Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Coming Clean In Korea

A few years before the 24th Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, I spent a couple of months traveling around Korea while waiting for the Japanese consulate in Seoul to process my visa. There was some sort of mix up, and they ended up taking their time.

"How long will it be?" I asked the secretary anxiously.

She shrugged. "Could be a week. Or it could be over a month."

My heart sank. I didn't have much money and I didn't speak Korean. While I waited for my visa, I had a lot of time to kill, and not much else. In my possession were a youth hostel card, my Japanese-English dictionary, and a backpack full of dirty laundry. It was a very hot summer and I'd had to travel from Northern Japan down to the South, where I took the ferry from Shimonoseki to Pusan. I'd been trying in vain to find a Laundromat ever since arriving in Pusan.

At the youth hostel in Seoul I was told that no washing machine was available. Fortunately, a girl from Hong Kong gave me her Korean-English phrase book and I learned how to ask for the Laundromat in Korean. But the phrase books can never tell you how to understand or respond to any of the several hundred answers you might get, so after a while I gave up and began using Japanese instead. Most Koreans over the age of fifty knew Japanese to some degree, thanks to Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, so why shouldn't I use the one language I had in common, right? Actually, I'll tell you why not. Although the history and politics between Japan and Korea are complicated, most Koreans who learned Japanese under Japanese rule do not enjoy using the language, however fluently they might speak it. In fact, they bitterly resent it.

After a while, though, I worked out a way. If I approached people in a humble way and made my language suitably contrite and respectful (something that is very easy to do given the various politeness levels in Japanese), they responded very well. In fact, not only did I find my way to the post office, pharmacy, an international book shop and a bakery, I also had some fascinating conversations with a variety of elderly Koreans. "I never imagined I would be speaking Japanese with a young lady from America," one tall, genteel man remarked, shaking his head in wonder.

But I did not find the Laundromat, and all my queries were met with polite shrugs.

"Just give up and wash your clothes by hand," said a fellow American I'd met along the way. "That's what I've been doing."

But that was what I'd been doing too, and I was tired of it. In fact, I began to see the Laundromat as a kind of Holy Grail. There just had to be one, and I was determined to find it.

During my second week in Korea, someone mentioned that one of the larger hotels in the town where I was staying took in laundry for a modest sum. I bundled up my disgusting laundry and took it to the hotel in the morning. I asked the lady at the desk if I could use the machines on my own, but she didn't seem to understand me, so I handed them my whopping bag of filthy clothes after agreeing on a very reasonable price. They told me I could collect my laundry any time after five that evening.

I had a wonderful day, traveling around the town, knowing that somewhere my laundry was happily churning about in a washing machine, finally getting clean. My friends and I treated ourselves to a lavish breakfast at another western style hotel (my company in Japan having sent me financial reinforcements) and we spent the day touring the town. Just after lunch, we happened to pass over a bridge that spanned a rushing river. Looking down, we saw a group of women, washing clothes. It was an incredibly picturesque scene: this group of middle-aged women, brown from the sun and remarkably fit and healthy, laughing as they worked. Slapping the bigger items on the large, flat rocks, one woman made a comment that sent one of her companions into hysterics. Another woman seemed to be in charge of the smaller items; squeezing streams of water out of each piece, she would then dip it back into the water several more times, then repeat the process. I watched in admiration: the family's clothes were getting very clean indeed.

Then one of my traveling companions nudged me. "Hey, isn't that the dress you were wearing yesterday?"

I laughed.

"No, seriously," she said, craning her neck for a better view. "The beige one with the black checks on it. And, whoa! -- those are your blue shorts! Take a look."

I did -- and instantly stopped laughing. The ladies were washing my stuff all right -- every single bit of it. My disgusting, filthy laundry was in the river, polluting the water. They were actually handling it. I blanched, remembering the state of it. Suddenly their earlier laughter didn't seem quite so cheery.

When I went to the hotel to collect my clothes that evening, everything was neatly folded and ironed to within an inch of its life. There was no doubt about it: my clothes had never been so clean.

But after that I washed everything by hand.



-eve- said...

An incredible story, Mary! You have had a positively unbelievable life.........!!!!!!!! ;-)

Carole said...

