Appearance, race, and beauty standards as a foreigner in a small town in Korea.
I had a lot of reasons to feel nervous before coming to Korea, but for the most part, I tried to keep bits of optimism wrapped around any wariness I felt. Not knowing Korean beforehand was an opportunity to learn another language. Leaving home for a long time was a chance to delve into a new work experience and get to know more people. I could learn to cook new foods, grow out of my comfort zone, take up new hobbies and interests- everything had an upside.
As I grew closer and closer to leaving though, I was surprised to find one specific worry salient in my mind: my appearance. Or rather, appearing conspicuously “foreign” for an entire year. I was annoyed at myself for thinking about it so much, especially when I knew I had more pressing concerns. Moreover, I grew up in a school with a relatively small minority population, and had traveled before to other countries- I should have already had some sense of what it was like to blend in or out.
But I knew coming to Korea would be different on some level. There was the length of time and independence of course. I also was aware of the fact that working as an American English teacher could create certain expectations in a new country. Our orientation packet warned us that non-white Americans could receive mixed reactions when they met new people, and I feared on some level my school or host family rejecting me or needing me to explain myself. On a more visceral level, I worried about being peeled away from my Indian roots, the absence of a language, culture, religion, and arts that kept me tied to something within America. I would be afloat.
Evidently, this topic has been on my mind for a while. Nevertheless, I tried to stay aware of my own worries so that I could be receptive to everything and everyone this year. Things ended up working out in many ways- I’ve had so many positive interactions with my school, host family, and friends here. In retrospect, I think a lot of my stress early on came from preconceived worries rather than negative experiences. That said, given its presence in my mind, I still wanted to touch upon some of the experiences I have had with appearance before I left, in hopes that they may be good to reflect upon and useful to anyone else, including future applicants facing similar worries.
Waegukin, American, Indian, and more
I came to Korea with three travel booklets, my U.S. passport, my Canadian passport, and a Person of Indian Origin Card. I always liked the story these papers told, a brief history of my past and present.
In most of my interactions in Korea, these distinctions don’t really matter- to most people, you are either a hangukin (Korean), or waegukin (foreigner), and I am clearly the latter. I had mentally prepared to explain and discuss my background and talk about America and India. I didn’t anticipate that most people just needed to know that I was a foreigner, period.
In a lot of conversations, being a waegukin, being non-Korean, is considered an identity unto itself, and one that is referred to with great frequency. I overhear the term a lot, and I’ve been asked many questions about non-Koreans as a whole: “Do foreigners like spicy food? Why do you like spicy food?”, “How do foreigners date?”, “Do foreigners like to shower in the day or the night?”. Coming from such contrasting cultures myself, I struggle to produce a response without generalizing or losing nuance.
But outside of these discussions, I usually am fine with being called a foreigner so frequently. Besides being a truly honest term for me, I know that the fascination is coming from unfamiliarity. Foreigners, especially ones that look like me, have only recently started visiting Korea, and in smaller towns like my own, they are still a rare presence. I’m a new and unknown person, and people are curious. In all honestly, the term is sometimes a relief. When I first heard the word used collectively in my school and host family, I felt that it in some ways, put me on the same ground as all other foreigners, regardless of race.
Occasionally though, people do wonder about my background, and that is usually when the conversations steer into more difficult territory. On walks home, I have on several occasions been stopped with enthusiasm by old men. “African? Indian? Where are you from?” they’ve unabashedly called after me as I stroll by. Even when I’ve had conversations about India with people that I do know, the discussions tend to take a particular direction: missionary trips, comparing caste systems in India and Korea, poverty, etc.
Times like these can be frustrating, because I want so badly to share my life with my coworkers and host family, who are so open and welcoming with their own lives. But due to the insufficiency of my Korean and time constraints, I come up short. Once, at a gathering with my host family, I passed on a pork dish and my host dad quickly jumped to my defense, “It’s because she’s from Mexico, and is a Muslim!” The rest of my host family and I gently joked with him about mixing up my religion and ethnicity, but I also felt slightly deflated, wondering how I could have explained myself so incorrectly. I’ve had similar experiences with my students, who will spend so long writing me notes or telling me about their day, only to suddenly turn around and ask, “Are you American?”
Some of these instances were disorienting. At the same time, I also felt somewhat freed by the lack of expectation. No one really knew what or who I was, and while I was separated from a lot of my ties to America and India, I was also not beholden to my communities from back home, from my old schools, to my town, to my cultural and social groups.
