Under the Knife

Last week, Whitney shared about her eye-opening experiences with Koreans and their obsession with beauty. Click here to read the first installment of the series.


During my first months in Korea, I was in denial. I so hoped that my students and supervisor were anomalies. That everyone in the country would not be so brainwashed in their thinking about outward appearance. So after my birth family reunion, I was more than a little disappointed to learn how close to “home” this issue was.

You’ve probably heard about the Korean plastic surgery phenomenon. Everyone does it. Literally – everyone! In a casual conversation with my cousin one day, she mentioned her surgery that she had gotten as a gift from her parents on her 16th birthday. I tried not to act surprised. “You got surgery?,” I said, failing miserably at playing it cool. “Yeah!,” she replied, “I got the double eyelid surgery.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I had to Google it later.

Yes, the ever-popular surgery in Korea is double eyelid! Have you heard of it? Google it, if not. You are literally going under the knife to add a fold of skin to your eyelid. I did not even know there was such a thing as a monolid or double-eyelid before this conversation with my cousin.

On our most recent visit to Korea, I greeted my 성배오빠 Oppa at the door with a big hug, but couldn’t put my finger on what exactly seemed different about him. It had been a couple years since I had seen him so I figured I was imagining things. Nope! At dinner, 엄마 Omma asked if I like 성배 Seong-bae’s face. I was confused. (This is a normal occurrence.) What was she asking? She proudly explained that he had gotten plastic surgery. Didn’t he look so much better now? I was horrified, but tried not to show it, as 성배 Seong-bae proudly showed off his new and improved face.  “Yeah, wow, it looks great,” I unenthusiastically mumbled, while I really wanted to scream, “His face was totally fine before! Actually, even better than now!”

IMG_9845
Seongbae Oppa then (above) and now (below)

A couple of months after my birth family reunion, 엄마 Omma and 아빠 Appa sat me down for a chat. The back story is: after I was born, I had severe abnormalities in my hands and wrists and they were told I needed expensive surgeries to ever be able to use them normally. This lead to my relinquishment. As it turned out, those surgeries were never needed. (Though unbeknownst to them, open heart surgery was required.) With physical therapy and a lot of TLC from my Dad, who would spend every evening doing exercises and stretches with me,  the wrists straightened on their own and I went on to lead a very normal childhood without any surgical assistance. I even played classical piano for many years.

Post-reunion, though, 엄마 Omma and 아빠 Appa just couldn’t get over the residual abnormalities in my thumbs. On my left hand, I have no thumb, just five fingers. On my right, I have an extra bone in my thumb which protrudes slightly. They thought they looked kind of strange. That they would draw looks. That life would be easier for me if I had normal thumbs. (And beyond that, I think, that they could finally afford to give me this surgery that they had been unable to provide 20-some years ago.) “We should just go see a surgeon and see what he says,” they tried to convince me. “It would probably be a pretty easy surgery.” “Please,” they begged, “Please, please!” I was adamant. Life would actually be much more complicated for me to re-learn how to use my hands post-surgery. Literally the only limitation I have now is that I can’t snap my fingers. After surgery, I would have to re-learn everything. Would I even have to start from scratch on the piano?

As much as I appreciated their gesture, I am very proud to say that I was not swayed. Am I a little more self-conscious about my thumbs, as well as everything else, post-Korea? Definitely. Am I ashamed or embarrassed? Not in the least. I see them as a mark of my story, an important part of my identity, a symbol of all I have lived through.

And no culture or trend or even 엄마 Omma or 아빠 Appa can take that from me.


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© We the Lees, 2016. All Rights Reserved

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4 thoughts on “Under the Knife

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I was disheartened in Korea to see how many people were preoccupied with outward appearances. It’s brave of you to open up and be proud of who you are — which goes much further than just your looks. Keep up the great writing.

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  2. I applaud you for dare I say ‘daring to be yourself, to be genuine’ . You’re perfectly beautiful, made in the image of your creator. 😍😍

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  3. Hey Lees,

    So I have a question. I don’t know how many Koreans you know in Nashville, but in Boston there are tons. It’s still weird for me to see so many, and sometimes when I am in a coffeeshop I feel as if I am back in Korea. HA. But East Coast Koreans are different than a lot of the rest. They are more traditional and adhere to the traditional beauty standards. As an outsider, it’s weird to still be in my home country and yet feel the same as I did in Korea. I’ve only been at MIT, Boston, Cambridge, etc. for a week….but it is so difficult meeting people when they are still holding you to the traditional standards. I mean, I’m sure there are a lot of Asians here who don’t care…I’ve just yet to find them haha Have you guys encountered that at all in Nashville?

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  4. Erin! Great question. Not sure how reliable our answer will be since you are basically the closest Nashville Korean/KAD we’ve found! Hahaha. We actually had a similar experience in Seattle once, though, where we were so confused, feeling like we were in Seoul when we hadn’t even yet boarded the plane to SK. It’s pretty disorienting! Our advice would be to make sure you are surrounding yourself with likeminded people (even if just via the interwebs!) to keep you grounded. Whitney really lacked that during her SK year, which probably didn’t help the situation at all. You know we’re always here if you feel like chatting! 🙂

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