Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When you're big in Korea

When I started thinking about writing this blog, all I could hear in my head was the Big in Japan song by Alphaville. Now it's stuck in my head so maybe it can get stuck in yours too. Take it or leave it :)

It's coming up to 9 months here and if there's still one thing that surprises me, it's the level of 'vanity' in Korea. I hesitate to use the word vanity due to its largely negative connotations, which I'm trying to avoid, but the word still seems to fit best. Before coming to Korea, all the groups I was involved in on Facebook that dealt with new teachers coming to Korea contained threads discussing fears, of mostly women, that us Westerners would not be able to find clothes to fit. I know it was a concern for me; people saying we need to bring clothes and not rely on stores here, freaking me out. Quite honestly most of the threads freaked me out: bring toothpaste, deodorant  shampoo, sheets, etc etc all to last a year. I felt like I was moving to a barren waste land!! Luckily I decided to take my chances and come with the minimum...yes I do get some stuff sent over but it is more than possible to find everything you need here or on the internet. But I digress. It seemed impossible to a lot of people that us Western body shapes could ever fit into the tiny doll clothes that South Korean women wear. And throughout my time here, this issue and other issues of beauty have played on my mind a lot, and I felt like blogging about it. Partly because I think it's interesting and partly because I don't have much exciting news to blog about and feel like writing ;)

Working in an Elementary School, I did not expect my students to be overly concerned about appearance. When I was 10, all I cared about was playing marbles, honing in on my yo-yo skills and hoping my parents had packed great snacks in my lunch box. Looks were not something that overly concerned me yet at that age. And so I was surprised to see my young students checking themselves out in the mirror at every opportunity. There is at least 1 mirror in every classroom, and it's not uncommon to find students, boys and girls, just staring at themselves. Of course my teachers do the same, often reapplying make-up or fixing hair, but I didn't think my students would care all that much. Often on the streets I see Middle or High School students walking around with mirrors, checking themselves out. And I don't mean the inconspicuous tiny mirrors we may have used in High School back home. No these are full size vanity mirrors, and they often spend ages looking at themselves, not just a quick glance to make sure they're not carrying around their lunch in their teeth. If a mirror is unavailable for some reason, then a phone is a great substitute. There is no, for lack of a better word, skaam here - it is perfectly normal to spend your time looking at yourself. It's something that struck my family when they were here too - how South Korean men and women love looking at themselves. Now I must point out that I'm not trying to condemn their actions - I'm just sharing my observations and opinions.

South Korea is known for it's plastic surgery, with people from all over Asia and the rest of the world flocking to see the best doctors. Interesting articles on this can be seen here and here. A trend that is particularly popular is 'double eye-lid' surgery. I'm not going to try and explain it but the aim of this procedure is bigger, more open looking eyes, and since being here, I can definitely tell the difference between single and double eye-lids. Now let me address something that irks me a little bit. We've spoken about it briefly here among my friends and I've read a bit about it too - the myth that all South Koreans (Asians?) want to look Western (white?), and that's why they have things like double eye-lid surgery and skin whitening  I disagree. What makes us think we are so desirable? I think sometimes it's easy to fall into the 'rock star' trap here, where you think that just because you're Western and the Koreans make a fuss of you, it means you rock. Maybe you do, and often they really do think we're attractive...but we're all different and that's where a lot of the attention comes from. Just my opinion. So things like bigger eye-lids are probably more sought after because all over the world, big eyes are seen as beautiful, not matter where you're from. Also, the skin whitening in Korea isn't necessarily about looking 'white' but rather it stems from long held beliefs that dark skin means you are poor: historically, poorer Koreans would spend their days in the fields, working to make a living and therefore getting darker in the sun, whereas more well off Koreans avoided the sun, therefore looking light. That is maybe why light skin is popular, not because they are actually trying to look white. I just think that as foreigners, we need to be careful not to assume we are in fact the bees knees. Rant over, for now. I don't want this blog to be about plastic surgery - it's common, it's spoken about openly, and it's just a part of the bigger beauty picture.

