Amongst Other Things – A Korean Compendium

It’s all in the Touch – Skinship. (스킨십)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, No Pumpkin Category by 努江虎 on April 10, 2010

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.’

A communal pillow

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.

Skinship

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.

‘hierachical collectivism’

‘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.

Normal behaviour

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.

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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13 Responses

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  1. Ian said, on January 5, 2011 at 3:58 am

    I liked reading your observations on this topic, especially because it is one of great interest to me. I have made many Korean friends in my university, because it is a sister campus to many schools in Korea. I even have Korean roommates now, since I have become very close to some of them. One thing that I wanted to say is, I definitely enjoy the skinship that Korean friends, usually male, enjoy to give. I talked to a close hyung about this who told me there is a Korean proverb that says that if you want to get close to someone, the best way is through touch. This was the explanation he gave me as to why he likes to touch people, including me. He often hugs me, or invites me to sit on his lap, or in some cases we have taken naps together sharing the same bed. None of this was from some hidden gay agenda, as most of the USA would like to believe. What I’ve found out about my hyungs is that even though now at the ages of 22-26 they’re not innocent anymore, nothing ever comes to mind when performing skinship because to them, it’s only a way to show affection to their friends. Nothing more, nothing less. For me, I really enjoy skinship because it reminds me of how I act within my own family. We’re from Brasil, so skinship amongst my own family is very common, but in America with friends it isn’t. In fact, when I was young and moved to America at the age of 5, I got in trouble for hugging friends at school in kindergarten. I couldn’t fathom the reason why friends couldn’t hug one another. So when I meet my Korean friends these days, they always come and greet me by giving me some kind of hug or massage or tickle. It makes me really feel close to them, because they are treating me like a family member would. Anyways, sorry for this long rant, I’ll continue to read your blog ^^ I’m especially interested about bathhouses, since I’ve never experience!

    • Nick said, on January 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks for your comments. I am always nervous when I write about bathhouse and skinship, especially if it is passionate as so many westeners are apt to interpret such phenomenon as ‘gay’ or ‘perverse’ which really is a reflection of the extent of our own cultural inhibitions. I find this a little amusing as so many Brits and Americans love to think they are on the cutting edge of permissive when they are actually quite Victorian. The link to family, which you make is useful and an angle I hadn’t considered before. I feel more human in Korea despite being foreign and always feel a sort of lonliness when back home as we are so uptight and always looking to read either perversion or sex into everything. Thanks.

  2. Ian said, on January 5, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Yes. I agree. There are many things I had to explain to my roommates as to what they can and can’t do. For example, when they saw a cute little kid, they wanted to go up and play and hang hug the kid even though they never met them before. I told them, this kind of action is so foreign in America. If they were to do something like that, it could be misconstrued into something worse than it really is. These days in America, everything is some kind of sexual act, so we tiptoe around make sure we don’t do anything that may be viewed as offensive or sexual.

  3. Chris said, on February 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I really like your blog, its very helpful, I think that you should also make a video of this too, since people 2day r so lazy to read blogs like these, In my school im one of the English Tutor, I teach one-on-one session 1 or maybe 2 hours, You are so right I have this of course, male Koream student, he kept holding my hand and on the last day (farewell party of of us tutors) He hugged me and held my hands again, another male student of mine. I told him I had such a headache or bad day, he carresses my hand, shoulder, once even my chest! but I didnt find it alarming though, I think its part of their culture, after i red ur blog i realized it more, I really hate it wen some people say that all korean men are gay, well i dont really blame them, I was surprised wen i was hugged by my student, but saying all of the are gay is ridiculous, anyways luv ur blog anyway and ill be looking out for more great posts!!!

    • Nick said, on February 2, 2011 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks for your comments and suggestions.

  4. Kim said, on April 30, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Coming from a girl’s perspective (and only experiencing skinship through YouTube videos related to KPop and such), I actually like seeing the skinship and find it one of my favorite aspects of the Korean culture, that friends (both male and female) are comfortable enough with each other and that the society is open enough that friends are able to display their closeness and friendship so outwardly…also, I get rather jealous of it and wish that American society could be like that, lol :)

  5. shaider78 said, on March 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Am I the only one getting a boner from this? Strange!

  6. kocchi96 said, on July 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I find this post very interesting!
    Although I do not live in America or Korea but Australia I actually experience ‘skinship’ 5 days a week from my best friends at school.
    All 3 of us, aged 16-17, watch Korean dramas, movies and listen to K-Pop and in my case K-Rock too. We all know enough Korean to carry a conversation between ourselves. Therefore it goes without saying that we don’t find these kinds of occurrences strange.
    It just developed naturally between us since we’re so close – things like holding hands, hugging each other, having our arms around each other and so forth is simply a norm to us. A way to express our affection and the depth of our friendship.
    I go to an International High School so there are quite a number of students from Korea and Japan. Yet, even from students who aren’t familiar with such things, we’ve never gotten nasty looks or comments about what we’re doing. Perhaps people think it internally but everyone seems to mind their own business.
    Personally I see nothing wrong with it. Just like Ian, I am quite fond of it.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on July 5, 2012 at 1:19 am

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure whether you’re male or female as in terms of skinship in the West, this does make a difference. It is much more acceptable for skinship between females than males and also, skinship occurs between adults and young people and even teachers and students. In Britain and America, this would be deemed absolutely inappropriate and classified by many as a perversion. That students in your school find nothing strange in the relationships you have with peers is refreshing.

