Aroma Smells Like Bigotry

Aroma Spa & Sports

This is a really beautiful Korean spa in Los Angeles. Korean spas are wonderful, and they hold a special place in my heart. I have been going to the jijilbang since I was a little girl in Korea. You can have a bath and a scrub and a sauna and usually a meal and other spa treatments if you like, and aroma is special because there’s a huge swimming pool, a state of the art gym and a golf range on the top floor.

I went this morning, had a gorgeous swim in the pool, then went downstairs to have a soak, scrub and sauna. As soon as I walked into the locker room, I felt uncomfortable. I guess I should mention here, Korean spas are, uh — well, clothing optional is not the right thing to call them. It’s more clothing non-optional, in that everyone is naked.
Perhaps I do get stared at a lot because I am a heavily tattooed woman, but I am also a Korean woman, and I feel I have the right to be naked in the Korean spa with other Korean women. I don’t feel shame that my skin is decorated. My tattoos are my glory. I am happy in my skin and I am not sure what to say when others are not happy with my skin.

I walked around from pool to pool, and I kept getting dirty looks from the ladies there. They would talk about me very negatively in Korean, and I just spoke loudly in Korean –- not back at them, but nicely –- saying “ahhh Jotah!” which means “this feels good” –- really at no one -– but just to show that I could understand what they were saying and they weren’t getting away with anything.

I walked into the huge sauna, naked, and sat there watching golf on tv –- they have a fucking tv in the sauna. How sweet is that? A few seconds later, a fully clothed young woman, I am guessing the manager of Aroma Spa, came into the sauna, looked around and walked back out. Then, I guess she mustered up the courage and came in again and asked me if I would come outside with her, as the sauna was too hot for her as she was fully dressed.

I walked out to next to the pools with her, and she sat me down on the wet bench and tried to tell me, very apologetically that I was making the women there upset with my heavily tattooed body. She was really sorry and embarrassed about it, and I felt bad, but I was actually enraged.

This is something I have never done -– I actually said, in Korean “Do you know who I am? I am MARGARET CHO!” She realized who I was, and she was horrified! She said she did know me, and had seen me and was familiar with my work, and she apologized even more profusely and tried to explain that in Korean culture, tattoos are very taboo and my body was upsetting everyone there. I told her I was aware of that, but that I really wanted to enjoy the spa and my treatments and I was going to pay for them, just like everyone else there (it’s pricey, by the way). She asked if I could please wear something, anything -– a towel or something –- and cover myself so that I wouldn’t frighten anyone with my body.

She brought me a robe and arranged for some nice extras in my treatments, by way of apology, or uh, whatever.

Even after donning a robe, I was still being given heavy duty Korean woman stinkeye as I moved from sauna to hot tub to pool. I would get into the pools, trying to stay as clothed as possible until the last minute, just trying to get my body into the water and all the Korean stinkeye women would all get out.

This was too much to bear, and I knew I had to get out of there before I got all “OLDBOY” on them, as I watch too many Korean gangster movies and can threaten a bitch in Korean harsher than Choi Min Sik on a bad day.

I restrained myself from saying “joo-goo lae?” which loosely translated means, “you want to die?” I didn’t say it. I thought it. but I didn’t say it.

I left the spa, way tenser than when I came in, which is the opposite of what should happen in a spa. I paid at the counter, and the manager and some clerks were there who were extremely sweet and apologetic and I gave like a 40% gratuity or something because I didn’t want them to be upset.

I told them that I really wanted to join, but I felt so weird about how I was treated. I told them that Korean culture is one thing, but this place is in Los Angeles. We are not in Korea right now. This is America. And it’s not like I enjoyed looking at their bodies that much. These were all women of various sizes and shapes and some, like me, bore the marks of a difficult life. My tattoos represent much of the pain and suffering I have endured. They are part of me, just like my scars, my fat, my eternal struggle with gravity. None of our bodies are ‘perfect’. We live in them. They aren’t supposed to be ‘perfect’. We are just us, perceived flaws and all. I am just only myself. I like a good scrub and a sauna, especially when you can watch Tiger Woods while it’s all going down.

Their intolerance viewing my nakedness –- as if it was some kind of an assault on their senses, like my ass was a weapon – made me furious in a way I can’t really even express with words -– and that for me is quite impressive. This bitch always has some shit to say.