The thing I've been wrestling around with and thinking about a lot here is as a Western woman in Korea, how has their focus on the ideal beauty affected me, if at all? I've noticed time and again how anything slightly different is pointed out. I dye my hair and my kids faint. My skin breaks out and they are very quick to point it out, saying I look tired. In fact in general, Koreans do not mince their words - they will tell it like it is and ask what is wrong with your face if you have a spot. Thanks, like I wasn't already conscious about it Korea. A student is a little chubby and they get poked at (literally). I know a few very thin English teachers who have been asked if they are pregnant. You go shopping in the smaller towns like Jecheon and the majority of the clothes are too small or just don't fit right. Myeong-dong is one of many Western shopping havens, where we end up spending too much money in shops like Forever 21 and H&M because we can't find things easily elsewhere. We resort to shopping online at amazing stores like ASOS to find things that might fit. I know this might be sounding like another blog to freak the newbies out, sorry. It is possible to find things here and I've even bought things in Jecheon but it can be disheartening when you see all these amazing clothes and know they won't fit. And there are plenty of foreigners who don't suffer shopping at all - go you! So it depends. We are surrounded by stick thin, beautiful Korean men and women daily - standing next to my coteacher makes me feel like a troll. I have a friend who says she never really thought about her skin tone but since coming here, it's discussed often and she's much more aware of it. Among foreigners, I often see adverts for Herbalife and such, emphasising the need to keep slim - and I won't lie, I cannot understand how Koreans can stay so thin and eat so much rice!! And so it's not just pressure from Korea that filters through, but from foreigners too. We're different, we get stared at, poked and prodded and I often feel like I'm under a microscope here, with every little thing being noticed.

Sometimes this feels great, as I mentioned in my rant above. My teachers all compliment me on the way I dress, on my hair, they told me I am beautiful when I arrived and have beautiful eyes. Sometimes you feel on top of the world (even when your coteacher tells you your hairy arms make you a 'beautiful woman' while stoking your said hairy arm). But other times I really wish they'd look away. I don't know if being in Korea has made me more, or less, self-conscious about my looks. On one hand, I feel more 'vain' than ever before; yes, I have caught myself checking out my hair in my phone and I can't help but check myself out in the hundreds of mirrors at school. I am excited by the massive beauty store culture here and love browsing for new make-up and nail polishes (the beauty store phenomenon is another issue entirely - beauty value back home is really going to struggle to entertain me now). I'm much more aware of how I present myself but am also much more aware of my flaws...they stand out more here. On the other hand, I feel like I'm so different anyway that I really don't care. I'm not stupid (generally). I know that my body structure is not that of a South Korean woman, and I'm never going to look like them no matter what I do. So why care? Why not just accept that I'm me, I look like I do, I break out and I spend too much money in Myeong-dong. I'm really okay with that. I like that my kids 'ooh and ahh' when I dye my hair, put on some lipstick or just wear a bow to tame my curls - it makes me feel appreciated. But I've also learned to let go of the "you look tired" comments and pokes and prods. It's not worth it.

I don't know if this post has been helpful for anyone, and I know it's made me vulnerable but I really think it's something a lot of foreigners here deal with, no matter what dress/pants size you are. Being in Korea and being flooded with the "be better" attitude and expectations can be rough on the ego. But I think I've leaned to accept myself better here than anywhere else. I've grown so much over my time here and this is part of it. Do I think that it's healthy for Koreans, especially Korean children to be so image obsessed? No. I feel sorry my students who are a little bit bigger and are already being picked on. I wish there was more room for diversity in Korea, in general. Do I think plastic surgery is wrong? Not necessarily - I'm not one to pass judgement but I think it needs to be done for the right reasons. I don't think Korea is necessarily any different to the rest of the world when it comes to it's beauty ideals: all over the world there is pressure to look a certain way and go the 'extra' mile to achieve it. But I think because it's so openly discussed in Korea and because us being different stands out, it's easy to feel it more here. I'm all for being healthy and being careful not to overdo it on the carbs, but I think that my issue is when all this beauty focus causes kids to feel like they aren't good enough, Koreans to go to unhealthy lengths to attain an ideal (which is called an 'ideal' for a reason) and for some of us foreigners to feel like there's some standard we just cannot achieve, causing feelings of inferiority next to our Korean friends.

I don't know if I've made a point here. But this is part of my journey I thought I would share and would love to hear any of your opinions. I know that maybe what I've said was a little bit off, I'm not claiming to be factual, it's just as I see it :) I also feel like I've said "here" a lot. I apologise.

