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 by big 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.

 

  • jamie k

    I think the general gist of your article is noble, and indeed a lot of introspection is lacking when it comes to the American side of the dialogue. That being said, however, I disagree with you.

    Perhaps the motivation for my disagreement lies in the differentiation of our source and destination. Whereas you are an American-born Korean now living in Korea, I am a Korean-born American, now living in LA.

    I definitely understand all the conniption over the Jezebel article and NPR broadcast. After all, it can be quite unbecoming to criticize flaws that you yourself have – the proverbial “pot calling the kettle black” comes to mind. But, at the end of the day, there is a definite, palpable “freedom from appearance” here – a freedom that surely lacks in Korea. You can see it in the pure diversity and uniqueness of the people here, from incredibly curvaceous girls to stick thin supermodels. It’s not so much that Americans have an “unconventional appreciation” for beauty, it’s that beauty itself is manifested in so many different forms, and that each form has its own group of adulating fans. Obviously, the positive ramification of this is that just by virtue of being who you are means you are, to someone, beautiful. In the States, the philosophy that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has real, evidentiary meaning. This is not so true in Korea. The definition of beauty there is strictly defined, and very unforgiving. For girls its white skin (or else you get mocked like Hyorin), 165 cm tall, 45 kg, v-line and big eyes. For guys, add 15 cm/kg and abs for good measure. A quick glance at any Kpop group and you’ll see what the (only) Korean ideal for beauty is.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the U.S. is perfect, and that it isn’t home to instances of ugly superficiality. But, at the end of the day, I admit that Jezebel and NPR are at least in some way correct. The fact of the matter is that most girls in this country simply don’t despair or obsess over appearance in the same manner their Korean counterparts do.

  • jamie k

    I think the general gist of your article is noble, and indeed a lot of introspection is lacking when it comes to the American side of the dialogue. That being said, however, I disagree with you.

    Perhaps the motivation for my disagreement lies in the differentiation of our source and destination. Whereas you are an American-born Korean now living in Korea, I am a Korean-born American, now living in LA.

    I definitely understand all the conniption over the Jezebel article and NPR broadcast. After all, it can be quite unbecoming to criticize flaws that you yourself have – the proverbial “pot calling the kettle black” comes to mind. But, at the end of the day, there is a definite, palpable “freedom from appearance” here – a freedom that surely lacks in Korea. You can see it in the pure diversity and uniqueness of the people here, from incredibly curvaceous girls to stick thin supermodels. It’s not so much that Americans have an “unconventional appreciation” for beauty, it’s that beauty itself is manifested in so many different forms, and that each form has its own group of adulating fans. Obviously, the positive ramification of this is that just by virtue of being who you are means you are, to someone, beautiful. In the States, the philosophy that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has real, evidentiary meaning. This is not so true in Korea. The definition of beauty there is strictly defined, and very unforgiving. For girls its white skin (or else you get mocked like Hyorin), 165 cm tall, 45 kg, v-line and big eyes. For guys, add 15 cm/kg and abs for good measure. A quick glance at any Kpop group and you’ll see what the (only) Korean ideal for beauty is.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the U.S. is perfect, and that it isn’t home to instances of ugly superficiality. But, at the end of the day, I admit that Jezebel and NPR are at least in some way correct. The fact of the matter is that most girls in this country simply don’t despair or obsess over appearance in the same manner their Korean counterparts do.

  • http://twitter.com/cheminju Esther Choi

    hi, i made it clear that i’m not trying to explain korean beauty standards. i wrote this article to respond to the cultural ignorance and western-centrism on which these types of critiques from the western
    world often depend.

    my question is, why do you expect me to explain korean beauty standards or sexism in south korea, which you implicitly assume is the issue at hand? i’m a korean american with a very western perspective… because my identity is somewhat informed by korean culture, i am at least a little more aware of the complexity and context, which i have seen systematically ignored by representations in the western world. that’s really my whole point… understanding the limitations of your perspective and the system of power in which your critiques exist. for some reason, that is something many people seem to have trouble with.

    also i think it’s problematic to automatically pose the question of plastic surgery in south korea as an issue of sexism, considering it is something that widely affects men in south korea as well. when it comes to how men and women negotiate beauty standards, i see a smaller gap in the expectations imposed upon men and women to maintain their physical appearance than i see in the us. many beauty habits that korean men practice would be considered effeminate/deviant in the us.

    all that said, here is a paper about plastic surgery in south korea that might be what you’re looking for. it tries to address the different cultural and socioeconomic forces at play: http://www.academia.edu/726850/Gender_Globalization_and_Cosmetic_Surgey_in_South_Korea

  • http://madameyecandy.com/ fruitionpaper

    This is a very beautifully written piece. It really makes you think. I’m ashamed to have been that person who considered themselves morally superior and ignorant of the HUGE western influence on SK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sunyuh Angela K

    I totally agree with this essay but I don’t think that ill-informed-external-faux-critiques should prevent or dissuaded relevant, important and necessary cultural criticism. The plastic surgery industry in korea is a fundamental sector of korea’s neoliberal economy, one that the government and its allies are intent and keen on developing. Critiquing the critiques of korean plastic surgery and its beauty sector may be one way to fully slam white feminists, but such a critique does not seem to guide us to more complex questions about korea’s symbiotic relationship with normativity, beauty, capital, and value. I would hope that the scope of “women of color feminism” would not only denounce the delusions surrounding white feminism, but also provide a platform in which meaningful critiques of patriarchal norms can be presented.

