“I Wasn’t Secure Enough with My Self Image to Live in South Korea”

I guess I should give Buzzfeed some credit for trying to post something with depth, but this article by Ashley Perez is still doggy-paddling in the shallow end of the pool. As a personal narrative, this piece lacks self-scrutiny; there is no dynamic change in the author’s attitude or approach to life. Her solution to  her “problem” was to leave the country altogether, rather than seeking understanding and enlightening readers as to the socio-economic conditions of Korean ideals of beauty.

Ms. Perez complains that she had to leave South Korea after a year  because clothing stores made her feel fat:

And so at some point I gave up, tired of living in a culture I literally couldn’t fit into, despite my best efforts.

I would not be accepted as a true fellow Korean.

The author’s conflict comes with her claim to a Korean genetic background — she wants to be considered a true Korean (She does not clarify her Korean lineage, nor  her level of familiarity with Korean cultural traits like language.) A fair enough desire, but her “best efforts” at “fitting in” only seem to include trying on a pair of jeans in a Korean clothing store. By her logic, you can only fit into a culture if its community accepts you as unequivocally beautiful.

If that’s the only facet of a culture you care about, maybe you have no business traveling in the first place you really need to get out more.

Ms. Perez is eager to blame others for what appears to be her own lack of self confidence:

… I found it almost impossible to find anything that fit me. Whereas in the United States I’m smaller than the average woman — size 8 bottoms, medium tops, and a size 8.5 shoe — in Korea, I truly felt like a whale … Nothing will destroy your confidence faster than a store clerk shouting at you from across a crowded store, “no, no — very, very big” as you hold a dress up to your body in the mirror.

“Waaaah, this store doesn’t carry clothes to fit a small minority of its target sales demographic! That stranger I will never see again made me feel like a whale with her matter-of-fact explanation given to me in my own foreign language.”

Ms. Perez may also want to consider whether the opinions of children deserve so much priority in her self-estimations.

I was sick of my students calling me “plain face” or “tired teacher” on the days when I wore no makeup …

“Oh noes! The kids are judging my looks! Now I’ll never be a true Korean!”

Lamenting the kids’ lack of understanding when it comes to the concept of “inner beauty,” I wonder whether she bothered to make herself an example of it. I’m guessing not, since she decided to just bitch about them to Buzzfeed.

Ms. Perez closes with a Helen Lovejoy-esque appeal to “please think of the children,” and the admittedly sad truth that many will feel the need to get cosmetic surgery at some point in their lives. Still, it rings hollow after reading an entire piece devoted to her personal “hardships” buying clothes and feeling crappy about herself.

In my experience here, with many friends of various Asian ethnicities and citizenships, they are usually treated as Koreans on sight. Shopkeepers address them in Korean first, and usually speak to them assuming they are translators for their social group. This would have been a perfect way for Ms. Perez to fit in. She is just too image-obsessed to notice it. Maybe she fits in here after all!

13 Comments

Filed under Culture Shock

13 responses to ““I Wasn’t Secure Enough with My Self Image to Live in South Korea”

  1. Marie

    I’m gonna go read her article before I make a snap judgment about you being too harsh, but I did think it, just so you know. to me your snarkiness (despite the fact that I’d probably have said the same things) came across as overly judgmental in article form. obviously I say that with with all respect and affection. anyway I’ll be back after reading hers, if i don’t get sidetracked first.

    • Daniel Daugherty

      Did you read it? Can I get your thoughts?

      • I did! Sorry I didn’t get back to you. Her attitude did irritate me–it seemed a lot like she wrote all about how terrible things were for her and then a friend told her that she should work in some less-whiny stuff, so she bookended it all with a few obligatory sentences about how “oh yeah, and it’s so difficult for the children.” I got the impression that she was writing all this too soon after the fact, when her emotions still had the better of her and she hadn’t had enough time to process the experience. That or she just isn’t very introspective in general.

        Aside from that though, I still (in general, not just in this instance) take issue with the responder’s attitude whenever he or she uses sarcasm (or resort to name-calling, or whatever) in their assessment of the source material. It’s not that it isn’t understandable, and of course everyone is allowed to have their own opinion, but imo it weakens the argument in this kind of setting–in this case an essay vs. casual conversation.

        (To be fair, I acknowledge that this is a blog post and not a newspaper article. But the combination of formal tone and disdain still grates on my nerves a bit. Personal preference, perhaps?)

  2. She identifies herself as ‘a Cuban/Filipino/Korean-American’ and possibly she thought that the Korean part would give her a leg up, that people would like her more – from what I’ve observed, though, it’s actually more difficult for people who look like they might be Korean but don’t speak the language as compared to someone who looks like a foreigner.

    I think it is somewhat odd to go to a foreign country – a foreign country, really, not just a different one, in the way Canada is different from the US – and expect that you will ever really ‘fit in.’ And again, fluency in the local tongue is very key here.

