Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Public Bath

I didn't know if I could do it.  But I did it - twice.  That's right, we've tried the public baths.
Let's first define public bath for my North American friends who may not have encountered this.  The "sauna" or "bath" is a combination hottubs (plural), YMCA, arcade, and indoor family picnic all for the economical price of about 7 dollars for an adult or 4 dollars for a child.  The glitch is that in the "hot tubs" area (which is separated by gender) its "birthday suits" only.

So while most everything about the saunas sounded good, I wasn't too sure I wanted to be the only white, slightly plump, woman running around suit-less.  But Anna really wanted to try it out, so we did.

Let's pause here for a more detailed description of the kinds of services available inside the public bath/sauna.  On the ladies-only floor there are rows of lockers which open onto a public area where you can hire someone for a manicure or pedicure, buy snacks, or sit around and watch tv (all nude if you like).  Then you go through some glass doors into the baths area.  Here there are about 4 rows of open showers, then 4 more rows of stools and low faucets with spray nozzles for "scrubbing" (and let me just say that at any given time there are at least 20 ladies and potentially their daughters scrubbing every single part of their bodies),  a bit further in another open area are the 4 tables for full body massages given by very hard working women who never get to take a break.  Next to all of this is the area of baths.  These are huge hot tubs of various temperatures from super hot to super cold, maybe some jets in one or two but mostly not.  Perhaps another 20 ladies are taking advantage of the baths to sit and relax or chat a bit.  So, essentially, one might spend hours in here washing her hair, scrubbing dead skin off of each body part, rinsing in the shower or with pans of water from the baths, sitting in the baths, getting a massage, more baths or hot sauna, getting a manicure then pedicure, etc.

If desired, you can put on the gym suit they give you and go up (or down) a flight to the shared floor.  Here there are more goodies!  First, a huge open area with mats on the floor for families to sit and picnic together or watch television.  Also, there's an arcade, maybe a weight room, a snack bar, and massage chairs.  But also, there are several rooms of various temperatures to lay in to rest or nap.  The room could be freezing cold or super hot - your choice.  Children are running around everywhere except these rooms which are fairly sound proof and dimly lit.  So, bring a laptop, play a game, or take a nap.  You can do it all at the sauna - in community - while wearing your gray and white gym suit!

The first time we tried this was a few weeks ago.  I have to say I found it very uncomfortable.  This is just not something that I'm used to (at least not since ye olde college days in the dorm showers).  Anna doesn't mind walking around nude, so that didn't seem to pose a problem.  But we both got more of our share of body parts with more than 40 ladies enjoying the saunas that day.  In the end, I asked Anna how she liked it.  She was torn.  "I liked it!" she said.  "But it was rather disturbing."  That about summed it up.

Here, though, is where my reflection comes in.  I have to say that in my mind I kept thinking "Get over yourself.  No one cares."  Additionally, seeing ever age and body type has its advantages.  I mean, you get to see REALISTICALLY where you're headed as you live through each stage of life.  (I won't go into the details here.)  But it occurred to me that American young women are so hung up about looking perfect and having the perfect bodies, but at the sauna it is quite clear that few have perfect bodies.  And, in the end, how can one determine what is perfect and what isn't?  We're all the same - but unique!

So, we decided to try it out again this weekend.   We tried a new spot called "Sun Superland" near our apartment.  This time the boys headed to their floor and we girls headed to our floor for about an hour, then we agreed to hook up in our "gym uniforms" on the family level.  This time went a bit easier for me.  I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the different baths.  Anna seemed to have a good time, too, without being "disturbed."  We liked the family time, too. 

So if you happen to come to Korea, I suggest stepping out of your comfort zone and giving it a go.  You may enjoy it, you never know.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Toilet vs Giant Ice Sculptures

We recently headed to China during Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year). This was a special treat (and very expensive, as a 1-entry Visa is $185/person from the US). We were fortunate enough to have friends who teach at an international school in Shanghai who were able to show us around and then escort us to Harbin in the far North of China for the Harbin Ice Festival.

What an amazing week we had! We did the usual things you would expect while in Shanghai. We ascended the tallest building; it stands at 101 stories. We visited the Buddhist Temple on New Year's Day participating in the burning of incense and throwing lucky coins at a humongous metal vase. We visited the market for souvenirs, especially silk. We saw the Shanghai acrobats do their acrobat thing. (Keep reading, the Toilet thing is coming. . .)