    • vee

      Excellent point.

      These critiques would be worth considering if they weren’t shallow and racist, but looked into the reasons that Korean women do often turn to plastic surgery to get ahead in life, whether it’s in marriage, work or even schooling. You can bet your bottom dollar there are a ton of Korean feminists who look at the Korean society, its gender relations, appearance pressures on women (and even on men) critically and draw very interesting, informed conclusions. I studied in South Korea briefly and the most valuable course I took was in Gender Studies from a Korean perspective.

      Sadly it’s a very white, arrogant tendency to value anecdotal evidence of another culture above the writings, critiques and thought of the people of that culture itself. And I say this as a white feminist.

  • kor am azing

    Good piece.

    The holier-than-thou tone of the Jezebel and NPR pieces is representative of a greater sense of moral superiority in the West. Still, you seem to claim that the West has brought nothing but McDonald’s and cultural subjugation to South Korea.

    “…despite rising inequality and household debt no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay.”
    They made it out a whole lot better than the north, largely thanks to direct aid from the US. Ask mom or dad what their opinion of America was growing up.

    “the recent Free Trade Agreement with the US, which was forced through despite intense protest by South Koreans.”
    …And with great support from economists on both sides of the Pacific, and an overwhelming vote in the National Assembly. Forced through by whom? The democratically-elected representatives of the people of South Korea?

    Anyway, white people actin all superior gets me pissed off as well, but you lost me at “capitalist western pigs are ruining the idyllic agrarian cultures of everywhere else.”

    • http://twitter.com/cheminju Esther Choi

      it’s funny how you have to put words into my mouth in order to make your point. in no way did i romanticize korea as an “idyllic agrarian culture”, nor did i ever simplify it as an issue where “capitalist western pigs” ruin everything. i brought up the country’s rapid transformation and current issues with inequality and household debt to contextualize a discussion of south korean consumerism and high level of brand-consciousness. i brought up many different factors to nuance, rather than simplify, an understanding of korean society, including American political and economic influence, the ad industry and consumer culture, religion, nationalism, and the concentrated power of korean family conglomerates.

      it’s also interesting how you use a comparison with north korea to try to silence any recognition of deepening economic inequality in south korea, as if south koreans should just be grateful and quiet since they didn’t end up like north koreans. regarding us aid in south korea, the us was
      concerned with building up south korean infrastructure to secure its own
      permanent presence in south korea, and that presence is clear today
      economically, culturally, and militarily. you are bringing up
      neocolonization to somehow shed doubt on the role of american
      imperialism in south korea and that is pretty crazy. and your comment on fta completely obscures the amount of controversy and struggle and political manipulation that was involved in passing it. the ‘overwhelming vote’ you refer to was due to the fact that it was passed through a surprise vote held by the governing party to keep opposition from participating.

      your politics and view of korean history are clearly very aligned with everything the mainstream media tells you to believe. if you have no analysis of how the media and government work to protect elite interests at the cost of marginalized people who don’t wield that kind of power, you have no meaningful analysis of racism or western supremacy.

    • http://twitter.com/cheminju Esther Choi

      i brought up the rapid transformation of south korea and the current state of rising inequality and household debt to provide context for the consumerism and brand identification we see in south korea today, not to romanticize it as an “idyllic agrarian culture” being ruined by the west… you put words into my mouth to make your own point.

      also, the fta was a hugely controversial issue in south korea. your comment intentionally obscures the amount of controversy, resistance, and political manipulation involved. it was eventually passed through a SURPRISE vote held by the governing party to block opposition’s participation, hence why the vote was so “overwhelming.”

      also you shouldn’t bring up north korea as a way of silencing concerns about inequality in south korea. the question of how north and south korea ended up the way they are is a complicated question wrapped up in neoimperialism that i wouldn’t consult the mainstream media to find answers about.

      your comments reflect all the things i always hear in the mainstream media to justify the forces that continue to benefit the powerful few. if you have problems with racism and western supremacy, you should have a stronger analysis of how government, moneyed interests and media work hand in hand to create the racial inequalities and cultural imperialism we see today.

    • http://twitter.com/waking_hour waking_hour

      Just because you elect someone, they do not always behave in context promised WHEN you elected them.

  • disqus_RhEZql2cWc

    powerful article. i’m a black american woman, and really appreciated this perspective. thank you.

  • Britney Meyer

    This is a great article. Thank you. But what kills me most about this, are the white feminists who like to pretend they are so concerned about other races and yet they won’t just shut up and listen.

  • http://kingderella.tumblr.com/ kingderella

    me: born in japan, grew up and live in europe, identify as asian.
    just want to say that i love this article.

  • Katie

    DAMN STRAIGHT. High fives from another Korean American who is struggling with family body issues on BOTH sides of her family, (US-born white) dad’s side and (Korean) mom’s side. Am I supposed to pretend that my white cousin’s anorexia isn’t cultural?