I chose Koreatown’s no-frills Zen Spa & Sauna (formerly known as Yi Pak Spa), recommended by several Korean American New Yorkers as the most “authentic” experience. For one not in the know, it would be easy to overlook Zen Spa & Sauna as yet another Midtown day spa, with its generic name, sidewalk placard, and flyers featuring orchids and bamboo. In fact, the spa’s sign abuts a sign for “99¢ fresh pizza,” giving the impression that body scrubs and “2 slice & can or water” can be had simultaneously.
In the dressing room, my ajumma, a Korean woman dressed in black yoga pants and a tank top, greets me and offers me a perfunctory towel (every time I attempt to use it, she yanks it off) before leading me to a lukewarm steam room. I am the only customer in sight. The room begins to fill with spurts of steam that smell distinctly like boiled celery. I shiver as I watched the cardinal-themed wall thermometer climb from 98 to a still-tepid 110 degrees.
After ten minutes of steaming, my ajumma—who now has her yoga pants rolled up to her groin—leads me to a tiled room outfitted with a plastic-sheeted table, where she tells me to lie facedown. Beneath the spigots on the back wall, steam issues from a row of plastic garbage bins brimming with water, colored bowls floating on top. “Too strong you let me know,” she chirps by way of introduction, then tosses a few bowls of scalding water over my back. My skin flinches at first, then begins to throb pleasantly. She dons two blue plastic mitts (which look like they might have originated in a housewares section), lathers up, and begins to scrub.
I feel like a piece of furniture being sanded: she approaches the scrub not as a fine woodworker exposing the hidden grain but like a carpenter readying a two-by-four. She pins me down with one hand as my body rocks beneath her mitts; the sensation isn’t painful, but it isn’t relaxing, either. The rasping echoes off the tiles. After five minutes, I am becoming chilly, but just in time she douses me with another bowlful of hot water. This is such a relief I almost tell her to skip the scrub and just throw water on me for an hour. But the mood here is one of industry, not pampering, as she flips me up and down and side to side. At one point she announces, “Lots of dead skin!” and I peer from beneath the head towel to see a few graying curls—not unlike eraser crumbs—accumulating on my arm. I had sort of hoped to see drifts of ddae piling up around the table, like when I got my carpets steam-cleaned and the Sears guy kept coming back to brandish the vessel of tainted water.
The exfoliation continues, the silence in the room punctuated only by the susurration of her mitts and the splats of water hitting the tile floor. Finally I feel squirts of melon-scented lotion followed by warm oil trailing across my skin. As her hands pummel my shoulders, I nearly slide off the table, but she catches me and pushes me up into a seated position, where I find a bowl of lukewarm milk resting between my knees. She points. “Wash face.” I dunk my face a few times and looked to her for approval, milk dribbling down my chin. She nods, then pours the remaining milk over my body. She hoses me down from one of the spigots like a child just returned from the beach and pronounces, “Scrub done.”
Finally, I lie in a cold sauna, my head resting on a wooden-block pillow, waiting for the feeble heater to warm up. A few items of clothing have been hung to dry on the railing. In the dressing room, I notice the rug features a purple zipper half-undone.
Peeking back into the spa, I see my ajumma—who has changed her yoga pants for a pair of black underpants--on her hands and knees, scrubbing the tile floor with the same relentless urgency. She flashes a smile, then bends back to her work.