Elwood 5566

Bathhouse Intimacy – Fathers and Sons

Podcast 82

I never really enjoy writing about some of the intimate moments I observe in bathhouses or even in everyday life as many western readers have a real problem with both the authors of such texts, whom they perceive as a perverts, and with the nature of its content, which they categorise, as ‘gay’ and ‘sickening’.

When fathers and sons are mutually washing each other I don’t like to sit and stare but over the last six months and through discussions with Korean friends I have managed to piece together how this process, which might possibly be defined as a ‘ritual,’ functions. At times of the week, usually the weekend, many fathers and sons visit the bathhouse and while for some the cleaning process is the prime function of the visit, for others it is simply for relaxation. I regularly see fathers and sons who will spend as much time cleaning each other, as I might in the pools and it is not in the least unusual for some to spend well over an hour cleaning either cleaning themselves or, in the case of a father, their son.

The process begins with showering under the stand-up showers and entails much the same as a standard ablution – washing the body, shampooing, shaving and brushing teeth. We have now reached the point at which most westerners would consider themselves clean but which for the majority of Koreans is only the preamble to a meticulous ablution. After the stand up shower some visitors go straight to the sit down shower units while others will spend some time enjoying the various pools and saunas. For younger children, this often means playing while older boys are content to sit with their fathers. Most of my Korean friends will soak and sweat in the various facilities for anything up to several hours, at which point dead skin cells and callouses have absorbed water and are easily removed.

the bathhouse, where ‘skinship’ is taken to the extreme

Between friends, scrubbing each others’ backs is an accepted intimacy and it is not unusual to see peer groups, especially school boys, university students or even monks sat in a line each scrubbing the person in front. Several years ago an advert depicted young boys doing exactly this and attracted some  negative and hostile comments from foreigners living in Korea. Unless you opt for a scrub down by a bathhouse attendant, the scrubbing of backs is probably the most intimate extent to which friendships, even between the closest friends, goes and seems much the same as from son to father. However, from father to son, the level of intimacy is much greater and certainly, into middle adolescence, a boy is often totally passive in this procedure. Indeed, there isn’t much difference between how some fathers clean their sons, and how you might wash a car, care for a baby or invalided person.

The cleaning process reflects a close bond between fathers and sons

The procedure often takes place in silence and begins with the boy bending over and supporting themselves on the ledge that runs under the mirrors so that their father can vigorously scrub their back with an Italy towel progressing down their buttocks, backs of thighs and calves. For anyone who has visited a bathhouse and seen for themselves this type of ritualistic cleaning, the process isn’t brief or cursory. The Italy towel is used with only the smallest amount of soap, not enough to even produce a lather and in a rough enough manner to produce a visible line of dead skins cells. Once an area has been ex-foliated, it is showered after which the Italy towel is again used, this time with a generous amount of soap.

Next, the boy sits down facing his father and puts each leg, in turn, on his father’s thigh and the same process is repeated from the soles of the feet to the thighs. Then the boy sits with his back,  neck or shoulders supported over his father’s knee so that his chest and stomach can be scrubbed. It is not in the least unusual for boys or even their fathers, to hold their genitals to one side while scrubbing the groin. Finally, with head resting on their dad’s thigh, their face is scrubbed even to the extent of cleaning noses and ears. The meticulous process ends with a session under the stand up shower. Sometimes the procedure is organised slightly differently, for example if the boy is not very tall, he might stand for much of the ablution. What is most bizarre for the westerner is the proximity between the face and genitals or backside of another person. Even between friends, if someone is standing and someone sitting, as for example might sometimes be the case when one person is scrubbing another’s back, there is no concern about the distance between the face of one and the genitals of another.

the Italy towel in action

Often the process is performed by a bathhouse attendant and every bathhouse has an area with one or several couches on which you lay for this purpose. I rarely see young children receiving a scrub down but older boys, sometimes unaccompanied and at other times with their fathers, will subject themselves to this ritual. A scrub down from an attendant is every bit as intimate, and for the westerner, invasive, as the one between fathers and sons. Koreans are so used to the cleaning ritual, they subconsciously place their limbs in the required position or require only the briefest prompt, for westerners however, the process is awkward and the body, unaccustomed to the procedure, is antagonistic to the attendant’s manipulation. And yes! They do hold your ‘bits’ to one side as they’re scrubbing. However, the experience is invigorating as well as liberating.

