Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Dressing Down Foreign Insecurities
Well, here’s one:
Number of coworkers seen naked in America: 2
Number of coworkers seen naked in Korea: 11 (give or take a couple)
There are at least a pair of variables explaining this disparity. The first of them we’ll explore is the more individualistic nature of Americans, particularly those who find themselves working in the same place. Employees of a particular location, be it one of the city’s many fast food restaurants or that area’s daily newspaper, often bond with one another strictly through the shared experiences of their job.
The other reason why it rarely occurs is a factor that can best be (and certainly has been) expressed in the words of a Western male between the ages of 15-70: “I don’t need to see that.” This has been the decisive factor in many situations, from high school gym class to work retreats, where such sightings may be possible. Many times it is never stated as such, but instead expressed through a wince and sudden rapt attention to a random ceiling tile.
Those who grew up in such an environment may have quite the transition to make when living abroad in a nation where a) their language isn’t widely spoken and b) attitudes toward same-gender nudity are much more open.
The language aspect is a factor in this decision because, as foreigners are gathered to work in the same place, they must increasingly rely on the more experienced of their lot to find things, for instance exercise facilities, that they would struggle to locate on their own. It is therefore not uncommon for foreigners who work together to frequent the same locations during their non-working hours.
Differing attitudes toward seeing a member of the same gender in a state of undress are an even bigger cause for adjustment. While most American showering facilities outside of those used in high school athletic leagues are sectioned off by stall, room, or sometimes area code, the showers in Korean exercise facilities often have nothing separating them save minute panels of glass.
Native Koreans of all ages, shapes and sizes frequent these places, showing little to none of the concern that foreigners feel, especially regarding their own or their neighbor’s lack of wardrobe, or how close they’re standing to one another.
Among the wide world of sights the foreign male is certain to encounter in such places is that his fellow foreign workers, who also use the facilities near their mutual workplace. They may exchange pleasantries such as “How are you?” and “I see you’ve been working out a lot lately.” At least, they may eventually; the foreign males who are new to this experience typically have very little to say, and tend to hurry through the clothes-changing process.
If it’s rare in an individualistic society like America, for one person (especially male) to ask one another, “Can I go to the same gym as you?,” it’s much, much rarer for one (especially male) to ask another, “Would you like to go to a place where we can bathe together?” (Come to think of it, this is probably the rarest of questions one American might ask another, though “Where’s the best site for downloading Jonas Brothers songs?” is definitely close.)
Those living in Korea who get to know their neighbors are almost certain to be asked that question sooner or later, however. There are saunas all over Korea that people enjoy frequenting, after separating by gender into rooms where they can enjoy the relaxing, purifying atmosphere of warm water and steam rooms where they can sweat out their impurities. These are among the first experiences Koreans like to share with their foreign friends.
Said foreign friends, however, tend to find the relaxing qualities of hot water and steam offset by the sheer number of undressed people of the same gender gathered in the same area. If more than one foreigner is part of the group, statements such as “You are one of the very, very few I’ve shared something like this with” are quite common. The usual response to this statement is, “I’m not sure I feel privileged.”
Among the joys of living in Korea for many years is the gradual shedding of inhibitions that comes from repeated exposure to such circumstances. Over time, even foreign males of an individualistic, fully clothed society come to see the virtues of a place where they can gather together, free of restraint or pretense. It is among the first experiences we share with the new foreign workers who come here.
For their sake, it’s important that they become accustomed to the openness, comfort and community that those residing in this country share.
For our sake, watching them squirm is fun.
That would exclude swinging, of course.
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