This makes me kind of sad. You had no idea that your laundry wouldn't be done by machines and yet you end up feeling guilty. Bummer. But the story itself was delightful and you did provide job security and an opportunity for laughter to the "wash machines."

Kim Ayres said...

Wonderful - I had to call Maggie up to read it to her :)

Gorilla Bananas said...

Well that's tradition for you! She must have really enjoyed doing them by hand.

Mary Witzl said...

Eve -- My life has been very tame compared to some. I'm just determined to get extra mileage from my stories by telling them. With a captive audience, I can't resist indulging myself.

Carole -- I found out later that the reason no one could tell me where the laundromats were was because there were none. In fact, only a few people had washing machines in their homes back then. I really have to hand it to those women. I once lived for a year without my own washing machine, and washing things by hand is not much fun -- especially in the winter. But you are right: I figured someone would just dump my stuff into a machine and press a button. I had no idea a group of women were going to get up close and personal with it.

Kim -- I'm betting Maggie was as grossed out as I was!

GB -- There is no way this could have been pleasant for those women, and yet they were laundering with such obvious cheer. Too bad you can't buy that sort of attitude. I'd go out and get myself one straight away.

The Anti-Wife said...

They were probably having a good laugh about the silly Japanese speaking American looking for a laundromat

Susan Sandmore said...

Oh my gosh. That was something! I do remember those days of lugging around a duffel bag full of dirty clothes--all the clothes I'd brought from home to Ireland, where I lived and worked one summer. I can't recall how I washed them . . . I think the hostel must have had a machine. Isn't it strange what we remember and forget?

debra said...

Traveling can be humbling can't it. But we always learn something, which is a good thing.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Japan is more civilized, as you may know, when it comes to laundry, we found on our visit to Japan. They actually HAVE clothes dryers.

Unfortunately they don't vent the dryers, however; So your clothes just roll around and get highly "steamed".

After being in the clothes dryer a while, you then take them out and hang them on the line... to dry!

They have "dish dryers" in Japan also. They work on the same principle. After using the dish dryer, dry the dishes with a towel and put them away.

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- The paranoid part of me thought they were laughing over the state of the American's underwear. I was a student, on a budget, and hadn't replenished my wardrobe in some time. They may well have wondered why I didn't just throw it all out and buy new stuff.

Susan -- You are absolutely right. I remember washing my clothes by hand in Yokohama, but that is only because it was such an ordeal. And while I remember seeing these women washing my clothes in a river, I cannot remember which town I was in at the time. I have my diary somewhere (I've kept a diary of some sort since the age of 9), but I'm too lazy to go look for it.

You spent a summer in Ireland? I'll bet you've got some good memories!

Debra -- I learned plenty during that trip -- mainly that not everyone had it as easy as I did. I felt pretty grateful for my twin tub cold water washing machine after that trip.

Robert -- Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting!

There really isn't enough space in Japan to accomodate clothes' driers. The last time I visited California, I was shocked to notice that EVERYONE used a clothes drier, even when the sun was shining brightly. Japan's energy consumption, high as it is, doesn't come close to America's. Granted, it can be a pain in the neck to hang out clothes, but I did it for 17 years. During that time, I think I may have used a clothes drier twice, tops.

Where did you go in Japan, and when were you there?

marshymallow said...

Wow. Ummm... yuck. And here i am, shocked at the tiny-ness of the washing machines in Italy, and having to dry clothes on a clothes line. Actually, that wouldn't be so bad if we hadn't lived four stories up on a volcano, so that everything was either coated with ash or fallen down onto someone else's balcony by the time it was dry.

Merry Monteleone said...


I swear, I have the most fun reading your posts! I can't imagine being in a country where only some of the people speak a secondary language you speak, and they hate that language... I would be mortified if someone had to wash my clothes by hand, and I have a machine, it's just the idea.

Sorry it's been so long since I stopped by... I'm starting to get back into the bloggy swing of things though, and if you missed my response to your last comment on my blog - I would be happy to beta read for you any time - I would absolutely love to!

Oh, and tag, you're it!

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Oh blimey! What a tale to tell though after the mortification faded. Wonderful!

