The naked woman banged the gong and glared at us. Her posture erect, she stood tall and proud as a goddess. My mother, my sister, and I froze, our voices cut off mid-sentence. The other women at this spa in San Francis co’s Japantown whipped their heads towards us, their meditative trances shattered.
The sound of trickling wa ter echoed off the celadon green tiles. I felt like a raccoon caught digging through garbage cans. Would the sound police usher us into another area or kick us out? Or was peer pressure supposed to be enough to shame us into silence?
We shushed our immigrant Chinese mother, who ignored the stares and kept asking us which sauna we should enter first. She spoke urgently, brightly, in her accented English. You could power a metropolis with the energy in her voice. She didn’t fit in and, as it turns out, so neither did her daughters. Of the two dozen women relaxing in the hot tub, plunging into the cold pool, scrubbing themselves with fistfuls of salt or reclining in the sauna, we were the only Asians—and the only ones in bathing suits.
Everyone else was as naked as the gong lady, some women lithe and tattooed and others soft and sturdy. My family had arrived on a women’s-only, bathing-suit-optional day. Optional, we learned, to everyone but us. My mother wore a one-piece with a flou ncy skirt, my sister a sporty tank suit, and I had on a polka dot bikini. The stretchy fabric covering us seemed as excessive as an ankle-length parka on the Fourth of July.
Public bath culture in Asia is long and storied, immortalized in brushstroke paintings and referenced in folk tales and classic poems. They’re often noisy places where people who cannot afford their own facilities gather and gossip, where matchmakers plot and aunties chatter about who’s getting married or having a baby, about what to do about their wayward husbands and sons. Bai Juyi, a Tang Dynasty poet, penned verses about bathing in a natural pool on a hot night, where a “hollowed stone makes a bath tub.” Marco Polo, who traveled in China in the late thirteenth century, described the 3,000 public baths in Hangzhou, where “people take great delight . . . They are the finest and largest baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe together.” Today, South Korea’s jimjilbangs have raised public baths to a high art, with twenty-four-hour facilities where entire families can steam, soak, scrub, lounge, and snack.
Back in Taiwan, in the aftermath of World War II, my mother’s family had been prosperous enough to bathe at home. My mother, sister, and I weren’t the sort to get naked around each other, let alone strang ers. I was proud of my body, which had carried me through road races and hikes through the Sierras, but I’d always felt that some parts should remain covered. If I wore a sl eeveless top or dress, my mother always pressed jackets and sweaters on me, worried I’d catch cold. Though visiting spas had become an annual tradition for us, those places hadn’t enforced silence or nudity.
You kno w those dreams where you’re naked and everyone’s pointing and laughing at you, reflecting your dread of being exposed and on display? The dynamic reverses itself if everyone is in the nude. We were the oddities, modest as Victorian ladies. Worse yet, it felt like we’d been out-Asianed by those who adopted traditions that my family had shed long ago.
When I was growing up in the suburbs east of San Francisco, one of a handful of Asian- American families, anything to do with my cultural heritage was considered weird and inferior. I cringed at made in china stamped on the bottom of cheap toys, and at Sixteen Candle’s Long Duk Dong, with his heavy accent and bowl haircut. Even when I pegged my Guess jeans, permed my straight black hair, and slung a canvas Esprit bag over my shoulder, I did not fit in. I wasn’t one of those sunny athletic kids who played varsity soccer and tennis and water polo and listened to classic rock from their parents’ collection.
Classmates mocked the pronunciation of my last name at school assemblies, howling like henchmen in a martial arts flick. On Halloween, pranksters used shaving cream to write vanessa is a ho on the driveway. Mortified, I hoped that my father didn’t know the slang, but he must have understood the enmity behind it. Although he sprayed the words away with a garden hose, they stained the concrete for months.
In high school French class, we filmed skits of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge , Little Red Riding Hood. A jock cast his Alaskan husky as the loup , or wolf. When the credits rolled, my name appeared as the wolf. Loup......Vanessa . He and his friends sniggered, but the teacher did nothing. I was lowly as a dog, his group had decided, and would be for as long as they ruled the school.
Now, a decade or two later, it seemed that being Asian—or least, certain Asian things, certain Asian rituals—were hip, trendy. A luxury. At the spa, I squirmed in embarrassment—and felt something else, too, that I couldn’t name at the time. Not anger, but frustration that a practice had become acceptable because people from outside that culture claimed it: the pop stars who paste on bindis or don kimonos or qi pao in a walk down the red carpet, or the chefs who elevate the ingredients and the prices of ethnic cuisine.
Yet I wasn’t questioning the authenticity of the other bathers—I was questioning my own, in the ongoing struggle of identity and assimilation: what to leave behind, what to hold onto, and what to reclaim.
My family averted our eyes from the plethora of private parts, and dipped into the soaking pool, the water warm and soothing. On our other spa outings, in the heated swimming pools or afterward in the car, our inhibitions had lifted and we’d opened up our worries about my father’s Parkinson’s, how the disease slowed his step and wounded his spirit, and how we could get him back out into the world. In immigrant families like mine, so much often remained unsaid: the losses and the struggles that my parents wanted to leave behind to forge a life in America. The spa trips were a time, a space, where we could share our feelings.
At this spa, we had no opportunity for intimate discussion. We accompanied each other through the first round of sauna, soak, and draughts of icy cucumber water, and then we split up. I could stand the heat longer than my mother and sister, who headed for the showers.
I wasn’t shy about changing at gyms, and I was fearless in other ways, whether traveling alone through Panama to report stories or training for a marathon. Yet skinny dipping had always seemed out of reach, in the realm of women cooler than I was—how bold ! how French!—who were free with their bodies as I was not.
I didn’t see the woman who had reprimanded us with the gong again. I was relieved I didn’t have to face her annoyance or her nudity. I poured a basin of water over my head , and resolved to stop being furtive . Next time, I’d bare it all.
As we exited the building, I pointed out how everyone else had been naked.
“You were practically naked,” my mother said.
A few months later, on my birthday, I booked an appointment at a women-only spa housed in a ramshackle Victorian in the Mission District. The bohemian oasis had survived the gentrification battles in this working-class neighborhood of artists and immigrants. In the small locker room, I undressed and washed with tingly peppermint soap. A pair of women strode around naked. I knotted a towel around my breasts, but wore nothing else underneath.
Standing by the large hot tub, I took a deep breath, dropped the towel, and sank underwater. I felt weightless against the tiles, and the water felt silkier without the scraps of Spandex covering my skin. Other guests chatted quietly. I didn’t think much about anything, giving into sensation, into stillness. I ventured into the wet and dry saunas where I perched on my towel, heating up from the inside out . In the backyard, I rinsed in the open-air shower, and basked like a cat on the deck with nothing between me and the sun. The spring air was soft and warm, and clouds floated high above in the blue dome of the sky.
After a few cycles of hot tub, shower, sauna, and sun-bathing, I was jubilant, struck by a sense of achievement. I’d faced and overcome my fears. I was going to get dressed when someone called my name.
“Vanessa?” It was a cheerful, efficient photographer I’d been out on an assignment with a few times. I crossed my arms over my chest but stopped myself from running for cover. Like anything else new I attempted in life, I had to pretend that this was second nature. I joined her in the tub, feeling less vulnerable under the blanket of water. We talked about work, about what else we’d been up to, as if we’d always known each other naked, no different than those who frequented public baths in Beijing, Seoul, Kyoto, Moscow, or Istanbul, anywhere the world over where people practiced such traditions.
When I left the tub, I didn’t cower. I sauntered, each step easier and easier until no one—not even me—could have known I felt anything but serene.