      I too find skinship quite wholesome and natural and regard cultures where natural phenomena have been perversified, usually fairly recent trends, as clinical, paranoid and hostile. There is a trend developing in both the USA and UK to perverify ‘skinship’ even more and some schools have already attempted to ban all forms of physical contact between students (They have already done this between adults and young people). In such societies, I feel this is a reflection of their respective culture, usually more violent, with deep generational rifts, all forms of abuse, marked gender roles, and the ultimate Western curse, namely the conflation of nudity or any form of touching with lust and sexual gratification. Such anomalies are the traits of communities and societies in division rather than ‘united.’

      In the UK, we really aren’t too far away from shrouding children and young people in ideological burkas because to simply see children or teenagers, let alone communicate or have any form of physical contact with them has been sexualised.Basically, if you’re not into underage bodies you will be if you see one! And of course, like male rape, it is now well established that all adults, but especially men, even those in occupations once highly respected and trusted, teachers, doctors, nurses, the clergy, etc, are a potential threat. In the eyes of todays children and young people, every adult and many peers are potential pervs. How paranoid is that! Personally, I consider many Western cultures to be degenerate and laws and ideologies designed to limit and morally castigate what should be an expression of the human condition, are simply societies with a cancer.

      Just my opinions, of course.

      • kocchi96 said, on July 5, 2012 at 5:46 am

        I’m female myself, as are my friends, and I do understand that skinship in Korea is more so referring to males, generally youths (correct me if I’m wrong). It is noticeable that when girls hug one another it’s much more acceptable than two boys hugging, people tend to label it as “gay” straight off the bat, especially in American states (based on comments I’ve read made by American citizens regarding skinship). Although the affection between my friends and I seems to be more of a norm, compared to males expressing the same affection, I do notice that a lot of girls at my school seem quite distant to one another, even simply when walking there will be a space between them as if there is some kind of boundary.

        I’ve witnessed skinship at my school before with boys, specifically from Korea, slinging their arms around one another’s shoulders, sitting within a close proximity that others may deem uncomfortable and awkward and so forth. I find it endearing rather than revolting.

        I definitely agree with the points you’ve made. It seems that friendly gestures can be taken the wrong way and classified as disgusting and induce a homophobic like reaction, particularly in America. Then again it seems that the way many Americans, naturally not speaking for every individual, identify Korean Culture is with words such as “gay”. Particularly youths concerning aspects such as their music industry where boy bands may wear dangerous outfits, make up and exaggerate their skinship on stage in the form of fan service (although, in actuality, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the members are truly that close). Personally when they make such comments or reject a culture because they are not used to it, I think it is simply reflecting on themselves, revealing their own insecurities.

        Pay no heed if half of this comment made no sense, rambling tends to be a skill of mine.

      • 努江虎-노강호 said, on July 8, 2012 at 3:07 am

        Once again, thanks for your comments. I suppose I tend to see females as being able to express ‘skinship’ freely in western countries and yet you make a very valid point, and one I tend to overlook, that between girls from different cultures (ie Korea and ‘western’), there are differences.

        I too find skinship ‘cute’ and have lived in Korea long enough to initiate or respond to it quite naturally. There is something quite bonding in physical contact and I find it’s omission from my native culture quite a pity. For us poor souls in the western it seems all forms of physical contact and a prelude to sex and hence need ‘policing.’

  7. Argentia Krystofel said, on September 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I found it surprising when I was at a camp this summer and I initiated a bit of skin ship towards another girl without even noticing I was doing it. She was having a hard time with a guy, and to make her feel less upset and scared, I reached out and took her hand, squeezing it tightly. She didn’t seem to notice, but we both watch Korean dramas and are learning to speak Korean; we’re quite familiar with the culture and skinship as a whole.
    My Korean friend didn’t even blink an eye at it, but later that night, a fellow Caucasian-American friend asked me if I was a lesbian (partly because of the skinship and partly because I’m not the type to go ga-ga over a shirtless man, lol). It was really frustrating to realize that physical contact even between two girls here in the U.S. will get you a few raised eyebrows.
    I don’t even consider myself the touchy type. I normally hold hands with friends when I sense they are in need of extra reassurance that I’m there for them. Hugs and things like that are something I give people when I feel like they need that extra little bit of affection that words can’t give. Actually, because I’ve watched so many Korean dramas, when my male friends try to hug me now, I feel just a twinge of discomfort because skinship is only something boys and girls do when they are romantically involved. I have to remember that I’m in the States, and my friends are only trying to say they love me in a friendly way. ^^
    One of the other most endearing things you mentioned in this post is how your new Korean friend would say ‘I love you’ and ‘You are my friend’. It’s such an honest and familial affection.


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