I've been stuck laundryless before and I swear there was a day when, if I hadn't found one, my laundry would probably have walked out of my backpack by itself if it sensed water nearby.

ChristineEldin said...

Mary, You have got to collect all these stories and submit them as a collection. I AM NOT KIDDING!!!

This is too funny!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Marshymallow -- Hanging out clothes near an active volcano must have been like hanging them out in Tokyo: you almost feel like they're dirtier after you've washed them. When we were kids, my mother always pegged out the laundry. Even after everyone else had clothes driers, we never got one. In my 17 years in Japan, I never met anyone with a clothes drier. I myself don't have a drier now and I will never get one; they use an enormous amount of energy and drying clothes is what the sun is for.

Merry -- I'm glad to see you again! I'm betting you've been getting some serious writing done -- right? I've just finished a big rewrite and now I am hoping that something good will come of this, but we'll see...

I too like to be responsible for my own dirt. I could NEVER have a maid; as much as I hate housecleaning, the idea of someone else handling my dirty clothes, etc, humiliates me. I really felt for those wash-women and I admired them, too: they had a hard job, but seemed to be doing it with joy.

Ooh, and I've been tagged again! I'll see what I can come up with...

Sam -- Believe me, these clothes were ready to migrate! While it is possible that the hotel I took them to did not use their precious washing machines for small items like mine, it is also possible that once they took a look at the state of them, they figured only an entire river would get them clean. But you are right: even in my mortification, I thought to myself that it would make a great story -- some day.

Christine -- Thank you for that vote of confidence. Somewhere I have a folder of my memoir rejections. 'Loads of fun, but who will want to read this?' was pretty much the concensus. I think I've mentioned that one agent said he could certainly find a publisher for my work if I were famous. Sigh.

Middle Ditch said...

Delightful story. Spreekt u Nederlands?

kathie said...

Hey Mary, your travels are something else. There is something so unique about your stories--the way there are tinges of sadness in them (prob. just my impression--loneliness)but so much adventure and courage and inner steeliness that so few people have. I know many, many people who say "I have no desire to see the world...etc." and while I do want to travel, badly and extensively, I couldn't do what you did, either. Keep the stories coming. And try my site again, my web-master swears she fixed the problem!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Middle Ditch -- Thank you for commenting. I am sorry to say that I cannot speak Dutch. When I lived in the Netherlands (near S'Hertogenbosch), I got by in English, though towards the end of my time there, I could understand a lot and manage easy sentences like "Ik kan het Nederlands spreken niet." Dutch is hard to pronounce: I had real trouble distinguishing between 'onion' and 'egg.' Are you Dutch, and if not, where did you learn it?

Kathie -- I visited your blog yesterday, but could not post anything on it! I have the same problem on Sam's blog, and as I love commenting on your blogs, I am so frustrated! I wonder if anyone else is having this problem? Whenever I post anything nowadays, I have to click on 'PUBLISH YOUR COMMENT' two or three times before it takes; it's as though someone else is receiving my messages too.

Having traveled a lot on my own, I know how many others have done this and how much more interesting some of their stories are. My only claim to fame is using Japanese as a lingua franca when I traveled. And perhaps yakking my head off wherever I went.

The Quoibler said...


I'm wondering what the women said that made them laugh? Although you were embarrassed and felt guilty, they might have been enjoying their work and not been disgusted by filthy garments at all.

Then again, maybe they were saying, "Should we just bury these or actually give them back to that beastly American?"


Katie Alender said...

Wonderful, as usual, Mary.

We (in California) do have a clothes dryer, but we air-dry quite a bit of our stuff to prevent shrinkage, etc.

I do like to haul my drying rack outside on a sunny day, but it's actually pretty dusty here, since we get so little rain. I'm always afraid I'll find my clothes covered in a thin layer of smog.

Kara said...

i'm trying to figure out how i'd feel about that had it happened to me. 'cause at first i'd be all "hey! i paid for machine quality washing!"...but then i'd be like "wow...she's really giving them the whatfor. i'd never get them that clean by hand" and then i'd probably settle into "i'm hungry...lets get some noodles".

yes. that's how it would go.

Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- I may be paranoid, but I'd bet they were saying that last thing you mentioned -- "Oh God, who in her right mind wants junk like this washed?"