Clearly, father-son, as well as mother-daughter bathhouse rituals are an integral expression of ‘skinship’ and undoubtedly provide the most extreme example of intimacy between individuals in a platonic setting. On several occasions I have witnessed a father bathing his severely mentally and physically disabled son and much that was sad and tragic in the procedure was nullified by the close bond they clearly shared. But it is also possible to see such parent-child intimacy as one aspect of a broader cycle and sons can often be seen tending their aged fathers in the exact reversal of the father-son ritual.

Koreans do not carry the same cultural baggage as regards the body as many westerners either in terms of prudery or propriety and appear much less  judgmental about the bodies’ of other people. I recently read a very interesting article by a Korean grandfather who was approached by  a little girl in a bathhouse who wanted lifting into a hot pool, because she was cold (link). In many other cultures, racked with obsessions which perversify any contact between minor and adult, such intimacy, and many other intimacies observed in a bathhouse setting, are taboo. It would also seem that what is observed between those of the same gender remains private. To discuss or gossip about the body of another person would be highly inappropriate and improper and certainly, between males and females, would constitute a cultural taboo. And one of the greatest Korean attributes, especially when you’re naked and vulnerable, is that they are excellent at complimenting those parts of your body you don’t like. I wouldn’t wish my body on anyone but even naked many Koreans are able to make you feel very good about yourself.

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Bicycle Boy

Posted in Korean children, Photo diary by 노강호 on May 25, 2011

Sitting outside a GS25 late on a Saturday evening, I noticed quite a few interestingly designed bicycles.

the photo is poor quality, but you get the idea

he was quite proud of the flashing lights

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Paper Flowers

Posted in Korean children, Photo diary, Uncategorized by 노강호 on May 20, 2011

A few weeks ago, one of my younger students presented me with some flowers he’d made. The leaves were scented so it acts as an air freshener.


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A Little Boy’s Diary

Posted in Education, Korean children by 노강호 on May 13, 2011

all smiles - it's a day off school

Meet Lee Hee-hoa (이히호). He’s the son of one of my oldest Korean friends, David, and is five years old in western years and six in corresponding Korean years (Koreans are one year old  at birth). Hee-ho is great little boy who is usually always smiling  and in school is one of those kids whose hand is permanently up ready to answer any question. However, he can be quite reserved and shy.  He lives in a very large apartment in Daegu with his mum and dad, young brother and sister, grandmother and father on his father’s side, his father’s sister, her husband and their two children. Eleven people in one household is quite exceptional, even in Korea but David tells me they rarely have any arguments and all enjoy living in a large family. Indeed, they plan moving to another apartment later this year and have decided to continue living together.

Hee-hoa's idea of a 'crazy face'

David runs a very successful English academy while his wife heads a maths school, nearby. As with most Korean parents, regardless of class, education is one of the most important facets of their children’s development. As compulsory education does not start until a child is 6-7 in western years, Hee-hoa attends a Kindergarten and this, along with his various other studies, costs his parents around 1 million won per month (c.£500).

Hee-hoa’s Timetable

Kindergarten starts at 0830 and finishes as 1430.

On a daily basis, he attends English classes from 1530-1630.

From 1700 until 2000, depending on the day, he has lessons in hanja (Chinese characters used in Korean), hangeul (Korean writing and reading), Montessori, and has both violin and piano lessons. For all but the Montessori sessions, tutors visit their apartment. Though not unusual for Korean children, this is a heavy workload but he actually seems to genuinely love lessons with violin and hanja being his favourites. When not studying or sleeping, he spends free with his dad, going for walks or on outings or simply plays with members of his large family.

waiting for lunch

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Punishing Naughty Students with Ai-Sh-Yo! (아이셔)

Posted in Food and Drink, Korean children, Uncategorized, video clips by 노강호 on May 5, 2011

Specially for Children’s Day! In every box of Ai-sh-yo, is an intensely sour gum. You can’t distinguish the gross one from the others in the box. If you want to punish your students or get some pleasure after they’ve pestered you all week for Children’s Day candy,  you can do so in this random manner.

In Seoul you can’t smack them, but you can feed them an Aishyo

Yea, I know my Korean is shitty! And here are some photos capturing the moment.




