Immigrant Songs and Unexpected Love Stories: Why You Need to Read Yoon Choi’s “Skinship”

My immigrant mother’s love language was not hugging and kissing, but rather cutting mangoes into neat cubes and plating it neatly for us, while she scraped the remaining fruit off the pit with her teeth for herself. As Sae-ri observes, “The American marriage is talking and hugging. But that is not the Korean marriage. The Korean marriage is — what. It is one day after the other. It is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

This book review was originally published in Mochi Magazine.

Immigrant Songs and Unexpected Love Stories: Why You Need to Read Yoon Choi’s “Skinship”, August 26, 2021


The only context in which I used to hear the word “skinship” growing up would be when my mother stated she was uncomfortable with it. “Skinship,” after all, is a pseudo-English portmanteau that combines “skin” and “kinship,” a word used in Japan and Korea to describe bonding through (non-sexual) physical touch. It’s used to stress the importance of mothers holding their babies, friends hugging, and domestic partners sleeping in the same bed at night. However, physical affection is rare and hard-won in a hard world, and set in this very hard world, is Yoon Choi’s “Skinship.” An uplifting and heartbreaking collection of short stories, “Skinship” challenges what it means to love; it captures the intricate webs of the Korean diaspora, the myth of the American Dream, and the complexity of human relationships — with our dearest ones, our communities, and even ourselves.

The title of the book is both ironic and apt. Instead of the scenes of lovers kissing and parents embracing their crying teenagers that we so often see portrayed in American media, “Skinship” portrays the alternative ways love and compassion can be expressed. In the story “The Church of Abundant Life,” it’s an older, childless couple struggling to survive and keep their bodega afloat in a low-income ethnic enclave, yet choosing to stay with each other. In “First Language,” it’s the simple act of sharing food; Sae-ri feeds her husband purple yam as a form of distraction on their way to pick up their problem-child son. Similarly, Sae-ri’s own mother fed her foods rich in “oil and sugar [and] red pepper sauce” until Sae-ri “could not hold on to every part of [her] sadness,” right before she was sent off to the U.S. for an arranged marriage. In “The Art of Losing,” it’s an elderly mother hiding her medical diagnosis from her family. In the titular story “Skinship,” it’s a father’s “mercy” towards his son as he wraps “the leather around his palm in such a way that you can feel the sting of the leather, but not the heavy brass buckle.”

Read the rest here.

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