So, I took a step back and tried to gain a little bit of perspective and patience. I took the extra step to form more full-fledged conversations about different countries when I was asked about being a foreigner. I tried to speak more personally about my own family’s experiences as Indian-Americans. When my host mom gifted me with a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), I showed her how to drape a sari (granted, after painstakingly searching YouTube and calling my mom for help). In class, I tried to make it a priority to incorporate diversity in slides and stories, which ended up making the lessons a lot more meaningful to me, and hopefully to my students as well. As I started to stay more informed and doing more research for these types of conversations and lessons, I ended up filling in and realizing gaps in my own knowledge, about my own culture and others.
Overtime, I found a personal sort of balance with myself. I watch Korean comedies with my host family after dinner and then read American books or watch Bharatanatyam videos before I sleep. I learn delicious Korean recipes from my host mom and try and meet my cravings for other kinds of food on the weekend. Removed from home and my communities, I wondered if those parts of me might fade away. But they’re still there in me, a beating heart pulsing steadily.
Faces and Shapes
Background is one aspect of appearance, but there’s also a more superficial, day-to-day facet of how we look, the part that interacts with the beauty standards around us. Prior to coming to Korea, I had heard that beauty ideals played a pretty large role in day to day life. I felt mostly unconcerned, thinking that I had passed the point of caring. I rarely prioritized my appearance in the States and couldn’t really be measured against Korean beauty standards, so it seemed irrelevant. Once I started Orientation though, I started to hear from other minority ETAs about the odd, sometimes upsetting comments they received about their appearance. An Indian-American ETA from a previous year had been rejected by their host family after meeting face to face. Slowly, I started to build a feeling of caution, and dread.
During my first few weeks in Korea, I felt hyper attuned to the way people were reacting to me. My fellow ETAs who were white tended to draw a great deal of attention and praise when we went out in public. Friends would come back in shock that their light skin or eyes or golden hair was being complimented. On my first day teaching at Elementary School, students swarmed the other foreign teacher’s desk, playing with her hair and complimenting her face. In the afternoon, one student came up to both of us and pointed at our arms, “White and black!” she said, giggling before running away, almost in the same moment. When my friend turned around to ask how she could help me going forward, I was genuinely unsure of how to proceed.
All foreigners receive some attention of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a difference in how people were reacting to me. Other foreign looking ETAs would have random strangers ask to take pictures with them, but people seemed to take pictures of me in public without asking. Even for more tame activities, like visiting skin care shops, friends would pour into beauty products and lotions, while I cautiously scanned the items I was being handed for any skin whitening agents.
When I did receive a compliment, it felt like a sign of acceptance, a breath of relief. During my first interaction with my host family, I waited nervously for any sign of hesitation as they talked to me. Instead, while helping me drag my luggage up the stairs, my host mom gave me a smile. “You look beautiful!” she said earnestly. Some tension immediately slipped from my shoulders, my suitcase lighter in my hands.
Truthfully, for the most part, I’ve been treated very nicely in regards to my appearance. While parts of me may not fit Korea’s convention for beauty, the people around me tend to latch onto the things about me that are considered “nice” here. At this stage, my foreign appearance has even been an asset, with random strangers offering to help me when I’ve been lost or confused on more than one occasion, usually due to gaps in my Korean knowledge. My students frequently comment on my big eyes or small face (one particular ideal that I’ve only heard in Korea). Usually these compliments will also make me uncomfortable. My female students especially tend to examine me in direct comparison to themselves, scrutinizing the size of their own eyes in the same swoop that they compliment mine.
Comments about appearance are frequent and direct in my day to day life in Hwacheon. It’s more or less socially acceptable for coworkers or people of different age groups to comment on one another. The Principal, other teachers, even my students are happy to come up to me anytime with a proclamation about how I look that day. Usually, these are positive, although I do sometimes get comments about the bags under my eyes or looking tired. When I cut my hair, some people directly told me they liked it, while others gave me an uncertain, “I don’t like that”, and one, “Have you gone through a recent trauma?” Conversely, when my hair started to get longer, I received advice that I looked better with the short hair.
