My Right to Be Naked vs. Your Cultural Space

Debbie says:

Sorry we’ve been slow to blog this month. Laurie took a vacation and Debbie was dealing with a death in the family, but we’re both home now and blogging regularly until WisCon, when we traditionally take a week’s break.

One of the stories we’ve been meaning to get around to is the inimitable Margaret Cho‘s experience in a Korean spa. Cho is a Grammy- and Emmy-award nominee, a TV star, a stand-up comic, an actress, and much much more.

 

Korean spas are wonderful, and they hold a special place in my heart. I have been going to the jimjilbang since I was a little girl in Korea. You can have a bath and a scrub and a sauna and usually a meal and other spa treatments if you like, and aroma is special because there’s a huge swimming pool, a state of the art gym and a golf range on the top floor.

I went this morning, had a gorgeous swim in the pool, then went downstairs to have a soak, scrub and sauna. As soon as I walked into the locker room, I felt uncomfortable. I guess I should mention here, Korean spas are, uh — well, clothing optional is not the right thing to call them. It’s more clothing non-optional, in that everyone is naked.

Perhaps I do get stared at a lot because I am a heavily tattooed woman, but I am also a Korean woman, and I feel I have the right to be naked in the Korean spa with other Korean women. I don’t feel shame that my skin is decorated. My tattoos are my glory. I am happy in my skin and I am not sure what to say when others are not happy with my skin.

I walked around from pool to pool, and I kept getting dirty looks from the ladies there. They would talk about me very negatively in Korean, and I just spoke loudly in Korean –- not back at them, but nicely –- saying “ahhh Jotah!” which means “this feels good” –- really at no one -– but just to show that I could understand what they were saying and they weren’t getting away with anything.

Apparently, one thing she knew to say when others are not happy with her skin is “ahhh Jotah!” “This feels good” may very well apply to more than just the sauna. From what she says, it at least generally applies to her own feeling, living in her gloriously tattooed skin.

After a while, the manager came out to talk with her, deeply embarrassed and fully aware that she was talking to one of the most famous Koreans in America.

She tried to explain that in Korean culture, tattoos are very taboo and my body was upsetting everyone there. I told her I was aware of that, but that I really wanted to enjoy the spa and my treatments and I was going to pay for them, just like everyone else there (it’s pricey, by the way). She asked if I could please wear something, anything -– a towel or something –- and cover myself so that I wouldn’t frighten anyone with my body.

In the end, she leaves, tense and unsettled and–so out of character for Margaret Cho–nearly speechless. Here’s how she ends her essay:

I guess it comes down to this -– I deserve better.

I brought the first Korean American family to television. I have influenced a generation of Asian American comedians, artists, musicians, actors, authors -– many, many people to do what they dreamed of doing, not letting their race and the lack of Asian Americans in the media stop them. If anything, I understand Korean culture better than most, because I have had to fight against much of its homophobia, sexism, racism –- all the while trying to maintain my fierce ethnic pride. I struggle with the language so that I can be better understood. I try to communicate my frustrations in Korean so that I can enhance my relationship with my identity, my family, my parents homeland.

I deserve to be naked if I want to.

Everyone deserves to be naked if they want to; you don’t have to be a national heroine, you don’t have to be able to prove your cultural heritage, you don’t have to justify yourself. You do have to be in a space where it’s appropriate for you to be naked. You do have to be respectful of the people around you. And that’s where the complications come in to Cho’s story.

Why do Korean women in America go to the Korean spa? They don’t just do it to get clean. They don’t just do it to watch golf in the sauna. Every woman there is probably there for a different set of reasons, but a common one, perhaps more important than getting clean and warm, probably would be finding a familiar space, a space that feels safe in a strange and often unwelcoming country, a space that feels like home.

Into this protected space comes a figure of confusion. She’s Korean, she’s tattooed all over, she’s clearly at home with the culture of the spa and the language of the customers, she’s both polite and transgressive, both appropriate and inappropriate. Beyond a doubt, the right thing to do is to make her welcome, to look past the tattoos to the woman who is also looking beyond a bath and a scrub to a place where she can be Korean, where she can escape the maelstrom of the outside world. No doubt there were women in that spa who envied or admired her tattoos, who wanted to look at them more closely, who wanted to connect with her.

But bullies and mean girls come in all flavors: all ages, all races, all genders. And unless someone is brave enough in the moment to push back against the meanness, it usually is louder and more powerful than the impulses to kindness. The curious and the kind and the accepting usually sit back and wish they knew how to counter the cruelty. Sometimes they even play along to feel protected themselves. And everyone loses. It’s easy to sympathize with the discomfort of the clientele; what’s hard to accept, what made Cho so unhappy, is how they dealt with their discomfort.

Cho was not acting disrespectfully; she was in a space made for her, which she knows how to navigate. She brought her whole self to the spa, and was told that an essential part of her was unwelcome. The most disturbing part of the story is the role of the management; they had an opportunity to come down on the side of inclusiveness and welcoming, to invite Cho to stay naked and tell their other customers (however you do this really politely in Korean culture) to suck it up and let the painted lady stay. And the saddest piece is that they were so “friendly and apologetic” as they made Cho unwelcome that she overtipped them hugely, because she didn’t want to upset them.

She deserves to be naked if she wants to. The women in the spa deserve to have a place where they can be in their own cultural framework. In many situations, not everyone can get what they want–and it’s just about always better if the people with the situational privilege are the ones who give something up. Privilege is dangerously addictive, however, and hard to acknowledge, let alone release. 

One thought on “My Right to Be Naked vs. Your Cultural Space

  1. Ah, this saddens me. I admire and respect Margaret Cho, who is tough and funny and beautiful ( also, I heart her tattoos), but I would feel just as sad if the storyteller had been someone I’d never heard of. Deb, your commentary is dead center for me. She went to a place she thought of as a part of “home,” where she belonged, and discovered that “home”, that piece of it, anyway, didn’t want her. Too bad the management couldn’t get behind her. Too bad there was not one single woman in the place to stand up and say, “My sister, welcome, sit your butt down and tell me where you got that gorgeous ink.” Too bad.

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