Tattoos have a deep history in Asia — much deeper than their time in the United States.
But one American girl, Margaret Cho, says the old Korean ladies at Aroma Spa & Sports in K-Town turned up their undoubtedly well-cut noses at her display of ink recently.
The comedian wrote about the experience on her blog:
After a swim, soak, scrub and sauna (all the Ss of the Korean spa experience, known as jijilbang) yesterday morning, Cho says she immediately felt judgmental eyes upon her when she entered a locker room full of ladies lounging al fresco.
While clothing is a bit more than optional in these environs, older Korean women can be socially conservative. Even the contemporary norm of well-groomed nether regions can cause double takes.
Cho's prodigious tats seem to have set of some major stink eye. She writes:
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.
It wasn't just mean looks, either. Cho says some of the women talked about her out loud as she walked from pool to pool in the spa. She responded by saying, to no one in particular:
' … Ahhh Jotah!' which means 'this feels good … '
A manager approached to tell Cho that her tattoos were upsetting the spa locals. Cho says she pulled out the I-don't-know-how-to-put-this-but-I'm-kind-of-a-big-deal card, something she says she rarely does:
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 …
Cho says she put on a robe, but that she had to hold herself back from going gansta on these Korean-afro-perm'd ladies:
… I watch too many Korean gangster movies and can threaten a bitch in Korean harsher than Choi Min Sik on a bad day.
She says the spa folks were respectful and apologetic and even gave her a discount.
The comedian — seen by some Korean immigrants as an embarrassment to their culture, what with all the talk of three-ways and homosexuality — turned it into a teachable moment for Korean immigrants and, perhaps, all immigrants.
For all the times we've been rejected by Korean bars (“closed!”), bad mouthed by Mexicans who thought we were too Americanized (“pinche pocho!”), and subjected to the hissing of Japanese wait staff displeased with our order (“no rolls!”), we say amen, Margaret. Amen.
Cho reminded the spa workers where they were:
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.
She says she saw a tattooed Korean man in the gym and doubts the male patronage, which is kept separate, would be subject to such censorship:
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.