I guess it comes down to this -– I deserve better.

I brought the first Korean American family to television. I have influenced a generation of Asian American comedians, artists, musicians, actors, authors -– many, many people to do what they dreamed of doing, not letting their race and the lack of Asian Americans in the media stop them. If anything, I understand Korean culture better than most, because I have had to fight against much of its homophobia, sexism, racism –- all the while trying to maintain my fierce ethnic pride. I struggle with the language so that I can be better understood. I try to communicate my frustrations in Korean so that I can enhance my relationship with my identity, my family, my parents homeland.

I deserve to be naked if I want to.


P.S. I saw a heavily tattooed Korean man in the gym area, and I doubt he was asked to cover up at all.


UPDATE: Aroma has generously offered me a free spa day, with a massage and a facial, as well as apologized for everything that happened. I plan to return this week, and I am really grateful for their willingness to do that for me, and i am so happy to try to make up for any bad feelings there might have been.

It’s not really anyone’s fault there – it’s more that the cultural clash between Koreans and Korean Americans can be fairly intense. What is wonderful is that when we can tell our stories, all sides of them, everyone can benefit.

21 Comments. Add To The Mix…

  1. if you stop by seoul go to any of the saunas in jongro—all the chicks are tatted up there. it wont be as nice as aroma but theres a tub and you can relax and the scrub ladies are G

    i’ve struggled with my body image all my life and i definitely get looks when i get to the korean sauna. so i tend to go to the more low key ones—like on mariposa and wilshire. ive been wanting membership to one with a gym and aroma was one of the places i wanted to check out but forget it now.

    i like that you handled the whole situation with grace. props to you.

  2. Seems like you need a tattoo sit-in at this spa… and/or a petition to the management. and/or a yelp bomb.

    I’d be happy to start up a petition on our Open Petition System if you have an email address that we want to target?

    You are a hero to so many in the Asian-Am community. and I love spas. so we need to show/educate this spa that the young people are the future, people have tattoos if they want to stay relevant, they need to accommodate those with tats.

  3. How disappointing that the management of Aroma Spa & Sports chose to go down the path of sex discrimination and bigotry even after knowing who you were. The class and restraint you showed were impressive. As much as I would have loved reading that you had gone “OLDBOY” on them I think this is the better way. From now on I will not think of Aroma Spa & Sport as beautiful. I will think of it as the sex discriminatory spa that disrespected Margaret Cho.

  4. Sorry Margaret, this is not a fight you will win. Tattoos are associated with the Mafia in Korea & Japan. Saunas in Japan don’t let men or women with tattoos inside.
    How could you be so ignorant of Korean culture? What’s considered cool here is the mark of a lowlife there. People will assume you are unsanitary and on drugs and involved in money-laundering and prostitution.

  5. You can come to Olympus Spa in Tacoma WA! I have been going there since I was 12 and none of the scrubbers or managers have ever commented on people’s tattoos.

  6. Thank you for fighting for the acceptance of all people of any hue, gender, or faith. It is an uphill battle but there ARE signs of change. I am so proud that you are willing to not back down. Your restraint in the spa was I think, the right course at this time. The ladies were exposed to something different and frightening and their reaction was uneducated but not unexpected. If you had lashed out it would have only reinforced their negative opinion. Go in grace and beauty,

    Aloha ~

  7. I hate that you had this experience. I go to all the Korean Spas and tats are the norm, not the exception. I bet you know Olympic Spa, right? Its all ladies with tats, scars, all ages, shapes and sizes. Being introduced to Korean Spas was, for me, a beautiful thing and your experience is so sad. You showed admirable restraint and grace. I won’t be going to Aroma anytime soon and will take my tattooed white self down the street. I will bet every single Korean Spa in town will show you the red carpet now as well they should.

  8. At my Korean spa (been going 20 years. better and cheaper and cozier than Aroma) many of the Korean men have ample tattoos. The ones with the most tattoos tend to be younger, but even some middle age men are tatted up. Is it that Korean culture frowns upon tattoos in general or just for women?

  9. Thank you for this! I am a Korean-American female living is Southern California who has a ton of tattoos. I also get the “stick eye” from elder Koreans, and it annoys me so. Don’t get me started with the arguments I had with my mother, last year, regarding my wedding dress that showed my tats. I love my tattoos. They are a part of me, a part of time and emotion.

    Thank you for being you.

