Korean Massage: An Awkward Introduction to Cultural Differences


Flickr photo by crisp1986

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.

Korean massageMy first Korean massage, though, was the strangest. The whole process was unfamiliar and new — from the little dress and disposable undies they gave me to the whitening cream they put on my face.

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!

Don’t forget to vote for me in the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List competition: http://www.mydestination.com/users/angelajacobus/bbb#.


15 thoughts on “Korean Massage: An Awkward Introduction to Cultural Differences

  1. Pingback: Day 23: Schedule a Massage | Untitled Adventure

  2. Hahahah…Oh the adventures of traveling and stepping out of one’s comfortable bubble! I was laughing so hard reading this. It reminded me of when I went to Morocco and due to lack of hotel, ended up living with the family of the receptionist. She lived in a courthouse type of building with two small rooms on each side of the square building. There were three families that lived there each having their side of the building, and all of them shared the kitchen and toilet. I slept on the floor next to the grandmother and the three brothers and sisters. It did not take me long to figure out that there were no showers to be found in the building. After asking my new Moroccan friend about showering, she told me they go on Tuesday’s (it was Sunday) and she would take me. So come Tuesday we walked into town, and entered this underground cave. The men went to the cave on the left, and the women on the right. Upon entering, you see 30 or 40 women all naked, with buckets of water. I thought to myself, “oh boy this is going to be interesting”, so I went and filled up a bucket, got some olive oil soap, and bought this super intense loofa type of thing that they use to scrub themselves. As I made my way to a corner of the cave, I put my bucket down and got undressed. Before I could even start to wash myself, I felt someone start to intensely scrub my back. I looked behind to see a Moroccan lady just scrubbing away at me….and she did not stop until she got my whole body. Talk about discomfort, I just kept reminding myself that this was all part of the experience and will be a good story to tell. After this extreme washing, in which I literally had rolls of black skin coming off me…she finally stopped and then stood there staring at me. I had no idea why she was just staring at me and saying things in Arabic that I did not understand…when it occurred to me that I was supposed to return the favor. I was supposed to wash her!! Hahah. So I did, and she basically laughed the whole time probably because she could see how uncomfortable I was. So here I was in a culture where women completely cover themselves from head to toe when out in public, but any sense of privacy goes totally out the window as soon as you enter the showering cave.
    All in all I walked out of there cleaner than I have ever been, and I understood why they only shower twice a week!

  3. Shame is the correct word to describe the training too many of us received about body image. That shame has destructive impacts on our lives, including how we receive a soothing massage.

  4. Edit
    To be touched
    by Walter Kowalewski on Monday, August 15, 2011 at 9:17pm
    Little do I know the extent of my identity with my body until I am touched. Little am I
    present to my body, until a hand is laid upon me calling me to the “temple,” to the
    housing of my self, to the homing of my spirit, to the dwelling of my existence. . . The hand that touches my body touches my life. My body is in me. . . So, when you touch me, the “commons” of me, my body, you enter my life, my being, you come into my dwelling—no matter where you touch me. Touch always involves the presence of the body, my own and the other’s. Touch presences.
    -Dianne Connelly (All Sickness is Home Sickness, pg. 100)

  5. My goodness, I am a massuer and even though I cover the client with a towel I always expose the area to work on including the breast. It is easy to see if someone is uncomforatalbe and I will then cover or ask the question about comfort. Massage with oil is a very intimate thing but if you do not trust your massuer you should say something at the begining. We are aware of the discomfort and it is nothing for us to cover you and neglect the complete process of massage.

    • Thanks for the comment and perspective. In these particular situations, I didn’t speak enough Korean to communicate my discomfort, so I just had to go with it. But a necessary part of traveling and living in different cultures is going outside your comfort zone … often. It’s what helps you grow. So even though my massage experiences were awkward, I’m ok. I’m not scarred for life or anything. ; ) And I learned that I definitely prefer massages that focus on my back rather than my front.

  6. Different cultural views do seem so conflicting .. In private and groups where only one gender is present i found some cultures to be so much more liberating … Perhaps because in public they are restricted ? Funny how as anglo saxon heritage we find it easier in public than in private 🙂 having done massages yes we are more ‘circumspect’ in regards to sensitive areas … Yet a massage should i guess be ‘freeing’ and ‘liberating’.. Its sad in a way that so many asian women feel the need to be like anglo-saxon and aim for ‘paleness’ yet in saying so we in turn aim to darken and tan ourselves ..

    • Yes, it is so interesting to notice the differences. Now that I’ve traveled through more of Asia, I realize the whitening craze is everywhere over here. Yet, I still prefer my naturally pale skin with a little bit of color. So funny. Isn’t it?

  7. Interesting post in light of a recent massage experience (in “normal” North America). After doing my back and legs (lying supine), my massage therapist, whom I’ve seen for a couple of years, asked me, “Do you want me to do your stomach?” (She might have said “abdomen.”) I said, “No thanks.” Certainly there are days when I “feel” my ab muscles post-workout but they are not a targeted spot for me to need massage. I then made a semi-sarcastic comment like, “Who gets their stomach done? Most people barely have abs, much less work them enough to need massage!”

    My massage therapist argued back that it is also for the digestive organs; one can learn to massage the intestines to alleviate digestive issues, and she claims to be able to tell if someone’s liver is damaged.

    I also joked that asking about massaging the belly is like [a male therapist] asking, “Do you want your breasts massaged?” I mean, breasts are fatty tissue, aren’t they? Again she said that people might need their lymph nodes or upper pecs massaged, and that breast cancer survivors apparently benefit from breast massage. Well, maybe that is true–to each, her own.

    Interesting blog, interesting life; happy 2013, happy travels!

  8. I must admit I have never had a body massage but I related to your bit about another person coming into the room – it reminded me of the time when, many years ago, three of my friends and I booked ourselves for a facial massage and makeup in Selfridges store in Oxford Street London. We were swathed in pink, fluffy towels and relaxed in pink leather chairs – we had a room each. We compared notes afterwards and all admitted panic when we were blinded by pads being placed on our eyes and the masseuse telling us to relax and she was popping out of the room for a few minutes. Relax! We all admitted we panicked and worried whether our handbags were too near the door and whether anyone would/could come and steal them! I think we all came out with more worry wrinkles than we went in with!

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