Beauty and Korea

It’s not exactly a hidden aspect of modern Korean culture: looks matter here. Even more than in the Western world, beauty is favored and beautiful people enjoy elevated social status, the admiration of those around them, greater leniency around making mistakes, and various other benefits. (Seriously.)

Having a “high nose” (meaning, basically, a Western-looking nose with a higher bridge) is considered beautiful.

Pale skin is considered beautiful.

“Double eyelids” (the extra fold or crease over the eye, as opposed to the “monolids” that Koreans have naturally) are considered beautiful.

Hair that is naturally a color other than black and eyes that are naturally a color other than brown are considered beautiful – mostly because they stand out in a largely homogeneous culture.

It’s sad that so many of the traits that are considered ideal are ones that Koreans are not naturally born with (i.e. the “high” nose, the double eyelids, the hair and eye color), which leads to the high rate of plastic surgery for things like nose reconstruction and creating “double eyelids.” (That’s not to say that natural Korean traits are not considered beautiful, but there is this prevalence of idealizing a more Western look.)

It should also be noted that I fit the bill as a Westerner, and traits that get me no attractiveness mileage in America (such as rather large nose and pale skin) earn lots of compliments here.

As a result, sometimes, it’s like we’re having this conversation from The Swan Princess… every. single. day. And not only with my students, but sometimes even with adults.

is beauty all that matters to you

Derek (Korea): “You’re all I ever wanted! You’re beautiful!”
Odette (Me): “Thank you. But what else?”
Derek (Korea): “What else?”
Odette (Me): “Is beauty all that matters to you?”
Derek (Korea): “What else… is there?”
Me: *internal sigh of despair*

For my parents

It’s Parents’ Day in Korea today, Monday, May 8th. Mother’s and Father’s Day are coming up soon in the U.S. too.

My family and extended family (if I may speak for the majority of them, at least on one side) aren’t too big on expressing our emotions to each other. We’re not into that mushy gushy stuff. (Okay, Mom, maybe you are.)

But as I continue living on my own as an adult, I keep thinking of things that I want to say to my parents (but would probably most likely definitely 100% never say in person because it’s too mushy and weird. and also, it would take too long).

So, Mom and Dad, this is for you. Consider it your Parents’ Day gift. Because as you both know, I can express myself much better in writing.

Dad:

Thank you for always working hard to take care of our family, from providing everything we need to immediately fixing all the little things that get broken from time to time.

Thank you for instilling in me a work ethic so strong that, like you, I’m kind of a workaholic (in a good way). You taught me by example to go the extra mile, to work until something is finished and not just drop everything the minute I’m off the clock, to be a person that other people can count on to get things done. Now I understand what a valuable skill that is.

Thank you for teaching me how to keep my living space clean and to take care of the small details, like wiping up that little spot I notice on the counter right away and putting away my clean laundry as soon as it’s ready – even if sometimes it involved calling me back to re-clean the kitchen after “inspection” or insisting that I pick up my clothes right now. Every time I take care of these little things, every time I multitask on my chores for maximum efficiency, and especially when I wipe down the faucet and the sink to make them all shiny, I think of you, and I’m grateful.

Thank you for filling our house with all kinds of music and with “old movies.” Even if it makes us snobs, I don’t care because I can’t imagine growing up without Louis Armstrong or BB King or Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn or the Marx Brothers or Alfred Hitchcock… (etc. etc.) For the rest of my life these things will bring back happy memories of our family coming together for music parties and movie nights.

Mom:

Thank you for being the sweetest, kindest, most thoughtful person, wife, and mother possible (and in doing so, giving me an amazing example of all the above). I have a long way to go before I could ever be as selfless as you are. Practically everything you’ve done ever since I can remember has been for the family, for us kids, or to help other people – not for yourself. I hope I can be like that someday for my own family. (But you deserve to focus on yourself too, Mom! <3)

Thank you for literally being the main provider of all of my education from the time I was born until I went to college. I’m so grateful for the richness and variety of our curriculum, for Latin and Roman mythology and Greek plays and grammar and diagramming sentences and all the other subjects that I probably complained about doing at the time. (But if I ever have to read and respond to that “Schemes of Life Often Illusory” essay again, I might scream. Sometimes little wisps of it float around in my head and threaten to drive me crazy.)

Thank you for also (like Dad) teaching me to properly clean a living space. Don’t take this the wrong way, but every time I scrub the toilet I think of you because every time I’m making my bathroom squeaky clean, I’m thinking of how glad I am that you taught me to be thorough and clean regularly. At the time, I wasn’t too crazy about the “proper order” for cleaning a toilet, but now, as I carry out these habits that have been instilled in me for years, I’m so so glad.