    The goal with living abroad isn’t to fit in to a strange place but rather to discover what kind of person you are willing to become in response to the experience of not fitting in. Expatriate can change you – it’s part of the adventure, really, if you open yourself to it.

    The message she ought to have come away with from living in Korea is: don’t care what others want you to be, and true beauty lies within. Cliche, true, but how sad that she had a chance to learn that but didn’t.

  3. K

    I read her article and thought the samething. And there is no way she is a US size 8….I saw her pictures, she is at least a US size 12 and large top which would be hard to find in Korea butsize 8 and mediumtops are not. And I’m sorry but honest opinion is that she doesn’t have a pretty face ether. She does have a very average/plain face even by american standards she isn’t considered pretty. She must of thought she was far more attractive then she really is and Koreans are more honest about looks. She doesn’t fit the beauty standard here, she just isn’t a pretty woman, she is average at best. Her article wqsas just one big self cry fest over how no one thought she was as pretty as she thinks she is.

    • Daniel Daugherty

      I don’t really think it matters whether she is or isn’t “pretty,” but I suppose she should be more honest with herself about her looks if she’s going to paint an entire country of people with one brush swipe. Her self-pity party does prove that she’s more obsessed with it than the Korean people she’s bitching about, though!

  4. Tara

    As a korean girl who had been raised in korea throughout her adolescence, I have to say Ms. Perez’s argument concerning SK’s general obsession with superficial appearance is compelling. Growing up, my parents, relatives, peers, and so on constantly commented on the appearances of others and my own. I would even say it was a toxic environment to have been raised in, as it ingrained me with an obsession to conform to the society’s rather rigid standard of beauty at any cost. And I can speak as a first-hand witness and a participant that most other girls were, too. Of course, all women of all age and culture feels insecurities about their looks and their desirability, but as someone who has experienced both a Western and Asian culture, and have traveled extensively, no other culture makes the 98% of the population who are not born to look like the top 2% as miserable as SK.

    Korea’s a homogenous society, unreceptive towards any diversity, which in turn disregards the notion of beauty in different forms. Your attractiveness depends on how much you look like the celebrities in trend.

    As one of the most gender unequal society, korean male is under less pressure to be physically appealing as men are still considered the main bread-winner and head of the family. As males, pressure stems from career prospects. As for women, the brutality with which my Korean male friends spoke of the “unattractive” females is unimaginable. It is not simply that Koreans are more honest and Americans are more forgiving towards appearances, the general emphasis people put on superficial appearance – of girls, mostly – over intelligence, inner beauty and strength is extreme. Example: one of the most popular Korean phrases of encouragement for male students preparing for college entrance exams is “if you study one more hour, the face of your future wife changes” – as in, if you study harder and enroll into a better university, thus furthering your chances of a higher income, you will have a more beautiful wife. Not a happier future, a healthier family, more opportunities to explore different careers that might suit you, but a more beautiful wife. Because that, to korean males, represent everything. Sure, Americans and westerners might also joke, if you have a thicker wallet, you get hot chicks. But the seriousness with which koreans approach this matter, is different.

    Such trend is a facet of the collectivist, hierarchical nature of Korean culture. Koreans persecute individuality and celebrate conformity. Almost every interaction has a dominant figure and a minor figure. Older brother and the younger brother, the elders and the youth, the teacher and the student. Even among friends, mere year of age difference changes the friendship dynamic significantly. In these unequal interactions, the minor party address the dominant one with a different set of vernacular and is expected to obey, regardless of the truth or fairness. Of course, all cultures come with pros and cons. Korean culture also help its members nurture humility, diligence and gratitude. Post-modern korean society, however, have somehow extended the collectivist and hierarchical mindset to the realm of beauty, pressuring the youth to commit ridiculous amount time and effort into dressing and grooming for others rather than for themselves.

    Ms. Perez’s article does suffer from a skewed attitude and a casual tone in her diction and frequent references to personal anecdote. However, I have no doubt that if a woman, beautiful and self-secure, who however diverged slightly from the SK society’s standard of beauty, came to SK, will be battered with criticisms and disdain that she will wish to leave SK. Security and self-esteem has its limits.

    I have to admit, before finishing this comment, that my argument also comes from a very emotional and personal place and thus heavily biased. After having moved out of Korea, and interacting with people from different ethnicity, both American/Canadian and African, Europeans and South Asians, I have been showered with encouraging remarks that I never expected to hear ever in my life time while I was in Korea. I was by no means unattractive by Korean standards. Average, at least, often called cute, pretty and slim. However, my parents and relative’s ruthless remarks on the most trivial flaws had led me to believe I was perpetually inadequate. In SK, the over-achieving and demanding parental pressure paired with dog-eat-dog world mindset of the society had backfired and turned me into an insecure, constantly displeased misanthrope who was willing to do anything to step over others to get what I want. My experiences outside of Korea have made me a better person. More secure, confident, open-minded, less prejudiced, optimistic, forgiving, understand, loving and ethical.

