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*

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.