Mom and Dad:

Thank you for teaching me about the Catholic faith through words and through example. Thank you for taking us to church every Sunday, for making sure we prayed together every single night before dinner, for having long conversations about what our faith means, for simply incorporating the faith into daily life and not leaving it as just a Sunday thing. Thank you for teaching us about God in a real way, not a superficial or “lite” way. Some of the things you’ve said and the examples you’ve shown about what it means to follow Christ will always stay with me, for the rest of my life.

Thank you for giving me a beautiful example of marriage. You’ve stuck together through thick and thin, sickness and health, richer and poorer, and I truly hope that someday I will have a relationship as faithful and strong with my future husband.

Thank you for creating a strong, loving, fun family. Thank you for setting a tone of laughter and love and support from my earliest memories up to today. Thank you for setting up boundaries and sheltering us just enough to let us enjoy a safe, innocent, unpressured-to-grow-up-faster childhood. Thank you for encouraging us to do things to stretch and challenge ourselves. Thank you for knowing when to push and when to step back. Thank you for giving us the tools and skills we need to be competent, capable, good adults.

I’m no longer embarrassed or annoyed by you, as was the case for a lot of my teenage years. I’m really proud that you’re my parents.

I love you.

Oh, and one more thing…

Thank you for passing on your cool, smart, awesome genes to my siblings and me.

(Mom, don’t cry, okay? Dad, don’t make a joke about cool jeans and cool genes, okay?)

Language

Of course we all know it’s essential. How else would we communicate with each other? Yes, there is body language and eye contact and gesturing and tone and all that, but words are still pretty darn important.

I’m really making an effort to use Korean these days, particularly with my boyfriend (to alleviate the burden of communication that he upholds every day by speaking in English with me). In doing so I’m realizing just how scary it is to attempt to produce your own thoughts in another language.

Even though I encourage my students to “just try,” to put themselves out there and just say something in English on a daily basis, it’s… much easier said than done.

As a teacher, of course it’s easy to be delighted by the outgoing, bold kids who just shout out whatever they feel in English, even if it makes no sense, because it’s still an attempt at communication and it helps the student to make progress (plus it’s cute). Of course it’s easy to be frustrated or disheartened by the shy and quiet ones who don’t want to say a single word, even though they actually know enough vocabulary and grammar.

But I am that quiet student who doesn’t want to speak for fear of making a mistake. For fear of embarrassment, of saying something wrong, of the awkward confusion that could result from an error in pronunciation or grammar.

Logically I know that it’s better to just make the effort and let the grammar mistakes roll off my back, to just push through and improve by doing – I know this because I’ve seen the benefits in action countless times – but the fear is really a big obstacle.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that Korean is less forgiving than English (in my opinion) in terms of pronunciation, and less exposed to a variety of sounds since so few foreigners actually speak it.

But mostly it’s fear on my part.

To get back to my original point, I’ve been frustrated as I recognize that the words I choose in Korean (and I have a very limited selection to choose from before resorting to Naver Translate (more accurate than Google)) might have a different undertone or connotation than their English translation. But I have no way of knowing unless I constantly ask, “Is that right? Does it sound natural? Is it too formal? Too stiff? Too casual? Rude? Blunt? Standoffish?”

Do I say “교장선생님이 나한테 얘기했어”? Or “교장선생님이 나에게 말했어”? Technically they both mean “the principal said to me…”, but which is politer? Which is natural in context?

Is it 맞아요, 맞죠, or 맞다? By definition they all mean “Right/Right?,” but there is an appropriate context for the use of each.

HELP.

Not to say that English doesn’t have a similar mess – sure, English is even more confusing in many regards (I’m sure most of us have read “The Chaos“), and uses a ridiculous amount of slang, borrowed words, and cultural context (almost like inside jokes among all native English speakers), perhaps more than any other language.

But still, Korean is particularly troublesome, where you have a bewildering and treacherous interpersonal minefield of the ‘levels of speech,’ ranging from 반말 (banmal, casual language only for friends) to 존댓말 (jondaemal, polite language) with a million levels in between which make it downright terrifying for a non-native speaker to navigate.

I do think personality can have a lot to do with language learning as well. Extroverted people are more likely to put themselves out there in an effort to get the human interactions that will energize them. For me, and I’m sure many other introverts out there, I’m pretty good at listening, reading, and writing in Korean on a basic level. It’s the speaking that can be overwhelming (so basically exactly the same as English… heh heh).

It’s going to be an uphill battle. Wish me luck.