Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cult of appearance

This is a rant. Be forewarned.

I’m sitting here in a cafe admiring the perfect skin of a dainty-faced girl sitting near me. But she, and so many other beautiful girls in Seoul, prance around acting like beauty is the purpose and meaning of her existence. The other day I took Naughty to the dentist, which, in fine GangNam fashion, has a rock climbing wall, video games, toys, books, and cartoons playing on monitors embedded in the ceiling. But one little boy was feeling possessive and screamed every time Naughty approached the toys. This little monster was clearly (to me) acting out because his mom, not 5 feet away, decked out in couture and jewels and kitten heels, was engrossed in her fashion magazine and ignoring him completely. Hey kid. I once dyed my hair purple to piss off my mom. I hear ya.

I’m torn. Because on one hand, I envy these beautiful women, striding across the city in their dainty heels, sparkling in the smoggy air, shiny hair swinging, looking just so good in this season’s skinny jeans. Funny how I don’t check out men anymore, only women and art. I can admit it: I’m as vain as the next person. I spend more time than I’d like to admit examining my pores in the mirror. I confess to saying, “Do these jeans flatter my ass?” on at least one occasion. I wear makeup and spend money on wrinkle cream and have a compulsion to buy cosmetics in pretty packaging. But in Seoul I self-consciously dress on the slovenly side to buck the trend of all these perfectly coifed fashionistas. Hey, I’m a MOMMY. I’m chasing my kids through the dirt and wiping their noses with my sleeve. I’m pulling up my shirt to nurse. Cotton and Oxyclean are my friends. I don’t wear heels because I may need to throw myself into ongoing traffic at a moment’s notice. I like clothes with pockets that can hold my transportation card, band-aids, kleenex, cars and rocks whose well-being I am entrusted with, money-just-in-case, my phone, my flash cards in case we are stuck in a long game of “watch the ants,” and Purell. I have enough to yell at my kids without adding “don’t tear your clothes” and “don’t step on mommy’s expensive white shoes” to my repertoire.

I am writing this, preparing two lessons, studying Chinese, and working the next AWC newsletter, hands shaking as I work off my caffeine high while Max is at school, and this local beauty is lollygagging through a fashion magazine, manicured toes cradled in uncomfortable-looking leather heels, barely touching her fat-free muffin.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, maybe I can be little more reflective about this whole love-hate relationship with beauty.

Although Americans produce the powerful Hollywood/supermodel images which envelop the globe in a haze of lipgloss and dewy skin, Americans seem self-righteous and in-your-face about being entitled to be... well... ugly. Or at least “casual.” Casual translating into throwing on an old pair of sweats and turning up with unwashed hair at the grocery store. As an American I retain the right to be slovenly and unwashed here, though I admit when I go back to the U.S. in a collective sense I feel as though we’ve let ourselves go. I can’t say I like the current fashion trends here, and some are downright bizarre but people make an effort. It always strikes me as humorous to go to Itaewon (where the fake bags are sold) and see overweight Americans running around wearing Easy Spirit shoes, sweats, and Louis Vuitton purses. Americans, it seems to me, are ambivalent about appearance -- they want to look good and be fashionable, but they don’t want to be judged based on appearance. Perhaps that explains why I am simultaneously fascinated by and repulsed by the cult of personal appearance here: I want to look good, but I don’t want to be judged if I don’t. Cake? Eat it too? Yes, please.

Since this is clearly a touchy subject for me, I conducted a little “research” over wine at Mom’s Night Out, envisioning myself momentarily as the Carrie Bradshaw of Seoul. “Yes, my blog... it’s like ‘Sex in the City’... but without the sex. And the Manolo Blahniks. And the size 2 heroine. And grown men. OK... never mind.”

Picture us: five moms who are usually enveloped in arms and legs and sand (we all have boys in the same class, and they play together ALL THE TIME), decked out in our lipstick and finery, a little drunk off wine and exhaustion (it is WAY past our bedtimes), talking about appearance. I should clarify that THESE moms are a pretty casual bunch; not like the mommies in the class below Silly, who were upset because the yellow plastic Sesame Street bags given as presents to the kids for Children’s Day were too “cheap looking” -- they prefer to send their kids to school carrying shopping bags from brand names like Coach. H works part time teaching English, M is actually not a mommy but an aunt, taking care of her nephew full time, C is a Korean American stay at home mom, and A works full time.

First, they say, we need to distinguish between physical appearance, clothes/dress, and 인상 (“impression” -- sort of).

Anyone who is familiar with the amount of plastic surgery done in Seoul knows how valued physical beauty is here. Throw a rock in Apgujung and you will hit a plastic surgery office. (Anyone out there know the current plastic surgery rates? Some ridiculous percentage of 20-somethings? I only do research where wine is involved.) The Yangpa is sick and twisted, but perhaps because of that manages to tap into all that is sick and twisted about life in Korea. As C points out, there is no stigma to being artificially beautiful, only the beauty matters -- the actress/singer Harisu, an open transsexual, was voted the sexiest woman in Korea.

Clothes. Clothes indicate status far more closely here than in the U.S. Not just clothes, but how you wear them. One of my many failings as a daughter-in-law is to be perpetually wrinkled. I have an ideological opposition to ironing. I remember meeting a Birkenstock, ripped jean, and old tee-shirt-clad old college friend at Jamba Juice in Redwood Shores, CA back in 97 or 98, the heyday of the internet boom. We were chatting casually and it came out that he had just made millions of dollars at @Home. Here, on the other hand, people are sending their kids to school with couture erasers and treating you differently based on your shoes. More than your house or car, your clothes parade your level of social and economic success.