This scrutiny applies to everyone of course, not just me, or other foreigners. Instinctively, I worry about the pressure that these standards put on both my male and female students and friends here. Many of them will brutally make fun of the appearances of even their closest friends, at a level that would have been mortifying for me in school growing up. From a young age, my students put a lot of thought into their appearance, with dyed hair and fashionable clothes, curlers and lipsticks in even the 4th and 5th grade. My host parents and their friends frequently crash diet, yet are also deeply proud of their ability to eat well. Statistically, Korea has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery in the world, and several young students have told me about their plans to change their eyelids or noses as they get older.
There are a lot of studies and think pieces about self esteem and pressure in Korea, and its easy to judge from afar. But I truly can’t say that there aren’t any positive elements of this beauty culture that I’ve appreciated during my time here. For instance, beauty is an expectation for everyone, with both men and women told to dress and groom themselves to a high standard. The directness about appearance also translates to a sense of openness; there is no shame or secrecy in feeling self-conscious, or spending effort in your looks. Women and men talk about their acne, skin problems, and beauty regiments freely. Beauty and appearances become a shared center point, something to participate in. Face masks, hairstyles, and fashion all have a social element, and it’s been fun sharing and learning about these elements while I’ve lived here.
Coming from a family and culture where appearances are also often bluntly assessed, it has been interesting to experience this in another country. When I was younger, I used to be dismissive, or even aggressive when relatives scrutinized my appearance. In Korea, first out of politeness, and later due to perspective, I’ve started to change my approach. I’ve come to see the comments about my appearance as signs that people are paying attention, whether they are complimenting me, or worrying about my health. I try to keep that in mind when I react or correct others. Early on in my homestay, we took a picture together at a photo studio, and I found that my face had been distorted and whitened in the picture. Instinctively, I felt hurt, but after seeing my host family’s joy at having this studio portrait of all of us, I refocused on how sweet it was that they wanted this in the first place.
Beauty in Korea is complicated, but beauty is complicated, often unfair, almost anywhere. There’s the preference for lighter skin in some communities, or the expectation for women to spend exorbitant amounts of money and time on their presentation. Even not complying to beauty standards can be a costly endeavor. One professor summed up the difficult culture of beauty in America, where “we pummel them with a standard of beauty they will never meet,” and then “when they worry about beauty, we call them superficial.” Most of time time, I’ve been quick to express unhappiness or anger with these standards, but in Korea, I am an outsider looking in on a set of ideals that will never apply to me. I cannot participate or protest- I can only learn, and accept and support the people around me.
The Long Haul
Korea’s relationship with beauty and race has been interesting to learn about this year. That said, I’m certain that my levity and openness to these experiences stem from the fact that I am passing through Korea instead of firmly grounded in it. For my students, co-teachers, and friends, these cultural attitudes and perceptions have a deeper impact.
For instance, in my town in particular, there is a large population of families with migrant mothers. From the 1990’s onwards, Korea has had an influx of women from other Asian countries who marry into Korean families, a practice encouraged to keep the population growing. While the current model of immigration in Korea is focused on assimilation, there has been an effort to expand resources to these families. Many of my students have mothers from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. Yet, these students are usually almost completely immersed in Korean culture in their day to day life, with some visiting extended family abroad on holidays.
Perhaps due to the demographics of my school, I’ve rarely noticed any tension among the students. There even seems to be an effort in the county to support these families. For instance, my school recently started a program for migrant mothers to teach Vietnamese to students after school. That said, I’ve heard of other schools where students were picked on for not looking “as Korean”, or moving to Korea later and struggling with the language. Assimilation may no longer be the only way for these families to exist in Korea. I sometimes wonder how these students perceive their identities, and how their perceptions may change if attitudes towards assimilation change. It’s not just them: there are millions of Korean’s in the diaspora, with various backgrounds, cultures, or mixed heritages. There are migrant workers and their families and children building long term lives in Korea. The definition of hangukin becomes less and less clear cut with time.
I’m curious to see how these conceptions of beauty and race will change over time. There’s a lot of discussion within my town and school, and at a larger level in Korean media about these topics (and almost certainly a lot of conversation that I’m not even aware of). For my part, I’m grateful for the glimpse I’ve had in into these perceptions this year. Despite a few challenges, I cannot emphasize enough the kindness, the safety, and the security I’ve been given in so many ways during my time here. Coming to Korea has reminded me to listen a little bit more, and hopefully that translates in the discussions I have with my students and friends, both here and in the future.