When I first arrived in Korea in 2010 as an English teacher, all fresh-faced and naïve, everything was a novelty. “Oh, that is so cute/funny/genius/interesting!,” I was declaring 738 times a day. I can’t pinpoint the exact day when all of the wonder and amazement was forever obliterated, but I think it was probably the first time one of my students yelled in front of the class, “Teacher! What is that thing on your face?!” No, it wasn’t a growth or a tumor or some other hideous abnormality that would deem such panic. It was a pimple.
Actually, reality probably hit even a bit sooner, a couple of weeks before that first horrifying classroom incident. When the head of the ESL teachers brought me into her office for a special meeting before my year of teaching began. I thought she was going to tell me that I should depend on her as my mentor, since my adoptee heritage made me different from my other white-faced teacher peers. I knew my challenges would be different from theirs. She did want to discuss my unique situation from the other teachers, but the conversation went a little differently than I expected.
“You need to wear more makeup,” she demanded.
“Excuse me?,” I replied, absolutely stunned.
“You are different from the other teachers. They are white and you are not. You will get no respect. You look too young. Go buy more make-up. Wear lots of lipstick. And definitely get a haircut.”
I kept my composure through the meeting as if this was a totally normal conversation for an employer/employee to have. Then, I promptly ran to my American friend’s room and wept for an extended period of time while he helplessly looked on, as confused and upset and lost-for-words as I was.
These first two incidents were not unique. This type of encounter happened so regularly during my time in Korea, I became totally numb to it. I barely even heard the criticisms. Or so I thought. By the time I returned to the States 14 months later, I was a shadow of myself. Once confident and independent, I struggled for the first time ever with body image. I was too fat. Too short. Too acne-prone. As if these were things I even had control over! (They were also not even real “problems,” worth a second of my time or worry.) Lots of counseling helped me find my balance again and I like to think I am now simply “self-aware.”
This whole “image” dynamic was further complicated by my birth family reunion. I wasn’t hearing from my family – my blood, my genes, my flesh – that I was beautiful or that I had grown-up well. Instead, I was definitely a fat American. (I probably weighed 100 pounds then.) I needed the hundreds of dollars of facial care product they bought me the first weekend because of how horrifying and disgusting my acne was. (See picture from that weekend below.) Ugh, what a shame I had inherited the family’s dark-skin gene! (Probably one of my best qualities, according to my American friends. Year-round tan!) Shouldn’t I get a tattoo on my right eyebrow? It is a lot shorter than the left. (It IS?!)
Yes, I probably internalized much more of this than I should have, but I had never experienced anything like this onslaught of criticism before. I had no idea what to do with it. In hindsight, it’s a wonder my weekly counseling sessions were not a year-long stay in a psych ward.
But…there’s always a but. My family was not being intentionally nasty to me. My students were not being horrible brats. Even that supervisor (though I still harbor bitterness towards her) was not trying to be rude. That way of think is ingrained in them. They know no other way. It is Korean culture.
Next week, we’ll continue the discussion as Whitney shares more about the Korean obsession with looks and the plastic surgery her family begged her to undergo.
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