After living in South Korea, I quickly found there to be no need for me to look in a mirror because I was constantly reminded of my appearance, not only by students but by teachers and friends, as well. My face doesn’t always have the clearest appearance; sometimes, I have acne. When a Korean pointed out my blemished appearance, they would literally point at my forehead and laugh because they could not express their comment in English. I would respond with yes yes I know I have acne. At first, it was comical, but it did get annoying a few times when I was not in the right mood.
(Hi there! What a forehead)
Fortunately for me, I am not overweight. I have a few western friends currently living in South Korea who are a little on the hefty side; at least by Korean standards. Some Koreans would make comments about how they needed t0 lose weight. I even heard a story of a friend who had their round stomach touched by a coworker!
I am sure you are like me. We all have imperfections so my advice would be to brace for the appearance comments. Try not to be angered or hurt by them.
United States Culture vs. Korean Culture
I have been back in the States visiting friends and family for 8 weeks. Not one person has mentioned my forehead.
I was skyping with one of my friends from South Korea and it was brought up within the first minute of our conversation.
Why Do You Bring Up My Negative Appearance?!
One of my Korean friends tried explaining why some people feel the need to point out other’s imperfections. She told me people are telling me these things because they care. They want us to be aware of an issue so we can do something to change it. I should note that these people that were pointing out my acne were all extremely helpful throughout my stay in South Korea. Their comments were not meant to be malicious.
In South Korea, appearance matters. This may be one of the reasons Korean culture is so heavily into plastic surgery. Although plastic surgery is common in America, South Korean people are more open about it. To me, it appears South Koreans’ general belief is if you don’t like something about yourself then you change it.
Coachable Moment: Try to be as tolerant as possible to the way people think and act in South Korea while you are here. Say your opinion when asked and tell South Koreans about how we think back home. Just as we believe that our way of thinking is the “right way” due to our experience and cultural conditioning, South Korean people would naturally feel the same way about their way of thinking. Who really knows who is right or wrong. In reality, we are probably all wrong!
(enjoying some farewell drinks and food)
Day 1 Glimpse of Korean Culture
In the first month teaching, you will not get paid for a few weeks. I needed to go to the bank but could not do it on my own. My Korean co-teacher assisted me and this is where I was spared a culture shock overload. At the bank, we all exchanged licenses and my co-teacher and the bank teller exchanged “pleasantries” in Korean, or so I thought, no noticeable arguments or even facial expressions to show any negative emotions. The bank teller looked down at her license, then up at my co-teacher, and then back down at her license. The bank teller handed the license back and it seemed like an ordinary transaction. I exchanged dollars for Korean won and we left.
As we walked back to the car my co-teacher, who had become my rock in a few short minutes, got angry. “That lady was so mean! The bank teller looked at my license and told me I got fat!” I did not think too much of it, and just thought it was a one-off situation. As time went on, however, I heard more and more of these stories and even had a few run-ins with them personally, and now understand that it is just a part of the culture.
So what do you think? Should we all keep comments to ourselves about an appearance that is not “ideal” or should we talk about our perceived imperfections openly?