I started imagining this poem as I was getting a full-body massage. I compared the sensual experience to the completely desexualized experience of being in a Korean bath house and getting a body scrub--the total openness of a bath house seems to strip away any possibility of privacy and sexuality, which is an interesting contrast with the soothing and somewhat clandestine atmosphere of a massage parlor. While getting the massage, I could muse about the provocativeness of touch and the naked body, hiding behind the curtains and under a towel.
The First Woman to Caress My Naked Body
How many women have I been naked with?
I believe thousands. Every time I return
to Korea, my mother makes sure to send me off
to brew my body with strangers in a bathhouse,
most of them older women who seemingly couldn’t care less
about their own sex, some unashamed enough
to scrutinize and say your waist is so small
it’s a wonder all the organs fit; my sister complains
they stare and frown at her large breasts.
It has become a ritual to have my body scraped
within days of my arrival by a scrubber
who peels another layer of me,
with the harshness of a professional fish scaler.
This woman’s fingers said all your skin belongs
to me. She whispered hěn piào liàng
to my eyebrows, and I said xièxie to show off
my rudimentary Chinese. Then
she started dotting our hour with words
I did not know, wedging her forearm between
my shoulder blades, running hot stones
down my spine, holding my hand
tight against my back. Outside another masseuse
answered phone calls with Hi, hello, how are you dear,
and ended them with Is good for you?
After I came out clothed again, the masseuse—
mine—gave me a hushed laugh and said something else
in Chinese, longer this time. It might have been
you have such rigid muscles or
please visit us again or
remember my name.
Emily Jungmin Yoon has lived in Korea, Canada, and the US. Honors she has received for her poetry include International Merit Award from the Atlanta Review, First Place in the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Contest, and nomination for Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Awards – Early Years Anthology, Punchnel’s, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, The Margins, and elsewhere. She received her BA at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently an MFA candidate at New York University, where she serves as a Starworks Fellow and Co-Award Editor for the Washington Square Review.