We also got to eat lots of Mexican food, oddly enough, and some Chinese food. Marvelous. One of the highlights for me personally was attending a Catholic Mass in Shanghai. (I've now worshiped in a Catholic church in the Philippines and one in China - hard to find Protestants around Asia). The service was in English with dozens of ex-pats worshiping. The church was big and COLD - we're talking NO heat. But it was a delight to sing familiar songs and speak familiar liturgy half-way around the world. (I know, still no Toilet or Giant Ice Sculptures; bear with me.)

All of that is wonderful, but I think you might be even more interested in phenomenon not usually experienced in North America. . .haggling (Wait for it! Toilets are near the end!)

Now, I've never haggled. I don't like to haggle and I don't know how to haggle. But in China (and in Korea, for that matter), haggling is an integral part of the culture. Seeing as we had an expert haggler with us at all times, Rosie, we learned a lot! And saved A LOT! First, we learned that there are 3 levels of starting points when working with the shop owners. They start with the most expensive prices for the foreigners and the cheapest for the locals. Rosie isn't Chinese, but she's lived there for 9 years and knows enough Chinese to be an effective haggler. Next, we learned that you have to show shock and disinterest at the price they give, ask for their "best price" then name your own. Finally, walk out of the store, slowly down the way and wait for the shopkeeper to chase you saying something like "okay! Okay!" (This whole process might take 30 minutes for big ticket items.) If you've done it correctly you might get called a "cheapskate" or be told "you're making me cry!" Now that you know the ropes, here are the results: Anna's traditional Chinese silk dress was originally quoted at $600 (equivalent) but Rosie worked it so I got a Silk suit jacket AND Anna got her dress for 185 Yuan ($31 USD). Brent got silk ties that would cost about $15 each in the US for $2.50 each. Yes! It's true! (Okay, okay! The toilet, I know! But I'm first going to describe the Ice Sculptures, I AM the one in control here, after all.)

After a few days in Shanghai, we flew to Harbin. Harbin, China is located far North, near Mongolia and Russia. There are many Russian influences there, and products (including Russian Vodka! Yahoo!) So, you get the idea that it is COLD! We happened to hit them during a heat wave; it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit most of the time we were there. There are several venues for the Ice Festival, but the most impressive are the Snow Sculptures and the Ice Sculptures. According to wikipedia, the snow sculptures earned a "Guinness Record of the largest snow sculpture: 250 metres long, 28 feet (8.5 m) high, using over 13,000 cubic metres of snow" in 2007. I'd say what we saw was right in that ballpark. I've never seen anything like it!

The Ice Sculpture park was even MORE amazing. The ice blocks came from their river and were configured to create huge palaces or ice slides. All lit up at night with brilliant colors. . . wow. Just WOW.

Google "Harbin Ice Festival 2011" and look for the Huffington Post for some stunning photos and videos. Additionally, we visited a restaurant/bar that was made entirely out of ice blocks, including a sculpted full-size grand piano.

After the Ice Festival and a tour of the Tiger Reserve, we headed back to Shanghai where we discovered. . . (wait for it!)


We happened to be in the 3rd tallest building in the world, sitting in the restaurant than is a floor beneath the highest observation deck in the world (100th story of a 101 story building) enjoying the view when Anna came back from the bathroom all excited.  "Mom, you've got to see the toilets!"  I figured this was some sort of bidet thing.   "Sure," I humored her.  So I went.  The bathroom was befittingly posh, as expected of a restaurant that charges $8 for a Coke and a view.  I opened the toilet stall and the toilet seat opened automatically!  That was just the start.  There was a panel on the wall with all of the available features of the bidet-toilet hybrid.  I sat down.  The seat was heated!  Good start.  Okay, so this button here washes the front, this button washes the back.  This is labeled "oscillating, pulsating, rinse."  This one is a dryer!  Woohoo! Ah! And here is a button called "Flush." Let me tell you, you haven't experienced a state-of-the-art, technological wonder in a toilet until you've experienced this baby!

So, Toilet versus Giant Ice Sculptures.  Who wins?