And yet, I know I AM paranoid about this. When our kids were little, there was one other American father at the nursery they went to. Very rarely I would run into him and we chatted in English, and the kids' teachers were always certain we were talking about them behind their backs. All we were discussing was teething and diaper rash, but our English made them uneasy.

Katie -- I am glad to hear you air dry! About ten years ago, I went back to California and they were having electricity failures. Everyone complained bitterly, but even on sunny days, they had their driers going full time.

I'm from Riverside, so I certainly know what smog is, and yes, you do feel like everything you hang out gets coated in smog. But you have to wear your clothes outside anyway; at some point they will get exposed to the elements, including smog. If I were governor of California, I'd give people who didn't have driers rebates...

Kara -- In fact, that is exactly what happened. Those ladies were giving my clothes the best washing they ever had. I couldn't get over how clean they were; they didn't even look like my things, they were so pristine and perfectly ironed (even the hideous underwear). We crossed the bridge and went and had bibimpa for lunch.

danette said...

Oh my gosh! What a coincidence. (And how mortifying to have a friend spot your clothing while others wash it!)

Ello said...

Oh my god! I was crying by the end of this story! Oh you have such a way with these! Mary, you need to write all these into a travelogue type book on Japan and Korea. It would be so awesome!

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- Yes, and she figured it out before I did! It was surreal: the last thing I thought was that my clothes would be washed in a river, but in retrospect it was pretty neat. I still have the dress, too...

Ello -- You are so good for my ego! Now all I need is for you to become an agent so I can submit my travel stories to you (smile). Maybe I should polish these up and try again: I traveled a lot and I have a ton of stuff...

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, I've never had anything this embarrassing happen to me with laundry while traveling, but I do recall washing out Levi's jeans in buckets in Italy -- and swirling them like lassos above my head to get the worst water out of them before hanging them to dry. And while our dance group was doing a festival in Billingham, England, we stayed in university classrooms. One classroom was filled with tables moved in from other rooms so cots could be put up for the many dancers from all over the world. I strung a 50 foot clothesline (which I always take with me when I travel) from table leg to table leg, and the room soon filled with dripping clothes from all over the world. In a kindergarten room near Seville, Spain, we put our wet clothes on tiny chairs in the play area -- in 110 degree heat. They cooked dry in one hour and had a burned smell to them.
Robert, your comment is hysterical!
Mary, as for clotheslines, I have some in my basement, and I use them all the time. I have a dryer, but I only use it to fluff things like towels and jeans -- maybe 10 minutes a week. I find the clotheslines much more convenient because I can leave laundry hanging until I have time to fold it, instead of having to snatch it out of the dryer before it wrinkles.

Mary Witzl said...

Hi, APW. Love the swirling lassos! In fact, you were performing a folk dance right there, weren't you? The dance of the whirling rinse cycle.

If they really needed clothes driers and dishwashers in Japan, the Japanese could and would make them. But there really isn't enough room for such appliances in most homes, so people make do without. I admire this endlessly, just as I admire Koreans for managing without washing machines. Or I should say, Korean WOMEN, because I never once saw a man do any washing in Korea.

Good for you, for still using a clothesline! I carry one too, when we travel, along with plastic bottles of washing liquid. I have a good system: I wait until someone has finished a bath and I use that water to wash in, then run a cold bath and rinse everything in that. It works fine and it always makes me grateful I don't have to do that all the time.

How I envy you that Spanish sun, though. We could use a little of that right now to get our towels dry. I've been hanging everything out in weak sunshine and drizzle for the past two months.

Beloved said...

What a great post. It was very interesting to read how you were received as an American speaking Japanese. And the laundry--well, that's just crazy funny!

Believe it or not, that's exactly how my husband was washing all his clothes when I first started dating him in...1996! I never wanted to be the girlfriend who did her guy's laundry, but under the circumstances (because I had a machine), I ended up succumbing. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Beloved -- It's interesting that your husband was washing his clothes this way even in 1996. I greatly admire people who can wash their clothes by hand. I did it for the better part of a year, and it wore me out.

I have two more laundry stories, believe it or not (one of which also took place in Korea), but I'll wait until later to post them!