Next: 인상. Hard to translate this term -- it is something like, “impression.” but different. It refers to the feeling you get from someone -- so someone can be physically unattractive, but if she smiles and appears friendly and open, she has a good 인상. 인상 is very important to Koreans; C tells me that in general, teachers and people in the service industry should have good 인상, and that moms prefer to hire a teacher who isn’t fat and who has a friendly face. (Aside: I have been hired for my 인상 before. And criticized by my in-laws for not smiling enough.) As H argued: for her, a teacher doesn’t have to have good 인상 because you can get to know the teacher over a long period of time. But for someone you meet briefly, at a restaurant or in a business meeting, you don’t have time to get to know him or her, and if she appears unfriendly or angry you won’t have a good experience and you won’t want to do business there anymore.

A just returned from the States, and she commented that while Koreans look at someone’s dress and expression and use that to judge that person’s 마음 (heat/mind), in the U.S. we would call those things a matter of taste.

One of my Chinese books, says that if a woman is very beautiful, you say hen3 piao4 liang4 (“very beautiful”). If she is modderately beautiful, you say "hen3 ke3 ai4" ("very cute"). If she is plain, you say she is "hen3 ai4 guo2" (“patriotic”). If she is ugly, you say she obeys the rules well "hen3 shou3 gui1 ju4." If she is very ugly you say, ""ta1 de5 zi4 hen3 piao4 liang4" ("her writing is very beautiful"). (source: Making Out in Chinese) Talk about a rating system: rating not just a woman's beauty but also beauty against other virtues. I guess what bothers me is that people are so quick here to comment on someone’s failings in the appearance realm, without bothering to look at other areas. But perhaps I am overly sensitive because to me, critiquing someone’s appearance is such a rude thing to do (see my post on Self-monitoring). Perhaps others don’t take it so seriously.

As a mommy this issue of appearance concerns me because of my kids too. It bothers me that people talk about my children’s looks (having double-eyelids and being Westernized in appearance) and not their behavior. A woman in an ice cream store asked me, “Was he born with those eyes?” I thought: “Do you think I would send my 5-year-old to plastic surgery?” But perhaps I misunderstood her question. I was talking with some other mommies one day, and one commented that the fat kid in her son’s class had already become a “왕따” (the kid everyone picks on -- but in a more extreme way. This is a big problem in Korea and there are suicides each year because of it. School friendships are highly valued). I heard her cluck at that and then turn around and comment on someone’s appearance. Hey lady, where do you think your kids are learning this from? Take a look in the mirror sometime. There are sure a lot of them in Seoul. People look in the mirror in the elevator, in their cellphone, in their office, etc. before stepping out, to make sure that they look presentable. Too bad the reflection doesn’t go beyond the skin.

One good thing about writing this blog has been the opportunity to articulate the way I see my own life; the way I interpret and piece this so-called ex-pat life together and generate a picture of how culture, language, parenting, walking, body language, our pasts, etc. are woven into something coherent and meaningful. The beauty of that is in the process and in the continual renewal and reweaving, accepting what happens and adjusting the picture. I have nothing against beauty, and aspire to beauty myself, but I hope that the brand of beauty that my children can embrace is a multi-faceted one -- a productive and changing one -- and one that embraces the serendipitous appearance of chocolate stains, whole milk lattes, and laugh lines.

currently watching: Shopgirl (love Clair Danes)
currently listening to: Somewhere beyond the sea - Frank Sinatra
currently reading: Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

currently wearing: AX jeans, shirt from dongdaemoon market, Onkel glasses (a bit of a glasses fetish)


Jon Allen said...

I've noticed how often the Koreans check themselves in the mirror too.
There seem to be so many mirrors around in metro stations, shops, lifts etc.
Which came first the mirrors or the narcissistic atitude?

I like the link to feeman Seoul you snuck in there :)

Anonymous said...

Hi! Just stumbled across your blog and wanted to say I enjoy your writing.
Happy Chusok!

Melanie said...

Uh oh, I'm in big trouble now! I've lived in Korea for only 3 years and grew to like it. Then I convinced my husband to come to Canada to try that out for a year. I figure, if Canadians can go to Korea for a year, surely we can do the same thing the other way round.

Well, that year is almost up and even though I was homesick for Korea and my students at the begining, I've turned Canadian again. I'm terrified! I need your help! You've got to do a post on all of the wonders of Korea: the stationary shops, being paid ridiculous amounts to play go fish with someone's kid in English, mandu and ddeok bokki.

Kimberly said...

Hello Jennifer,

I left a comment on your blog as anonymous in 2007. Because I left my email address and info on your blog, I've been getting a lot of inapproriate and even threatening messages.

Since I didn't login in as myself, I can't delete my own comment on your blog. Can you please...please kindly remove my comment on your blog?

Thank you!

Jennifer said...

I've looked through the comments from 2007 and don't see which one you're talking about -- can you tell me which post it is in? I'm appalled to hear that you're having this problem. If you can provide me with more detail I can report it to blogger. Thanks and sorry....


Jennifer said...

Got it. Sorry about that. I was looking for Kimberly. Am very confused about all your identities. I deleted the comment, and hope you don't have any more trouble!