People who love massages (me!) will admit the experience can be a little weird. Getting undressed and lying vulnerably on a table while a stranger touches your body takes some getting used to, even in your own culture.
Move the experience to a foreign country where you barely speak the language and the potential for awkwardness skyrockets.
In my one year and three months in Korea, I’ve had two massages — the first when I was brand-new to the culture, the second just last week. Both times, the awkward factor outweighed anything I’ve encountered in the States.
Well, except that one time in Vegas, but that’s another story.
Last week, I was most confused by the amount of time the woman spent massaging my face. In the 90 minutes I was there, she must’ve spent 45 of them on my face. I loved the way her fingers magically danced around each of my features as she applied cream after cream after cream — each one smelling more heavenly than the last — but I kept wondering if/when she would pay some attention to my arms and legs.
She had already spent a fair amount of time on the rest of my body, including a vigorous chest and stomach massage, which I could have done without (you’ll see why later), but she seemed to be ignoring my limbs. Finally, with about 10 minutes to spare, she turned her attention to my extremities.
Unfortunately, it was in the form of punching. I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of punching — during a massage or otherwise. I could have done without that part as well.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Koreans are obsessed with bleaching their skin. The shelves are stocked with skin care products boasting whitening powers, and it’s almost impossible to find sunscreen without bleaching agents in it.
The sun is definitely an enemy as well. Women wear hats with huge UV-protecting brims, long sleeves and gloves, even in the blazing summer heat, all in an attempt to have porcelain skin.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the massage.
So I was lying face-up on the massage table with my eyes closed when I felt not two but four hands on my body.
Part disturbing, part delightful, I wondered if this was normal as the woman above my head whispered words I couldn’t comprehend to the woman at my feet. My self-conscious mind imagined them critiquing my foreign features and countless freckles and taking bets on my age. I really wished I had shaved my legs.
My self-consciousness increased when two of the four hands pulled the top half of my blanket down to my waist, completely exposing my breasts, and began massaging my chest and stomach. The strong yet gentle hands didn’t exactly touch my actual breasts, but they got close enough for discomfort.
Not once, in all my countless massages in the States were any “sensitive” areas of my body uncovered. I wasn’t used to this. This was distracting. I tried to quiet my mind by rationalizing that this technique was probably great for my digestive system, but really, I just wanted it to end.
I kept wondering if my friend Bethany, who was in the next room, was having a similar experience. (She was.)
So this is what I find most interesting about all of this, especially now that I’ve been here awhile: Korean women — when it comes to breasts — are much more modest than American women. Walking down the street, you’ll see countless young ladies in the shortest skirts and highest heels imaginable, but you will never ever see a hint of cleavage. Yet, in the massage setting, and in the bath houses, they are clearly more comfortable with nakedness than most Americans.
Why is it that I don’t feel self-conscious in a low-cut shirt that would be considered scandalous in this culture, yet I’m uncomfortable baring my breasts on the massage table? And why is it the opposite for Korean women?
I imagine it has something to do with the different ways our cultures view sexuality, but I’m no expert. If anyone has any thoughts, please share!
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