Monday, September 1, 2008

Travelogue #50: Getting a Shave from a Barber in a Room Full of Naked Korean Dudes

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the October 2008 issue of Eloquence Magazine (South Korea).

'm overdressed, but it's not like I'm in a tuxedo; I'm wearing an Emory Club Tennis t-shirt and khaki shorts. Sweating, I sit on a wooden bench and stare into a fogged mirror. It's hot in here.

"Here" is a Jjimjilbang, an always-open bathhouse populated by nude men (and nude women on the other side of the doors) indulging in the sauna experience. This is not just about steam, hot water, wet torsos, and conspicuously-placed towels; this is about "casually flappingly naked" men who find no problem hanging out in a heated room watching Korean soap operas with other "casually flappingly naked" men.

So why I am not naked? I'm waiting for the barber. In the past couple months, I've been here several times to have my scraggly beard shaved, and I didn't have to take off my shorts beforehand. That's not to say that others have followed my lead. I've seen quite a few gentlemen lounging in the barber chairs with only a rumpled newspaper to cover their "business." Still, I am the one who is getting the curious glances, and I don't think it's because I am the waygook among many Koreans. I think it's because I'm clothed. And hairy.

Two weeks ago, my regular barber was off work, so I had to go "under the knife" with his replacement, a small oily-looking guy who resembled Dr. Frankenstein's minion. I half-expected him to rub his palms together conspiratorially and say, "Vengeance is mine." As his razors pinched my thick sideburns, he mumbled disgustedly and incessantly, without commas or periods or exclamation points between his muffled words: "Megook hrm hangook hrm megook Hangook hrm." I closed my eyes. All I understood was "megook" and "hangook," the words for "American" and "Korean," respectively. Ouch! His razors bit into my skin. "Hrr err megook hangook Err!" I decided that he was talking about the differences between an American beard and a Korean beard, and that he was concluding that an American beard was thicker and more difficult to eliminate. He grunted again. I opened my eyes and saw in the mirror pockmarks of blood on my chin. Ouch.

Even as I handed him the payment for the roughly-handled shave, he continued, "Err Hrr MEGOOK HANGOOK ERRR." Maybe I had unwittingly lain a curse on his head. I don't know. All I know is that he effectively carved me up and charged me eight dollars for it. Thank God I wasn't naked during the procedure, or else he would have somehow made it impossible for me to ever impregnate a woman. I'm not sure how he would do that, but I'm relieved I didn't have to find out.

Today, the better barber is in. He has a George McFly hairstyle that he transplanted onto my own head the last time he gave me a cut.

He's a surgeon with a scalpel and an an array of hot and hotter towels to press against my chin. In spite of his alcohol-sweetened breath, he never makes a false move in the forty-five minutes he dedicates to my shave. No blood, no problems.

Feeling refreshed, I rise from the chair. This routine has somehow become normal, this whole coming-into a-Jimjilbang-and-getting-a-shave-in-a-heated-room-full-of-
naked-Korean-bodies. In the future, will this even feel like a real memory?

Ask me when I step into a brightly-lit Fantastic Sam's in 2009 America.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sharp,clever and kick-ass-funny.
You're an awesome writer!!!