For the noobs: don't panic. The one thing you may hear which IS true is that if your feet are slightly bigger, you probably will struggle to find shoes. But regardless of what you read above, shopping for clothes in Korea all depends on you, your town and what you like. Some people fit right in, others struggle more and prefer the online stores, some just don't like Korean styles. So don't worry - a world of shopping fulfillment still waits for you here ;)

Maybe I am 'big in Korea'. That's okay, and that's how I see it today. I can't feel my toes and it's lunch time so I'm out.



  1. Okay, I felt it necessary to add a comment here, as my post has received quite a bit of attention and although I'm not going to address all the new issues brought up, I do want to emphasise that when I wrote this, I was definitely generalising to my experiences and opinions. The idea of beauty world-wide is so complex and I wasn't trying to tap into that. Just sharing some thoughts.

    I also didn't scratch the surface of plastic surgery reasons etc here for a reason - I can't tell you how it is. I mentioned that maybe plastic surgery was not all about becoming 'white' and I need to develop a bit there. I do think that there are opinions and ideas that to be white is to be beautiful. I know that there will be some Koreans doing the eye lid surgery and skin whitening because they do indeed want to look more 'white'. All I was saying is that it frustrates me when people look no further than that. It's not simply a black or white issue, I acknowledge that. I was pointing out a side of the argument that I feel gets neglected but did not specify that I agree there are many reasons. I don't feel I have the capacity to go into the motivations behind these ordeals just yet.

    And just a note to all current teachers who have experienced this or new teachers who will: I have been touched inappropriately, pointed at, laughed at, called a pig, along with the usual 'you look tired' jabs. I didn't put it in my post as I felt that exposed too much but you need to know it happens to many people, and you shouldn't let it bug you. I cried first, now I ignore the comments. Try not let the constant scrutiny and poking affect the way you see yourself. We don't always fit their standard of beauty but that's okay - it doesn't make us any less beautiful.

  2. Boom! And that's how Bron sees it :) Love your posts. You are right, the whole 'white skin' argument in terms of historical vibes (peasants and such) need more attention. It isn't all about universal white normative beauty standards- but it does inform some of the new beauty standards in Korea.

  3. Bron--that's a great positive outlook to it. It can hurt at first, but it doesn't define you; it's only how someone in this culture perceives you. I may repeat but: It's tough to hit the target of any beauty standard. (Overgeneralizing for effect) Do you pack up and move to Puerto Rico or Mexico because they like a more voluptuous body type? Do you move to California if you're skinny, tall, tan, and blonde? That's not fair. Do you inform your students how rude it is to name-call, especially to you, and other students? Absolutely.

    I also want to point out a couple things about Korea culture that I've experienced. No matter how long you live here, no matter how much Korean you know or how informed you are of the culture, you are, and will always be, a foreigner. That being said, even if you're up to date with the latest Korean fashion, or can rock some bangs and a Korean-style haircut, someone is always going to be a critic. I remember a guy who said that no one has the Korean bangs anymore (when I had my Korean bangs), and it was maybe a good fashion a few years ago. A) he sucks and was/is totally wrong, and B) who cares? I liked them and thought they were cut. Same happens for a lot of things I do or wear. "Aw cute. Trying out Korean culture" their eyes say. "Aw look at the little foreigner trying to be Korean," when it's so often how much I had heard how much I'm envied because of one thing or another.

    You win some and lose some, I think. I think you're a beautiful girl, and as long as you think so, too, it's all good.

  4. Bronwyn, I'm feeling a moment's empathy with you as I just finished class: I had a 10yr old jokingly tell me I look 'old, like grandpa' because of my huge forehead (receding hairline?). Such an insightful post that addresses many points embedded in the 'big picture' of face-value, image-consciousness, and classism.

  5. Hey, it's Shannon.
    I'm glad you addressed this. I often watch kids walking down the street, checking themselves with their phone mirrors (while walking)... and I just wonder who is worse : the US or Korea? In our own way, people in the US do similiar things. While it can seem ridiculous in any country, it sometimes seems really ridiculous here. As I write this, I'm staring at one of my first graders, who has had pink/blonde/black hair for a few months now. Fashion, another subtopic for contemplation, yeah?

  6. Thanks for all the comments and sharing you guys. It's good to share, to discuss things that can really affect the way we see ourselves here. I love hearing all your stories and hope you'll continue to read and share. Every person's experience here is unique and that's why I love getting the comments! So thank you for reading :) Shannon - fashion would be an awesome subtopic! Feel like doing a guest post? That hair sounds far too interesting to be left!!!