I lived in Bundang during my first year in South Korea. Home to a bevy of young Korean mothers who dress way better than me, Bundang is an affluent, leafy community just south of Seoul. There are a slew of decent ex-pat bars and clubs in the area, and more hagwons than grocery stores. It may or may not be legally mandated that every woman over the age of 13 receive regular manicures. Their city flag is (probably) made of Burberry plaid and money. That shit is fancy. But also deeply boring.
A city girl to the tendon if not the bone, Saturday night rolled around and I grew restless. I wanted Hongdae Park and only Hondgae Park. If I didn’t see Makgeolli Man at least once I considered my weekend a failure. They had norebangs, bars, and galbi in Bundang, of course, but it just didn’t have the thrumming, eclectic, electric atmosphere of revelry prevalent around Hongdae.
I took the red, slightly dilapidated 5500-1 bus from Sunae station (look it up on your subway map, it’s FAR AWAY) up around Myeongdong or Itaewon and then jumped on the subway into bagged-drink-and-drum-circle wonderland. I laughed and danced the night away with my diverse and wonderful group of friends, most of whom had the great luck to teach for EPIK and were located in central Seoul.
To fulfill my desire for nightlife without spending my paycheck on cabs or squelching the amorous ambitions of my friends, I went through a phase in which I chose to sleep in jjimjilbangs on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, the apartments provided by EPIK rarely have comfortable futons included in the furniture provided, and I disliked burdening my friends (most of whom were out tom-cattin’ and man-wrangling and were looking to take home a romantic partner, not a jovial but heavily intoxicated Chicagoan). More unfortunately yet, cabs back to Bundang cost an arm, a leg, and a pound of kimchi. I did have friends from my area that occasionally joined me in jaunts into the city, but they tended to go home significantly earlier than I preferred.
To fulfill my desire for nightlife without spending my paycheck on cabs or squelching the amorous ambitions of my friends, I went through a phase in which I chose to sleep in jjimjilbangs, or Korean saunas, on a weekly basis. At first, I stuck to the sleeping areas, making sure to change quickly into the standard pajama uniform lest an ahjumma glimpse my body. After a month or so, however, I’d taken to jjimjilbangs as though I’d been going all my life. I casually de-robed and loitered in the saunas. I swam laps in the cold baths (very short laps, but still). I used their exercise equipment and pretended I didn’t feel goofy running on a treadmill in pajamas. I had coffee in the locker room with middle aged women who didn’t speak a word of English…naked. I was in. And my comfort with jjimjilbangs helped me out of quite a few tight spots. One incident jumps out in my mind as particularly precarious…
One summer night, I hopped on the KTX to join some friends for a birthday party in Busan. I had to take a later train than everyone else and ended up going straight to the club (which was inauspiciously named “GHETTO”) instead of dropping my belongings off at our hotel. I checked my bags in a locker and began to dance. Unfortunately, soon after my arrival, the birthday girl felt ill, so I helped take her back to the hotel in a cab. Even more unfortunately, I jumped in the cab without the backpack I’d checked in the locker. Once I realized I’d forgotten the backpack, I hailed another cab…and, due to my mangled Korean pronunciation, I wound up on the completely wrong side of town, near neither the club area nor the beachy hotel neighborhood. My phone was in the pack I’d left in the club, and I realized way too late that I hadn’t bothered to write down our hotel name or any of my friends’ phone numbers. I would have been in quite the pickle—but then I saw a gleaming neon coffee cup sign, and knew I was saved. I walked into the jjimjilbang and pantomimed my situation. After paying the extremely affordable 4,000 won fee, I slept on a comfy mat and awoke the next morning to some friendly ladies offering me tea and cookies. I drank the tea while using their computer, and through the immeasurable powers of Facebook I unearthed both the hotel address and the club address in a matter of minutes. Getting my bag back is a whole other story, one which would probably embarrass my parents if shared. Anyways, that jjimjilbang saved my disoriented foreign self, and without it I might still be wandering the streets of Busan.
I’m back in the States now, visiting my friends and family. I’ve heard rumor of a jjimjilbang in Chicago, but I have yet to check it out. If you’re in Seoul (or Busan! or any major city!) and are looking for a place to unwind, get naked, or take shelter from a long night about town, jjimjilbangs are unequivocally where it’s at.