  10. Hi there!

    I have a Japanese public bath story for you. This happened about 15 years ago. I lived in a beautiful town in west Japan. They had killer onsens, public baths. I was totally addicted. I’d go once or twice a week, sometimes more. I would smile. I would make a huge show out of washing and rinsing (especially rinsing) the soap off my body. I would get into the bath. Anyone who was in the bath would get out. No tats, but white skin. Gaijin! Yikes!

    At first I felt bad. Actually, I always felt bad. And I would try things to make friends, naked in the bath. Actually, the way I made friends with my close Japanese friends was to force them to take me to a hot springs. But this was the neighborhood joint. And I love a bath. I told myself, that’s cool that they got out, now I can have the whole bath to myself. Not cool.

    This went on for 9 months. I’d get in, they’d get out.

    Then one day a tiny old lady got in with me. Really old. I guess she just didn’t give a shit anymore. We talked (actually my Japanese sucked so I listened, smiled, said words). We got out. She scrubbed my back. I scrubbed her back. It was like a bird’s. I couldn’t fucking believe it. she must have been 90.

    After that, the others stayed in the bath with me. The old lady broke the curse of the gaijin in the bath.

    Peace, Margaret!

  11. Sad to know that a situation like this happened to someone that has always been so dedicated to supporting others. You are beautiful. Let others talk and continue to carry on. Most importantly as you had mentioned, it’s America, not Korea.

  12. As much as I love learning about Korean culture I guess I like to forget about the negative aspects of Korean society probably because I know that even if I magically became skinny or became fluent in Korean there is no way I would ever fit in…. But WTH, not welcoming one of their own kind??

    It’s not really any different than my fiance… if Filipinos find out he’s half-white they always treat him differently :-/ Probably a big reason why he doesn’t like his culture and he’s had a lot of bad experiences with Filipinas… he has no desire to visit the Philippines, although he says the main reason is that it’s not particularly safe….

  13. I’m a white American living in Korea, no tattoos but a bit of excess chub. I also love and fully embrace Jjimjilbang and Sauna culture. I’ve been living in Korea for 2 years now, so I’ve learned to ignore it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when people are blatantly discriminate towards you.

    I live in Daegu, which is a smaller city (abt. 5 mil) and known for being fairly conservative. When I first moved here, I used to get the stink-eye all the time from people at the sauna. But now I do a very similar thing to you, Margaret, I just lean back and say “좋다!” People who have been formerly talking about me in Korean (which I can speak a bit of), instantly shut up and some even put on their fake-smiley-I’m-embarrassed faces. They’re not sure if they got caught or not.

    Anyway, there are assholes everywhere in the world. It’s our job to teach each other about the differences we have, keep an open dialogue, and fight for tolerance.

    Even though I don’t agree with everything you say, Margaret, I’m very proud that you at least stand up for what you believe in and try to understand others as best as you can.


  14. I just keep thinking of Warrior Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston and how the village tattooed the history of all the pain and oppression on her back, which is what made her a warrior.
    Reclaiming your body–and having it claimed by your struggle for freedom–is holy.

    Heh. the first captcha word it just gave me is “inksUSA.”

  15. From one extensively tattooed woman with no filter to another, thank you. One of my readers sent me to this post and I’m so fucking glad. I get lots of remarks about my ink, especially when I travel. My latest response to, “How can you do that to your body?” is (gesturing to their bag of McDonald’s/Taco Bell/insert fast food franchise name here): ‘How can you do THAT to YOURS?”

    That usually shuts them up faster than handing a pack of Marlboros to Paris Hilton.

    Strut your ink. It’s gorgeous. And most importantly, it’s YOU.

  16. So do you encounter a lot of people who don’t recognize you? Add me to that group – I sat about two mats down from you at Tough Love Yoga last night and had no idea for a MINUTE. I was sitting there while you were chatting with another Asian lady thinking “I wonder if Asian ladies who see each other in white spaces do a fist bump like I do with other black ladies in that scenario…” then right around then I looked into your face and though “Well shit, that’s Margaret Cho!”

    I quietly slinked out, Facebooked, and came back in. I’m not much for celebrity stalking and it was such a small environment so I didn’t go all “can I get a photo!”

    I thought your tats were awesome though and eff those mean old Korean spa ladies. I would have loved to see their face when you hit them with the Korean shade right back!!!

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