I have been addicted to Korean soap operas for years, since long before K-Pop mania started sweeping the world. Ask anyone. It all started one day when I was sitting on the floor folding laundry, and my TiVo went to change the channel to record something, but the receiver misread the signal and changed the channel to KBS, the Korean Broadcasting Something-or-other. There was this weird show on that kind of looked like a Korean version of Xena: Warrior Princess. I was too lazy to get off the floor to find the remote to change the channel, so I just watched it as I folded the laundry. It was called “Chilwu the Mighty” or “Strongest Chilwu” depending on who’s translating, and it was…hilarious. It was set in the 1600s, and Chilwu was this lowly civil servant guy who was a masked mercenary ninja dude by night.
In that episode, three little girls paid him in rice cakes to kill a “monster”–that turned out to be an elephant–who had supposedly killed their father. None of them, including Chilwu, had ever seen an elephant before, so they didn’t know what it was. Turns out, some emperor in China had given the noble of this region the elephant as a gift, and because the nobleman didn’t know what to do with it, he gave the elephant a government job as a magistrate in this little town where the little girls were from. (I know, right!?)
The evil magistrate who got demoted to make room for the elephant was using the elephant to trick the townspeople into paying super high taxes–which they paid in bags of rice–because he said the elephant ate so much rice that everyone had to pay more to support it. So, the poor townspeople were starving, having to give up all their rice to this elephant. But, in actuality, the evil magistrate was taking the rice and selling it on at a profit that he pocketed, of course, unbeknownst to the townspeople.
The beleaguered townspeople were, one by one, trying to kill the elephant to ease their tax burden, and allegedly getting killed by the elephant in the process. But, it was the evil magistrate’s henchmen who were killing them with a big mallet made to look like an elephant foot, and blaming the poor innocent elephant in order to scare people into compliance. Right. So, fast forward to Chilwu’s entrance on the scene, and they discover that the elephant eats grass, not rice, and the scam was revealed. In the ensuing ninja fight between Chilwu and the evil magistrate’s henchmen, Chilwu vanquished them, and the elephant broke loose and trampled the evil magistrate in a moment of perfect cinematic justice.
It was cheesy and silly and absolutely awesome. I had to have more. But KBS and TiVo had different schedule information, so I ended up having to record three to five hour blocks of KBS in order to capture an episode of Chilwu, and scanning through the recordings to find it. Of course, this got me hooked on the shows that came on before and after Chilwu….and an addiction was born.
KBS was just a gateway drug to dramafever.com, crunchyroll.com, dramacrazy.net….oh yes, the sources are many. At any given time, I’m watching between three and five Korean serials. I usually have at least one modern drama, a romance or romantic comedy, and a historical going, you know, so depending on my mood, there’s always something. The production values are usually very high, the plot twists oh-so twisted, and the people are very pretty. Plus, it’s low commitment, as most of them have only 20 or so episodes. Some have a lot more, but most are around 20 or 30, so it’s not like American soaps, where, once you start watching, you’re on the hook for a lifetime.
One of the most fascinating things to me about watching Korean soaps, especially the ones set in modern times, is the background stuff that is just understood by the Korean audience, but is so odd and new to me. I am constantly pestering my Korean friends with questions like: “why do Korean women eat rice in ice water for breakfast?” and “what’s with the Princess Leia towel hats Koreans wear at the sauna?” It’s fascinating. Some folks have no furniture in their bedrooms, and sleep on the floor; dainty, beautiful women talk unabashedly about how they poop and fart; single straight guys sleep in the same bed together without awkwardness; you always eat seaweed soup on your birthday; there are these red canvas tents on the sidewalk where people go to get drunk on soju; “side dishes” are more important in meals than the entree…oh, and the sauna! Ahhhh…the sauna. This is big.
Koreans love the “jimjilbang,” a.k.a. the sauna. In almost every show I watch, if it’s set in modern times, people are always going to the sauna. They go there to hang out with friends, to nap, to eat, to get massages, to sweat out a cold, to get their dead skin scrubbed off…it’s an integral part of their culture. There’s even a talk show set in a sauna, and the hosts and all the guests wear “spa clothes,” i.e., shorts and t-shirts provided by the sauna, and the ubiquitous Korean sauna towel hat. My friend Yvette is from Seoul, and her daughter showed me how to make the sauna hat. It goes something like this:
Not one to be left out of the fun, I did my research and found a few Korean saunas here in the Bay Area. Oh yes, we have them! There’s one in San Francisco, one in San Leandro, and a couple in Santa Clara. I personally don’t like the one in San Francisco, so I usually go to the one in San Leandro or, if I’m going with Yvette, we go to one in Santa Clara, which is probably the best one up here. That one has a bunch of special sauna rooms, like a clay room, an ice room, and a salt room, where you dig yourself in to a thick layer of salt on the floor and bake like a salt-baked sea bass until your pores open up and gush sweat like faucets. Oh, so good! It’s pretty no-frills, but oooohhh, do you feel good when you leave. Although, I have to say, after my first time having a traditional Korean sauna scrub treatment, I practically needed crisis counseling. It’s not for the faint of heart or the modest. Leave your body issues at home. Seriously.
After I got naked and got all pruney in the various steam rooms and hot and cold pools, a paunchy, middle-aged Korean woman in leopard print bra and panties came and hooked her claw-like fingers around my wrist, and dragged me to the “treatment area,” and threw me on what looked like a morgue table. She then proceeded to douse me with a bucket of water, and start vigorously scrubbing me all over with a mitten that I swear to Madonna must have been made of sandpaper. But that wasn’t the traumatic part, that actually felt pretty good. What I wasn’t prepared for was how they get all up in your business with this scrub. I’m not kidding, people, they go EVERYWHERE. That little scrub lady threw my leg over her shoulder and scrubbed my bikini zone, practically sanded my nipples off, and flipped me over and scrubbed my ass (even between the cheeks)! I was so shocked that I just started laughing, and she threw a towel over my face to quiet me down and kept scrubbing. She scrubbed my earlobes, the tips of my toes, my armpits…basically, every centimeter of my body. She then doused me with another bucket of water, and started over with a mitten of a finer gauge sandpaper.