 Further References

A Candy for Teacher

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A Candy for the Teacher

Posted in Food and Drink, Korean children by 노강호 on April 28, 2011

the tangy candy version

What’s that noise you make in your language when you’ve eaten something intensely sour, like lemon or a kumquat which isn’t sweet enough to rescue your distaste? In English-English it might be ‘shhh-it!’ In Korean it’s ‘ai-sh-yo’ (아이셔), though in practice it probably sounds more like  ‘ ai-shhhhh-yo!’  The duration of the ‘sh’ a measure of intensity.  Not sure what I mean?  Let me elucidate; this is ‘sh-it!’  or ‘ai-sh-yo!’:

Apart from being the sound to accompany something unpleasantly sour, like munching on a lemon,  Ai-sh-yo is also the name of a  chewy confectionary. Kids love to give these candies to teachers and they can be considered the Korean equivalent, innocent and friendly, of spitting in your coffee or putting a tack on your seat. When I was first offered them I noticed a strange expectation on students’ faces, a twinkle in their eyes and the slight anticipatory twitch of a smile but took little notice; I’m orally fixated and the candy was quite nice, initially a little tart and tangy but quickly rescued by sweetness as you continue to chew. I’d eaten quite a few over the week until I discovered their more sinister purpose

I was busy chewing, waiting for the sweetness to  curb the rapidly soaring sensation of  intensified sourness… Then I realised, with a curse, ai-shhhh (the Korean equivalent of ‘fuck!’), that there wasn’t an iota of sweetness in it but  a solely nasty sourness.  My students were in hysterics by the time I spat it into a tissue.

Yes, in every blue packet of the gum, 450 Won (about 25 pence) exists one surprise candy that is simply revoltingly sour. The yellow packet is a tart candy that starts off sour but mellows.

an 'ai-sh-yo' face

and another...

the blue packet is the most entertaining

‘Ai-shhhhhhhh-yo!’ ‘Super sour flavour in it.’

Further references

Punishing Naughty Students with an Aishyo

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Teenage Pluckers’ and Cottagers

Posted in Korean children, No Pumpkin Category by 노강호 on April 10, 2011

a sign of stress?

It was a personal opinion and I’m not generalizing, but I was once told the worst affliction for a Korean teenage, one worse than acne, was grey hair. I rarely see Korean girls preening themselves or each other to the extent that occurs in British schools but the occasional group plucking usually among girls, but occasionally boys, is not uncommon. Whether grey hairs are a sign of stress I am unsure but Koreans believe them to be so.

As all waygukin know, Korean kids are fascinated with the bodies of westerners and especially with body hair. I have a girl in one class who will regularly play with my fingers and pinch out any bits of skin from around my nails. Another boy will check my eyebrows and pluck out any straggly hairs. I don’t know how long it takes other western teachers to become oblivious, if at all, to the increased levels of physical contact between teachers and pupils; I ceased judging it by British standards a long time ago.

Sometimes however, Korean inquisitiveness goes too far for western sensibilities. Not once have I used the boys toilets in my school as we have ones specifically for staff but when a repairman was resident last week and I was bursting, I slipped into the boys toilets and immediately two middle school boys who had been leaving, turned back. Despite positioning my back to them, which in mid flow is all I can do as I am too tall to hide between the sides of the urinal, one ventured to the side of me. Undeterred either by my embarrassment or suggestions to ‘fuck off,’ he simply starred.  Was this cheeky inquisitiveness, blatant cottaging or urophilia? I wasn’t angry and there was something comical about the incident. In all however, one of the minor embarrassments of life in Korea and for those waygukin unable to ditch their cultural prejudices, it is probably an incident that can only be understood in relation to perversion (hence the pumpkin logo above.) I shared the incident with my boss; she found it very amusing.


a greater degree of physical intimacy

And if ever your shoulders and back are tense simply ask a student for a massage. Korean kids, and indeed Koreans in general are as eager to pummel your shoulders and back as British kids are to arm wrestle though in my absence from the British education system, that too might now be taboo.

a group plucking during a break


It’s All in the Touch (April 2010) Also in podact

Korean Teenager (Ben 2) And Other Stuff (June 2010)

When ‘Gay’ is ‘Gay’ (June 2010)

Who Really Worships the Wang (October 2010)

Laura (3) Korean Teenagers – Magical Moments (Oct 2010)

Bathhouse Zen (1) Dec 2010

Bathhouse Zen (2) (Dec 2010)

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Nothing God Makes is Useless

Posted in Comparative, Entertainment, Korean children by 노강호 on March 3, 2011


more stuff on Korean pooh

I’ve read Puppy Pooh (강아지똥), politely renamed in English, The Dandelion Story, in Korean, I have the book, and though I didn’t understand much, the pictures were great. Naming it the Dandelion Story, as the play production was named in Edinburgh, so as not to offend British sensibilities, does a great job of predicting the direction the story is going to take. If I was the author I’d be pissed off at a title that destroys all expectations before you even get a chance to formulate them.

I recommend watching the animation in Korean before watching it in English; even if you don’t understand Korean, or very little, the Pooh seems cuter speaking  Korean and like the dandelion, will quickly endear themselves to you. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe a dog shit could be so lovable!




