On South Korean “Superficiality”: We Are Deeper Than You Want To Know

By Guest Contributor Esther Choi

Image by Byoung Wook via Flickr Creative Commons.

Existing in very distinct manifestations of Korean American diaspora, but occupying similar spaces, we the American-born Koreans defined “fobs” (Fresh Off the Boat, more recently immigrated Koreans) by their cutesy antics, superficial looks, plastic surgery craze, and love of K-pop. We may have considered it all in good humor, but ultimately it assured us we were morally superior, a higher art form.

When I finally grew up a bit and began challenging my own internalized racism, I began to realize my judgments of “fob culture” were more about my desire to raise myself above it rather than any attempt to understand their world. Perhaps we thought that by defining ourselves against the less assimilated, we could stamp out our own sense of foreignness.

I am now living in South Korea, the place I was never from but to which my life has always been bound. Centering this society, I find a renewed appreciation for the ways that the Korean side of my bi-cultural divide has always challenged and deepened my perspectives. As I learn more about the connections between Korean society today and its incredible history of struggle and endurance, which echoes throughout the next generations and across diasporas, my identity takes new roots.

South Korea was transformed into one of the major capitalist economies in a matter of decades. Consumer culture lines the streets, and small shops that were once a main part of the economy are continuously replaced bybig franchises.

Western brands are generally much more expensive and marketed as luxury. Companies in South Korea use the image of whiteness in their ads to sell capitalist culture to the people, a tactic that profits from the role of Western imperialism. This will become an increasing presence due to the recent Free Trade Agreement with the US, which was forced through despite intense protest by South Koreans.

Rags to riches is the national story, a story that has been trumpeted by various forces claiming credit, from American intervention and capitalism to nationalism to Christianity and, despite rising inequality and household debt, no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay.

Today’s Korean language is rife with haphazardly adopted English loan-words, to capture the existence of a rapidly changing, commodified society. Examples include style, charisma, shopping center (and many other words related to shopping), gas, romance, bar, skincare, and most relevant to this discussion, image. English loan-words don’t just replace or expand Korean vocabulary but indicate changes in the society’s relationship to those very concepts.

As a Korean American, my life has been a constant bridging of different norms, but any conclusion I try to reach about a comparison seems to mask rather than capture the truth and complexity of it all.

Enter Julia Lurie on NPR’s This American Life. Lurie, a white American English-language teacher in South Korea, decides to both educate Korean girls on why their society’s beauty standards and plastic surgery choices are worse than in the US and alert the Western world to the insanity she has discovered. Following her segment,Jezebel picks up on her story and frames it in a way that objectifies South Korean women.

Ironically, as these two American voices try to address how Korean beauty standards privilege Western features, their reaction is to suggest that Koreans need to be more “American” in their way of thinking about beauty. And they are not the only ones chiming in. The Internet overflows with expats-turned-anthropologists, and one white girl was so fascinated, since her best friend is Korean, that she went to live among the natives in order to make a documentary called Korean High School.

Making their simplistic comparisons between Korean and American beauty standards, the verdict of the Jezebel and NPR pieces is that American beauty standards are more open-minded and less important to our daily lives. This sort of comparison harps upon the false “East vs. West” dichotomies that have served as a pillar of white supremacy. Representations of “the Orient” as the backwards antithesis of the Western world have been operational in defining Western identity as universal and supreme.

Where convenient, the authors project their own Western-centric understanding of beauty onto Korean society and seem to have no other framework available to understand the issue. In the Jezebel article, the author goes so far as to suggest, “If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who is not big-eyed and small-faced and straight-nosed, do you also have a limited ability to understand, empathize, sympathize, and relate to that person, as well? Do you become intolerant of those who don’t meet your lookist standards?”

Her only justification for this random statement is that Western society once used physiognomy to make a correlation between physical traits and evil characteristics, which she notes plays out in Disney movies today. Thus, a concern with physical traits must have those same repercussions in Korean society in a way that is somehow more problematic.

But physical appearance exists in a different context in different societies. One example: I have lived with is that Koreans are more open about commenting on others’ appearances, whereas it would be considered offensive in American society. How does that complicate the idea that appearances are considered more sacred or intrinsic in South Korea?

During her lesson, Lurie teaches her students that, in the US, it is illegal to discriminate based on appearance in hiring. That is completely false. It is perfectly legal, and studies have been done to prove what we already know: that looks help you when it comes to succeeding in life.

It is true, however, that people cannot legally discriminate against you based on the constitutionally protected categories, including race. Despite this law in theory, the reality is that the race you look like still plays a large part in who gets what jobs, from higher-paying restaurant jobs to corporate leadership. It shapes American society from the microaggressions and differential treatments in social, academic, and professional situations to overt, state-sanctioned racial profiling laws.

Like racism, the American way of dealing with beauty privilege seems to be to pretend it doesn’t exist (probably because the two are so related), and instead stigmatize it, which just makes everyone more secretive and ashamed about how they survive a world where the superficial matters.

And while we ignore our own issues, we are quick to look to other countries or communities of color in the US to see how they are uniquely intolerant. Part of our American creed is to proclaim that we are more tolerant than the rest of the world, and thus, have a mandate to spread our enlightenment. The US has essentially “branded” the very concept of a free, tolerant society and manages that brand meticulously. I think we need to examine our reactions to everyone else’s issues and the excuses we make for our own.

Our responsibility to deal with our own beauty issues is even more apparent, considering the direction in which the culture that shapes them–from magazines to television shows–flows around the world. The Jezebel article implies that Americans have a greater appreciation for “unconventional beauty.” American media is dominant when it comes to defining normal vs. unconventional beauty across the world and–amongst the many impossible beauty standards that it has perpetuated–one is to make white = conventional, despite the makeup of the world and its own population. That said, how can she possibly even make that comparison?

Also, superficial self-images and uniformity are constructed through more than physical appearance. I think about the way I, as an American, am pressured to construct my entire persona: the pressure to say the right things to seem charismatic, to give a firm handshake to seem assertive, to buy Apple products to seem “unique” (just like everyone else).

Considering Lurie accesses these Korean girls’ lives through her role as a white American English teacher in Korea, I want to address the fact that English teaching is a giant industry in South Korea that is supported by the government through special programs and preferential visas for Westerners. Learning English is becoming a survival necessity for South Koreans, one that surely affects their sense of self. For example, a “Global Education City”–a network of expensive Western schools that establish an English-only environment for Korean students–is currently being built in the city of Jeju.

If Lurie has a problem with how Koreans are held to unnatural beauty standards, how about the way people are made to feel inadequate for not being able to speak a language or practice a culture that is not native to them? Along with education, another way English has become omnipresent in Korean society is that the vast majority of commercial products are labeled in English. Even products made domestically are labeled with often nonsensical English, revealing that the labels are not so much informational as they are a symbol of legitimacy.

Now that I am living in South Korea as a gyopo (term here for ethnic Koreans who grew up overseas), I am newly discovering the parts of my life and identity that only ever existed for me through diaspora. It is a knowledge I experience through living it, and it is a love I have always felt through a mixture of everyday things: food, intimate conversations, preserved traditions and fading folktales, and the sense of generosity and community that have permeated my life.

So to NPR and Jezebel, tourists and expats of every culture, and a younger self, I’d like to say that whenever you feel the urge to preach things like “beauty is on the inside,” you should take your own words to heart and recognize all that you will never understand from the outside of another’s identity.


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