Dead skin was flying off of me like sawdust off of a piece of timber being sent through a band saw. It was gross and viscerally satisfying all at the same time. Once she had given me the full Karen Silkwood treatment, she grated up a cucumber and patted the pulp all over my face, and then yanked my head up to the top edge of the table and washed my hair like she was pounding laundry on a washboard in a creek. Then she squirted hot soy milk all over me from a condiment bottle, and sent me to the shower to rinse off, before she slathered me with Kirkland brand baby oil, climbed on top of me and gave me a bone crushing massage with her elbows and knees. When it was over, I was all red like I had a sunburn, a bit shaky from the violation/embarrassment, noodley from the massage/beating, and missing a weird mole that had been growing for a while on my collarbone. I was also soft as a Swedish baby bunny’s bottom. All over. I couldn’t keep my hands off myself! And the softness lasted for, like, three weeks! Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’m a regular customer now. I go every four weeks, without fail, to keep the barnacles away. Oh, it feels so good! I don’t even care about the Korean scrub ladies cackling away in Korean over my big ass; I know they’re talking about me, but I figure it’s their right. If my job was to scrub dead skin off of people’s behinds, I bet I’d want to crack jokes about it, too, just to make it more bearable.
Ooh, I almost forgot! Some of the Korean saunas are open 24 hours, and you can even spend the night at those. I noticed in a few of the Korean soaps I watch that people would sleep at the sauna when they went out of town, instead of getting a hotel. You put your stuff in a locker, enjoy the sauna, have a meal in the cafe, watch tv in the common area, and then toss a mat on the heated floor in the sleeping area and sack out. All for the regular price of admission to the sauna, which is nothing compared to even a cheap motel. I asked Yvette if this really was common in Korea, and she said it is, and that there are a few Korean saunas in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that allow it. “Shut up!” I said, “we are so going.” So, last week, Yvette was going to L.A. to pick up her daughter from college anyway, so we drove down together and had ourselves a full blown Korean sauna slumber party. We spent the first night at the Wi Spa, which is the one everyone knows and writes about–you see it mentioned in the L.A. Times on occasion. It’s new and fancy and huge. I didn’t like it. The hot pools didn’t look that clean, and most of the people there were non-Asian, and didn’t seem to get the whole “peace and quiet and relaxation” concept, and were yapping away and on their cell phones and generally being obnoxious and inconsiderate to everyone around them. Plus, the heated floor in the sleeping area was so hot that I was sweating buckets, and had to get up and go sleep on the floor in the ladies’ locker room. It was not restful. But the next night, we stayed at the smaller, less well known Grand Spa, which I liked a lot. Super clean, nice facilities, comfy rest area, and they had little separate sleeping rooms that could accommodate only about five sleeping mats at the most, so we commandeered one for ourselves, and had more peace and quiet. Although, this woman wandered into the room in the middle of the night and dragged off the extra mats in there, and yelled at us for bogarting them. I guess we deserved that. They had a little cafe, and a tv room, and I think I was the only non-Asian there, so it was really quiet and orderly. It was nice. I had a scrub and a massage, so they waived the entry fee, meaning my overnight stay cost nothing! But, even if I had paid the entry fee, it would have only been $20 for the night. You really can’t beat it. The next morning, I was so excited when I woke up and heard this little old Korean lady talking on her cell phone, and I could understand what she was saying! I thought “oh, my years of watching Korean soap operas have paid off, the language is finally sinking in!” But, then I realized, she was speaking Spanish with a very heavy Korean accent. That’s why I could understand her! Oh well.
In between sauna sleepovers, we ate and shopped our way through Koreatown. There are tons of little malls, with all sorts of shops and restaurants. We had the most badass dumplings I’ve ever put in my mouth at Myung In Man Du, which I knew about from a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show. The artist David Choe took Bourdain to this “man du” shop for dumplings, and now I know why. Big and pillowy and fresh and perfectly seasoned, we ate shrimp dumplings and chicken dumplings and pork dumplings and red bean dumplings until we were stuffed like dumplings and about to pop. (Choe also took Bourdain to Sizzler and made him meatball tacos from the buffet, which I thought was hilarious, but we didn’t do that.)
We went to the beauty supply and bought face masks, and the music store for karaoke practice music and K-Pop socks, and had our feet reflexologied, and went to the bakery and had fresh Korean red bean donuts, which are way better than they sound.
We ended the day at “Miss Coffee,” where we did not have coffee, but “patbingsu,” a Korean shaved ice dessert. The house classic came with berries, bananas, chocolate sauce and the ever-present red bean paste over green tea flavored shaved ice, all served in an 8-cup Pyrex measuring cup. No individual bowls, everyone just dug right in. I must say, it was delicious! Lighter than ice cream, but not as crystalline as a sno-cone. I’m a fan.
I’ve had Korean friends for a long time, but until I expressed interest in their culture, they didn’t think to include me in all of the wacky, wonderful Korean rituals that are part of their daily world. I never would have known to express any specific curiosity or interest had I not gotten addicted to Korean soap operas, as a result of being too lazy to get off my butt to get the remote that day I was folding laundry on the floor, and Chilwu ninja-chopped his way into my life. So, thank you, Chilwu. I am forever changed, and eternally grateful for it! Kamsahamnida!