“Korean Spa” by Sarina Prabasi

It wasn’t self-care, it was survival. A chance to build up some resilience to deal with the overwhelm, and the panic of living in a world gone so wrong. A world where words had been separated from their meanings, and other words were strung together in sentences that should never be. I didn’t have the vocabulary to create a story-bridge between our young daughters and the country I had chosen for them. That’s when I started going to yoga and getting massages. I did it out of fear that if I didn’t, I might lose my mind, or my life. I did it so I could preserve myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my humanity. I did it so I could be a mama to my girls and so I could stay true to some sense of myself.

Then, one day, I was initiated into the New York City sub-culture of the Korean Spa.  How had I lived for almost a decade in this city and not experienced this? I lay naked under too-bright lights, a cool, wet face cloth covering my eyes, hyper-aware of the hard plastic under me, and of the other women. All of us in a neat row, on pink plastic tables like mine. An older Korean woman wearing a matching set of black bra and underwear poured warm water over me and started vigorously scrubbing my skin. Was it a loofah, a sponge? I couldn’t tell with my eyes covered. It was painful, but not painful enough for me to complain. I kept my eyes closed under the washcloth. When I shifted a little, I felt something grainy against my palm and tried to flick it off. I opened one eye and moved the wet cloth slightly to peek at what it might be. I saw what looked like a grey-black grain of rice. On the table, I saw lots more. In fact, they were all around me. Ugh. It was my own dead skin. I quickly closed my eyes and covered them again with the washcloth. It was probably normal, and this woman had probably seen everything, I told myself. It didn’t stop me from feeling ashamed of that grime.

Yet, it also made so much sense. We’ve been polluted by the world we’ve created, by the dirty politics, by big money, by impossible choices. My skin has breathed it all in. And when she finally stopped the vigorous rubbing, the spa attendant poured warm water again, this time washing away all those dirty grains, and I was scrubbed and new, soft and clean.


Sarina Prabasi is author of The Coffeehouse Resistance: Brewing Hope in Desperate Times , out now from Green Writers Press. Following a career leading initiatives in global health, education, water and sanitation, Sarina moved with her husband from Addis Ababa to New York City, where they started Buunni Coffee together. Today, Buunni is a thriving business and a hub for community conversation and action. On Twitter she’s @SPrabasi, and on Instagram @SPrabasi1. You can find out more on her website, www.sarinaprabasi.net.

Photo by Manu Schwendener.

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