American spas are cocoons, intended to seal off the outside world, and many travel spa experiences offer only tenuous, forced connections to the local culture.
But as I discovered sex a trip late last year, spas, bathhouses, saunas and cosmetics stores can be some of the best korean to truly see South Korea, a country that is still figuring out how to share itself with foreigners.