By Whit Altizer
Sometime before my son was born, I went to a bathhouse in Gwangju after a run. There I saw a father and his young son enjoying the bathhouse experience together. They swam, soaked and when finished, scrubbed each other down with coarse washcloths. I remember sadly thinking I’d never get to experience that with my son. By the time we had kids, certainly, we’d be long gone from the cheap bathhouses of Korea.
However, this strange dream came to pass last weekend. My son and I walked about a mile up the road to a bathhouse in an adjacent neighborhood. He knew we were going to swim, but couldn’t quite wrap his head around the words “swim” and “bath” in the same sentence. For the whole mile there he wrestled with the concept of a place where we could both swim and bathe.
“Do we wear a swimming costume, Daddy?”
My son, too young to be embarrassed by nudity, ran off stark naked toward the drinks as I disrobed. Not only was he ready to swim, but he needed a juice.
We went inside to the pools and soaped off before getting in, another strange concept to my boy but he went with it. Anything for the opportunity to swim.
Finally, we swam, soaked and watched. The 3-year old looks at others for the lead, but also marches to his own drum. We did what others did per my son’s request. For example we laid side-by-side, belly-up and naked on plastic recliners. But he also kept it very 3-year old too by insisting we play loudly among all the relaxing men.
Bathhouses are the ultimate Korean experience where you get to feel accepted. Being naked is the great equalizer here. No one stares and no one cares. You’re there to bathe and that’s good enough.
At the end of it, we got out and my son insisted on cleaning me with soap. A tradition he no doubt picked up on while we soaked. Fathers scrub sons and sons scrub fathers. It was sweet and perfect.
We sat in the locker room and drank those juices while we watched old men play baduk. Though my son just enjoyed the swim, for me it was a wonderful bonding experience with my boy I won’t soon forget.