It’s no secret that image is very important in Korean culture and I’ve mentioned briefly in the past how my Korean co-teachers, and, well, all Koreans in general, have absolutely no problem telling you exactly what they think of you when it comes to your appearance. Whether it’s a first meeting or you have known each other for awhile, I have learned more about myself in the past 6 months than I knew in my entire life back home because no one here has any qualms letting me know anything about myself whether I want to know or not. In a way it can be very refreshing having someone say everything they think about you to your face , including your personality. It can also be a little discombobulating when someone tells you, with absolutely no remorse, that you look “much prettier with makeup on”.
You have to understand that if someone here in Korea makes a comment about you to you it is hardly ever, in my experience, said with spite. Unless, as I learned on the subway the morning after a particularly rough night in Hongdae, it is to inform you that you look as though you ‘have no class’ and next time should probably ‘wear heels’. To that ahjumma that was offended by my clear lack of image control at 8 in the morning after getting home at 5, I apologize. I also never knew there could be so many things a person could be to make them attractive or unattractive. For example, I found out that I have not just a small face, but big eyes, a normal but high bridged nose (which, I am told, is a pretty foreigner thing), small ears and a “glamorous” (which basically means big boobed) body. These are apparently my “attractive” qualities. But make no mistake, I am far from perfect as anyone who works with me will be able to tell you by the end of every work day.
I have literally a million stories just from being at work where I was flabbergasted at the lack of sugarcoating that goes on. One day I was definitely not feeling life, but was smiling and felt as though no one really knew what a struggle it had been to get out of bed that morning while also staying awake. At least, no one said anything. My fellow English speaking teachers remained oblivious and, other than a couple of extra glances through the day, my Korean co-teachers seemed that way as well. I should have known better than to think I was off the hook. The next day, after I was feeling much better, my co-teacher says to me, “Wow, you look much better today!” Jokingly I responded, “Oh? Did I look bad yesterday?”
Now, if I had said something like this at home to a friend, or really anyone who’d made the comment, their response would have been something along the lines of, “No, you didn’t look bad, you just look really nice today!” I don’t know why, after 6 months of living here, I thought the response would be anything like that at all. It’s like I haven’t lived in this country at all! What I should have expected, and what came out of my co-teacher’s mouth, with a frown, was, “Yeah, yesterday you looked really tired and your skin condition was not that great. But today, much better!” Then, with a smile and a flounce, she patted me on the shoulder and waltzed right into the classroom.
These situations are absolutely not uncommon, and they are absolutely not intended to be negative or degrading in any way. Especially now that they know us so well and we see each other everyday, our fellow teachers are normally full of compliments, happy to say how nice someone’s hair looks that day, how small their waist, how cute a guy’s new haircut or how nice someone’s outfit looks on them. When comments are made about someone’s acne or how and their condition looks, it is often said out of legitimate concern and observation rather than a pointed display of flaws. My ultimate favorite story of ‘Well ok then…’ came from my students, of whom I should definitely have expected great verbal material but was, as usual, caught off-guard at their candidness.
That day I had worn my glasses simply because I hadn’t felt like putting in contacts that morning, with my hair in a bun for basically the same reason, and a very average outfit for me which consisted of leggings and a rather basic top. When I walked in my kids were shocked. They hadn’t seen me with my glasses on and demanded I take them off and put them back on several times to be able to tell key differences in my appearance. My favorite comments were:
“Teacher! No glasses, no pretty. Glasses, very pretty!”
Well, thank you Adam!
“Woah, teacher, BIG eyes! Like…plate!”
…Ok, thank you Annabella!
“Face looks smaller.”
I want to say that’s a good thing, so thanks again!
Then, just as I was about to actually feel good about myself before lunchtime on a Wednesday (unheard of, really), another one of my co-teachers comes down the hall and says, “Ah yes, you look much smarter with glasses!”
And, as though I never learn, I said, “I don’t always look smart?!”
To which he and all my students pause, stare at me for a moment and, he responds, “Hm…maybe today you just look smarter!”
What I’m basically trying to say here is, through all of the comments about whether or not I have lost weight, the one time my co-teachers called me out (at lunch) because I had a giant pimple the size of Manhattan on my face, or the one time I tried a new dress and they told me I looked like a grandma, I know that my Korean counterparts only tell me these things out of love and concern. You should know as well, that no matter whether you are teaching or simply coming here for a visit, someone is going to comment on your appearance to you. Take it all in stride and bask in it, because very rarely will you come across this kind of honesty in your life again. Besides, they comment on each other’s appearance just as much so you’re not that special. And remember, nothing they say to you will ever beat the time we were at lunch and one of the MALE Korean teachers asks, “Don’t you think [female Korean teacher] should lose weight?” To which she responded, “Don’t you think [male Korean teacher] should fix that new haircut?” Back home, them’s fighting words. Here, mere observations. And I love it.