It’s all in the Touch – Skinship. (스킨십)
This week, I was invited to the apartment of a student’s father who, after a soju session, happened to find me alone, eating dinner in a small restaurant. I’d been both training and to the bathhouse and at 10.10pm, after an intense day, I didn’t really want to party. Unlike many in a similar state of being a little tipsy, he refrained from coaxing me into drinking and so, feeling in control, I agreed to accompany him to his apartment. Needles to say, my dinner was paid for. Outside, on the street, he led me by the hand and throughout the hour or so we sat on the floor in his apartment, surrounded by his family, he kept giving me ‘high fives’ after which he’d hold my hand, interlocking his fingers around mine or squeezing my palm with both his hands and every so often, in a slightly inebriated fashion, he’d say ‘Nick, I love you,’ or ‘Nick, you are my friend.’
I can imagine how intensely invasive such situations can be for many western men. From the age 18 to 27, I lived in West Germany and in my free time I trained with friends in a taekwondo school. Although most of the students were German, a fair few were Turkish and whenever they shook your hand, which as is the custom in Germany, was upon every meeting, they’d shake it and continue to hold it. It seemed they held it for minutes and as each second passed, I could feel my body tensing. Worse however, was when they began caressing it between their hands until with temperature rising, you could feel your palm becoming horribly clammy. Today, such innocent intimacy doesn’t bother me and I can as easily initiate it as be the recipient; but, if I think back to my first experiences of such behaviour, I can relive the horror. Without any doubt, it was invasive, almost like going in your zipper, but of course, you couldn’t pull your hand away, that would have been quite rude. And despite the fact my friends and I were only 18 or 19, that we’d never been to university and were soldiers, we had enough experience to know the discomfort stemmed from a simple clash of cultures. It just had to be endured. By the time I returned to England some years later, I wasn’t shocked when a Kenyan friend held my hand in Richmond, London, on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Within a Korean context, my new friend, Jae-seong’(재성), is behaving quiet naturally and his intimacy should not for one moment be construed as sexually motivated. In a male to male setting, Koreans are much quicker to initiate ‘skinship,’ than are British or North Americans and when initiated it is quickly upgraded to a level we would construe as ‘almost sexual,’ ‘certainly suggestive,’ and ‘definitely alarming.’ Men and boys sharing umbrellas, arms draped over each other shoulders, sometimes holding hands, that’s the sort of stuff homos do! I googled ‘skinship’ prior to writing this entry and the fifth reference on the very first site, Urban Dictionary, began: ‘disturbingly intimate skin-to-skin relationship between adolescent boys in Japan.’ This value judgment itself struck me as disturbing. However, more judgments were to follow:
(a new English teacher in Japan working in a junior high school) ”Man, I went into one of my classes today, and this one boy was sitting on the lap of another one right there and he had his one hand in his half-buttoned down shirt feeling up the other boys chest, and with the other hand he was playing with the other boys hair. Both of them seemed fine with it, and nobody else seemed to care at all. And I knew both of the kids have girlfriends because I talk to them after class. It was so weird…”
(a veteran English teacher) ”It’s called ‘skinship.’ I don’t know why, but they all love that shit over here.”
I am tempted to dismiss such comments as I know some people can be blind to travel, that travel doesn’t necessarily broaden the mind. I met a very pleasant fellow countryman a few weeks ago. We were roughly the same age, both ex army, having in fact served at the same time and in the same area, both professional school teachers and with a lot in common. He had only been in Korea a few weeks so I pass no judgment on him, but when I asked if he’d like to go to the movies, he rapidly declined assuming Koreans would think two men watching a film together, gay! I have to ask myself whether I’m weird to find the intimacy of skinship endearing and should the hostility and masculine bravado I am accustomed with back home, be preferable? That girls can be intimate with each other without being labeled ‘lesbian’, while for boys the only opportunity for physical contact is generally through a contact sport, in my opinion epitomizes the lives of insects, where every other insect, even of ones own species, is a potential threat.
‘Skinship,’ is both a Japanese and Korean concept, derived originally from the relationship between mother and baby where physical contact is an important bonding process. The term is used to describe general intimate physical contact, as between parents and children, as well as more a more sexual expression involving petting, especially between teenagers. The Korean term, an example of Konglish, appears to differ in practice from Japanese ‘skinship’ as it is practiced between men, and especially teenage boys. It involves a range of common and not so common practices including: draping arms over each other, sharing umbrellas, sitting in each other’s laps, massaging, stroking, toying with each other’s hair, holding hands, playing with fingers, resting head on another’s lap or thigh, playing with ears, etc, etc. It can also be used to describe bonding with someone through sports or games and which are often common practices among business men.
In the west, I have always found that even cursory physical contact between people, for example, touching of an arm or shoulder, signifies a deeper level of relationship. I can remember touching the arms of parents on parents evening in schools 10 years ago, parents whom I only met once, yet seemed to have an empathy with, which resulted in the fleeting touching of a hand or arm. And I have noted in the past, that a short cut to bonding is through physical touch but its initiation has to be mutual and stress free for it to be successful. Of course, physical contact and its importance in bonding, form the basis of courses designed to promote workplace relationships – those courses where a partner has to fall backwards and you catch them or some such activity.
However, digressing momentarily, forced intimacy can occasionally have a negative effect. I recall, once going to a friend’s birthday party. She was English but practiced an Indian religion and along with twenty or so other friends, sat in a large and busy North London restaurant, and ‘forced’ to sit in designated seats next to people you didn’t know, we had to close our eyes, turn to the person next to us and then simultaneously, begin feeling the contours of each other’s face. The cringingly stressful procedure was accompanied by new age whale music. Oh, my God! It was horrible! Not because of the intimacy but because you knew the rest of the restaurant were watching you in disbelief. Then we had to turn to the other partner and massage their shoulders. All I could think was, Karl Marx’s grave is just down the road and I’ve never seen it! There’s a time and place for physical intimacy, for skinship but not in a busy restaurant on a Friday night to the serenade of migrating humpbacks.
So, after a coffee, some strawberries, some holding of hands and intertwining of fingers, I actually feel closer to Kim Jae-seong than several hours earlier. Already, he’s inviting me to the beach at Pusan and even suggest a date. The chances are it will materialise. And then he progresses to ask me if Id take his son to the UK when I go on my next holiday. I agree and then to make light of it, as I know it’s probably the soju talking, I joke about how he’d fit in my bag. And meanwhile Ben, his son, is eagerly taking a photograph of me and muttering ‘ that his friends won’t believe his teacher has been to his house.’
I have probably taught more students back in the UK than in Korea but I have never sat in a parent’s house, I have never been invited into a parent’s house, I have never socialized with a parent, I have never been invited on a trip with them, I have never had a student photograph me because they needed proof a teacher had been in their house, I have never had a student hold my hand or do anymore than fleetingly touch me, and the same goes for a parent, and neither parent or student has really ever wanted to associate with me. And all in instance I feel both a yearning to be back home with my friends and family and a sense that this is home. Certainly, it is where I’m valued.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.