One of my favorite places to go in Seoul is a women-only spa. From the moment I step into the floral wall-papered room, greeted by two smiling women, I let out a sigh of relief. I have escaped the male-dominated culture that envelopes me like a sea of maleness.
I have survived the threatening waves of aggressive traffic, I have dashed the spewing foam of spit, I have ignored the combing eyes of middle-aged men seeking a lewd encounter. "Are you Russian?" they ask me. My eyes drop, but why should I feel shame? It`s Sunday afternoon and these men are inquiring if I want to exchange sexual favors for money.
Where are their wives? Where is the dignity? The respect? I am an educated Westerner, conservatively dressed, and yet I feel like a vessel teetering in a harbor that`s been littered by careless polluters.
I step into a hot tub that miraculously takes the strain out of my muscles and the worry out of my mind. The Korean women glance at me; they`re curious, but I`m used to it, and they, too, are used to me by now.
I`ve been coming to the spa regularly to escape the oceans of chauvinism that sweep over me on a daily basis.
My daily routine is forgotten.
Who needs to be reminded of starting the day by reading newspapers that devote the majority of their pages to politics, corruption and crime? Who needs to be reminded of the irony of distorting a country`s history and yet witnessing the distorted representation of a gender? Or about the shame and pain of being colonized, yet freely colonizing half the population without feelings of regret?
Or the outrage of hegemony in countries, but not in people?
After reading the paper, I would venture out to work. There, I drown. I edit passages about all the great men from ancient history to modern times. Even Hitler can sound good. I am like a grain of salt in the ocean, overwhelmed by the salinity in the sea of maleness.
Where are the women? How can society hide them so well? I have been thrown a life preserver at times. Here and there, I witness a portrayal of a woman who is not an emotional hand-wringer or a shadow in the background.
I`m given hope.
I finish work and jet across the streets and dart around the intrusive motorcycles on the sidewalk. I pass the men eating galbi and drinking soju. I step on advertisements selling women`s bodies. I get home and breathe a sigh of relief. I have survived another day. And only a few more days until I can visit the spa again.
At home, I hear of yet another case of domestic violence. This time, the woman has only been married 12 days. Her nose is broken. She has lost her baby.
Isn`t the world paying attention?
Violence affects one in three women. Nobody seems to care.
Nobody`s listening. She`s cried an ocean and we`re impervious to it. How long will it go on?
How long will women suffer in silence? She`s been kicked, beaten, stripped, raped.
We`re slow to make laws, even slower to enforce them. Impunity is one of the biggest factors in propagating violence, yet stories of false allegations garner more news today than impunity.
Divorce is often a result of domestic violence. So are infidelity and personality differences. Yet blaming women`s increasing independence or their financial gains are cited more often in the mainstream press than these facts are.
At the spa, I submerge my head in the hot liquid. I break the surface of tranquility when I poke my head back up. One must make some kind of wave in order to break the perception of normality.
Normality like violence against women being seen as inevitable.
Normality like being violent or in control as definitions of masculinity. Being weak or emotional as definitions of femininity.
These are not normal.
They`re prescribed. Enforced. Contrived. Unimaginative. Limiting. Suffocating.
I look at the bubbling fluid being dislodged in the pool. Water deceptively appears soft but it is, in fact, incredibly hard as anyone who has ever done a belly flop knows. Women, like water, have persevered. We`ve been crossed and we`ve been damned.
We fall and get back up again.
We`re man-made, not by engineers but by surgeons. We`re nature`s beauty, yet dangerous to the careless boater.
We`ve forgotten our strength, in fact, and it`s no wonder. It`s been overlooked for so long. Our river is just a trickle that leads into the sea. The vast, powerful sea.
But, yet, here we are. We`ve had waves of feminism increase our rights. But we`re in need of more. We need a tsunami.
It could happen. Maybe not in my lifetime. But it could happen. One day. Some day.
Perhaps in the 21st century? How is it that in modern times, times of freedom and democracy, we still suffer inequality?
Sadly, I turn in my locker key and walk past the fountains in the foyer to exit. I step back into the sea of maleness, but somehow, remarkably, after just a few hours at the spa, the sea feels calmer.
Joan Dawson is a U.S. citizen residing in Seoul as an editor of high school ESL books. - Ed.