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Too Much Play

Posted in Education, Korean children by 노강호 on January 16, 2011

out of trouble

Sleeping in the classroom is something I’ve never seen British kids do and usually they have so much energy that whenever there is a break they play and run around. As an aging teacher however, though I disagree with the amount of time Korean students study, I prefer a society where teenagers are kept so occupied that they have little energy to waste and no time to loiter on streets causing trouble.

Westerners are quite defensive of the extensive time their youth are permitted to play and will generally condemn Korean culture accusing it of taking away or even obliterating childhood. The fact western kids have had their innocence annihilated by exposure to a range of unhealthy influences, one of which is the concept of ‘being a teenager,’ passes unnoticed. In Europe, British teenagers  are more likely to be either poxed to the max with sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant and this year condoms (Hotspots) for prepubescent boys are due to be made available in the UK. In UK, the C-Card system provide boys as young as 12 with a card which can be shown at football grounds, scout halls and special designated centers and by which they can obtain condoms at the tax payers expense (Times UK).

condoms for prepubescent boys

Why are Brits and Americans so critical of the Korean system? Wouldn’t energies be better spent trying to find solutions to the myriad of problems that western teenagers cause society and their own peers rather than bemoaning how Korean students have no time to play?  Personally, I would have thought that any sane society would want to curtail teenage free time thereby taking them off the streets and improving their potential. Even as a teenager I found the practice of teenagerism vacuous and boring. Rock music, dancing, partying and fashion never really interested me and I doubt I was alone.


high school students

And what is the nature of the ‘childhood’ that Korean children might miss out on? Let’s see!  Not needing to clad the face in make-up if you are a 13 year old girl, or not being obsessed with the fact that you don’t know how to tongue sandwich or fellate your 12 year old boyfriend. Not having to give allegiance to one of the tribal youth subcultures which will alienate you from both other teenagers and your parents. Not having to spend time and money consuming music which often has the same artistic merits and durability as chewing gum. The list is extensive…

We give children and teenagers so much space and freedom and imbue them with notions of rights that many, but to be fair by no means all, eventually find it difficult to behave or act appropriately in other social settings. When I am with western kids I am often reminded of the gulf that separates our worlds but conversely,  with Korean kids I am reminded how much we have  in common. It is strange to feel a closer affinity with Korean teenagers as a foreigner than with British teenagers as a fellow native.


keep them occupied


In Britain,  most kids finish school around 3.00 pm and with many school subjects no longer requiring homework,  they are left with ample time to both enjoy childhood and when bored, get pissed or contract chlamydia or one of the other staple poxes on offer. How much ‘childhood’ do they need? What kind of a ‘childhood’ do we think we provide for children and youth now we have allowed  tweenyville, that is those years encroaching on being teenagers, to have been sexed up and sleazified with thongs, poll dancing kits and baby condoms?  I would imagine the stress and angst such precocious pursuits add to their already confused minds, enormous. I’ve known many decent teenagers but quite often they themselves do not like teenagerism or indeed, other teenagers!  Sometimes it seems that the most vocal of advocates  of the merits of allowing kids to, ‘enjoy their youth,’ are adults looking back in nostalgia.

Teenagers need ‘banging up,’ not in a sexual context, but in way which restricts their free time, whom they associate and identify with, and which more closely prescribes what they do. So, when I see teenagers and students collapsed on their desk in classes, or twiddling their pens between their fingers with the dexterity of majorettes, I know the directed time which chains them to study is working and both them, adults and society are better for it.

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Images of Innocence (3) – Knives

Posted in Comparative, Education, Images of Innocence, Korean children by 노강호 on January 9, 2011

sole purpose – sharpening pencils and cutting paper

As I write, highly civilised human beings are stabbing each other. In the UK  stabbings are a regular occurrence and in 2010 19 youths were stabbed to death in London alone (Guardian UK). In 2007, 322 fatal stabbings (Guardian UK) were recorded marking the highest number of knife related deaths since records began in 1977. As the focus of media attention and political concern, definitions change and competing theories are forwarded, some related to the weather, others to disadvantage.  Anti-stabbing kitchen knives are now available as are stab proof school uniforms made from kevlar and one of my local schools has installed metal detectors through which students have to pass on their way into school.

Stanley blades - every student has one

an assortment of blades

While Britain is plagued with knife related crimes, one currently being covered by the media as I write, Korean kids of all ages carry the equivalent of a stanley knife in their pencil cases and do so not to protect themselves, look cool, or as part of gang defense plans, but simply to sharpen pencils and cut paper.

as harmless as its owner

and then there are the scissors...

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