One of the first things that struck me when I first arrived in South Korea was how common touch is among friends, regardless of gender. Unlike Americans, South Korean men seem very comfortable expressing their friendship through physical contact. I also often saw Koreans punching out muscular “tight spots” on themselves or a friend or family member.
I’d heard that the Koreans regularly went to bathhouses called jimjilbangs to relax and work out their kinks, but I decided to witness this public spa experience myself. The bath areas were gender-separate, but within those areas everyone was nude except for the ajummas (older women who were performing the massages), who wore underwear. Massage tables were set up feet away from the hot and cold baths and my own introduction to massage outside of America’s border was, admittedly, painful. Yet, it was indeed stress relieving.
I spoke with Jonathan Shuh, operations manager of Los Angeles’ Wi Spa, the largest Korean day spa on the west coast, and he confirmed for me what I’d observed on my Korean visit. “Touch is used as many different signs of affection between close friends, families and loved ones,” Shuh explained. “Even a slight tap on the shoulder may give an impression that the people involved are in mutual affection to others.”
Like people in many other cultures, Koreans believe in the existence of an inner energy that every person carries. “It’s best described as yin and yang, opposite or contrary forces in nature that balance each other,” Shuh told me. “Interestingly, many Korean men or women request the opposite gender therapist to perform their massage.”
Outside the massage room, however, the rules are different. “For example,” said Shuh, “you may see people of same gender holding hands as a sign of friendship, but when you introduce yourself to an opposite gender, a slight bow is preferred over a handshake.”