    As made apparent especially by the previous paragraph, it is impossible for me to approach this subject completely objectively. I still believe I have an insight a male and a foreigner might lack. What do you think?

    • Daniel Daugherty

      You definitely have valuable insights from personal experience with Korean beauty standards, however I was not writing to discuss that topic. I wanted to respond to the author’s rather shallow idea of cultural assimilation and her own obvious lack of self esteem, both displayed in her narrative. I am sure you could write the same story and have a much deeper and nuanced take on a similar experience, but Ms. Perez showed no self-reflection.

      I don’t really begrudge her decision to leave, but she blamed it on Koreans instead of her own personal lack of self esteem. At least, that’s what her narrative presents to us.

      At worst, she is a shallow but well meaning naif. At best, she needed a better editor.

    • Matt

      Tara,

      Well… from the perspective a middle-aged white American male who lived in South Korea for 10 years (2003-2012) in Suwon, Daejeon, Yeoungju and Seogwipo) while married to a coloured South African — and we have two kids, a boy and a girl, born and early educated in South Korea — I think your comment is one of the most articulate, cogent and accurate takes I’ve read on the complexities of the social pressures within South Korean society, especially as they apply to young, unmarried females.

      I have a longer take, but I will need some time to articulate it. However, thank you for this truly outstanding comment. I’m reading it at 7:30 am my time and it already made my day. :)

      - Matt

    • Will

      I am a Korean but having been raised in both SK and US throughout my early youth and adolescence, I can completely relate to Tara’s eloquent response. Korea is such a shallow and superficial country, whenever I come back to Korea from the states, it hurts me. Individualism and creativity is frowned upon while everyone–as young as elementary school kids–learns to conform to a rigid standard of what is beautiful (what seems to matter so much) and what is right. It certainly shows a stark contrast compared to a more accepting ideals I molded to in the states.

      The two completely different yet jointly infused cultures that make up who I am often results in a baffling identity crisis inside me. I will think of things in one way and then in the other. Often I catch myself extensively judging others by their appearance and I pity myself for what I have become. There’s such a clear line between two sides of me that I find myself trotting back and forth, to and fro without really having my ‘own’ identity. I try to live by my “American ideals” and try to be more free, accepting, less-judging, less self-conscious and more grateful but it’s difficult. Perhaps I simply need to move out of SK like Tara in order to do that.

      I guess you can’t blame it on the Korean people. They fell victim to a highly-competitive culture that’s infused into the history of SK. Coming out of the late modernization in the 1950′s, Korea came this far in economy and technology driven solely on the competitive culture. The growth has costs though. SK’s competitive nature has created a hierarchal standards as Tara mentioned. There is a major and a minor. When someone succeeds, someone fails. There is a good-looking and for others there is hardly any middle-ground. It has turned into a huge zero-sum game where your success came at the cost of others’. People are way too insecure about their looks and in a male’s perspective, I have to agree with Tara that it is crazy for girls. It would not be an exaggeration to say a quarter of girls in 20′s go through one form of plastic surgery or another.

      I can see this sort of super competitive, hierarchal culture going on for a long time. It is what drives the country.

  5. Honestly, this is a problem plaguing every world-class metropolis that also functions as the epicenter of a country’s popular culture, to some varying degree. For a while I thought the original author could have been describing Manhattan or The Marina in San Francisco.

    If you ignore superficial trends in the pop culture and take the time to study and appreciate the history of the Korean Peninsula as a whole, while focusing on the undying spirit of the Korean people that is so deeply seeded in Confucian ideology (an undying spirit that preserved their culture in the face of one brutal foreign occupation after another), you can begin to understand why these problems are more pronounced. But my friend, if you approach your studies in a positive light, perhaps you will also begin to understand what makes Korean people so fucking incredible, and perhaps you will finally understand in your heart why reunification of the people on that Peninsula is so critical.

    On a side note, I had the privilege of getting to know and ultimately living with a guy from Ulsan for the past year who is now one of my best friends. The dude would literally wear his shower shoes out in public. He never combed his hair, never put on 5 layers of skin cream, cussed to me like a sailor (I’m talking 야 씨발 개새끼야, 뭐하노, 아씨 존나 개춥다!!! type shit here) even though I am several years older, had a crush on a curvy blonde from Eastern Europe in his ESL class, and bent over BACKWARDS to help me learn Korean because he saw how passionate I was about his country. This guy is an urban planning student at one of the top universities in Seoul, by the way. He also introduced me to a plethora of other Korean students from all over the country who are nothing other than great people, and many of whom I developed a close friendship with. My point is, get to know PEOPLE, not groups of people (and while you’re at it, start with 경상도 사람 for a chance of pace, ㅋㅋ).

    For the native Korean speakers who happened to read this thread, please forgive me for my harsh language above, lol.

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