Swimming in Korea and the Etiquette You Didn’t Know About

Written by E. J. Jones

Ever get sick of going to the gym? I used to get bored of it all the time, so one day I racked my brain for alternative methods to stay healthy and in shape. That’s when I read that swimming was not only better for your joints than most other forms of exercise, but it was also a full-body workout, unlike machines at the gym, which often isolate only certain muscles. In addition, I discovered the underwater mp3 player (technology which has existed for years now, but I had never expected to actually work well), and with this my days of boredom and sweat at the gym ended – perhaps forever. I mean, full-body workout, no sweat, and steady laps while listening to my favorite tunes or even double-timing by studying Korean via podcast while I exercise? Sign me up.

So off I went to the pool. Little did I know I was in for a few surprises. Now, if you’ve ever been to a jjimjilbang (찜질방, Korean spa), you know there is a certain etiquette that must be followed: remove shoes before entering the locker room, strip down, shower and scrub yourself well, and then – and only then – may you enter the sauna and pools. Unfortunately for me, I was unaware that there were similar rules at the pool, so I did what I used to do back home. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes (saves time and also awkwardness of stripping in front of strangers), did a swift rinse in the shower, and jumped into the pool. Thankfully, I was prepared with the swim cap and goggles required by Korean pools as I had to use these back in my days on the middle school swim team. Actually, I think only the cap is required, but the goggles are definitely needed when swimming laps. In any case, if you don’t have those, you can pick them up at the convenient swim shop at the pool’s entrance. Caps run about 10,000–15,000 won and a decent pair of goggles will be around 20,000.

Well, after a couple of trips to the pool, the ajummas (아줌마, marriage-age women) there finally addressed the several infringements I had apparently been making against the Korean pool-going ways.

There I was… in the shower, suit on, doing my quick rinse, when I was approached by one of them. I was surprised when she spoke to me in English as I was living in Naju at the time and very few non-students spoke much English. The woman looked me sternly in the eyes and said I needed to take my swimsuit off, wash my hair, and use soap to wash my body before entering the pool. As she did this, I noticed several nods of agreement from the other naked ladies in the shower room. My immediate reaction was a mix of embarrassment with a bit of annoyance. Who were they to tell me how to shower before entering the pool? I wanted to tell them off, but instead, I just said, “okay” and did as I was told while avoiding eye contact the rest of the time I was in there because I was afraid that if I didn’t comply with the demands of the ajumma hierarchy, I’d be kicked out and not allowed to return. Still, it seemed silly to me that I had to wash so thoroughly before entering a pool filled with chemicals that I would only be washing off of my body once again when I took my proper shower afterwards.

After my swim and second thorough shower, I wrapped my towel around me and went to my locker, not paying any attention to the trail of water I was leaving behind me – that is, until I heard the loud and incredulous grumblings of the cleaning ajumma. I turned to see the elderly woman wiping up my water trail with a towel, which she then held up in my face, spouting angry-sounding things in Korean, again, with approving nods from others in the locker room. I figured from this that it was not like back home where nobody cared how much water got on the locker room floor. Here, even a drop, and you might get a thirty-second lecture. Well, I learned my lesson that day as I left the pool nearly in tears and thought to myself that I’d never return. Eventually, I got over the scarring experience and did go back, though.

Since learning the Korean pool code of conduct, I’ve moved to Gwangju, where I conveniently live only a few minutes’ bike ride from the World Cup Stadium and Yeomju Sports Center in Pungam-dong. At this location, they have one of the best, if not the best, indoor pools open to the public for lap swimming. The pool building is directly across from the indoor tennis courts, which sit behind the giant Lotte Mart and massive soccer stadium. You just walk in and tell them you want to swim. It costs 5,000 won for a single entrance or you can pay around 80,000 won for a month at a time – the monthly pass isn’t worth it, though, unless you are going to go more than three times per week.

Open swim times are Monday–Friday from 1 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with meal breaks from 7–9 a.m. and 12–1 p.m.). At the pool, you should expect to find crowded lanes most of the time. I was surprised by this at first, as with pools back home it is not uncommon to have the luxury of a lane to oneself. This will rarely happen in Korea. I’m not sure why, but my theory is that here cities are more densely populated in general and there are probably not as many indoor pools available.

Despite the crowds, I keep going back to the pool because, for me, it still beats the sweat and monotony at the gym. Plus, you get that full-body workout! Just be sure to scrub thoroughly and don’t drip an ounce of water onto that locker room floor, or you will surely have to face the wrath of the cleaning ajummas.

Eden has been living in Korea since 2014 and enjoys reading, writing, snowboarding, and enchanting the locals with her violin when she can manage to find a spare minute away from her editing responsibilities at the Gwangju News. Eden became Managing Editor in September 2017.

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