I ventured into the teacher’s bathroom again yesterday to find that the toilet seat was warm. You may recall that the discovery of the heated toilet seat was a thing of great delight to me in the winter when I first arrived at the school, but it’s the first day of June, now, and the temperature outside is regularly peaking in the high seventies and mid-eighties with humidity levels in the higher end of percentages. Which reminds me. Sometimes, like yesterday, when I sit down on the toilet and I discover that it’s hot, I suddenly think to myself why don’t we have these in California? And then I remember it’s because there’s absolutely no need for it and what we need instead are portable humidifiers that preferably spray directly into your nostrils. So why don’t we have those in California?
The temperature is beginning its ascent into the unbearable. I recently complained to somebody about this in even less dramatic terms and his response was “but it’s not even proper summer yet.” Excuse me. I will decide when it’s proper summer, seeing as I come from the Kingdom of Summer, which might lend me a little more expertise on the subject. Is it hot? Yes? Am I suffering? Yes? Then it’s summer.
People sometimes ask me about the weather in California and when I say that it’s always hot, they ask then what about winter? No winter, I say. There’s just one season with variations that masquerade as other seasons. Summer, hotter summer, a little less hot summer…. 여름, 더 더운 여름, 조금 덜 더운 여름… I only wrote three because Spring seems to be a thing of the past in that place and no attempt seems to be made even to replicate it anymore. We only even had about a month of it here this year.
With the weather turning my wardrobe is beginning to thin out to the few pairs of slacks that I have, a couple dresses, and my limitless supply of t-shirts. When I wore shorts to work two days ago, the comments began in the morning: You look cool today, the language department head teacher told me as we entered the office together before the 8.30AM bell. Then, it was students, passing me in the hallway–teacher! Legs! As I walked into class after class, the sight of my legs continued to amaze and inspire students–one first year class immediately burst into excited twittering as soon as I walked in the door and were too excited to greet me with their usual “Hello, Teacher,” instead exclaiming amongst themselves–너무 멋있으셔! 다리 색깔은… 외국인이… –etc. While I teach, I usually pace around the front of the classroom so I can keep an eye on everyone and give all the students opportunity to hear my sonorous lectures, and I noticed a lot of the girls in the front with their eyes cast downwards towards my electric, LED white legs.
I’m always thinking about the beauty standards here–it’s often a cause of severe frustration for me and I often find myself fuming after small instances that I observe throughout my day. I read an article recently that explained the phenomena of commenting so candidly on the appearances of others, such as when a parent tells their son or daughter that they’re ugly and they need to get surgery later, as an instance of beauty having been dismantled into a set of objective standards which are either met or not met, with no scale to speak of. Parents see the beauty standards as another set of criteria which their child should meet and so feel no compunction upon dishing out statements that, however well-intended, I believe have damaging effects on their children’s self-esteem and, more than that, on the future of this country.
As I meet more and more Koreans and we discuss my opinions about their country’s culture, I always say the same thing: the beauty standards and gender roles are severe here. And without fail the answer to my comments is that things are changing. Sometimes I can agree. I work at a school, and so am in constant contact with young people and their thoughts, actions, and their cosmetic routines, their ideas about what it means to be a feminist or what it means to be a woman; I sometimes broach these issues where I find the opportunity, especially in my after school literature classes. I find that the girls have ideas more towards my line of thinking, but often are too shy to share them. We need to make an environment that’s safe for young people to dissent and to create the world that they believe in; parents speaking out of their children’s’ “best interest” to tell them that they just don’t match up and they need to change themselves to fit in in order to succeed is actually succeeding in the opposite: instead of opening up their children’s lives to the futures they want, they’re actually narrowing the realm of futures available for their children just by continuing to reinforce ideas that damage children’s belief that they are already full of all the potential they need to become their best selves.
I think about these young girls in the summer. It becomes too hot to cover up. Girls here are encouraged to show off their body; short shorts and skirts are the special culprit as the idea of showing off shoulder or chest is still considered racier than wearing booty-length bottoms. When I was in middle school the idea of showing my legs only felt safe if I modified my appearance–being very pale, even for an American, in a time when tan was the only shade of skin that wouldn’t draw unkind comments from classmates, I used to wear fake tanning lotion, building it up to an orangey sheen that fooled my four or five female classmates in the so-called “advanced” eighth grade class. When I was in high school changing for softball practice in the locker room, my teammates daily called out to me about my blinding shade of white down below though the rest of me (re: arms, face, chest) was usually tanned from our afternoons and weekends out on the field. Even into college I refused to wear short skirts or shorts without first applying a somewhat weaker fake-tan than the one of my middle-school days, the spray-on pantyhose variety that slightly livened me up. My friends said it removed the “I’ve been sleeping in coffins” sheen that I naturally wore. By that age I didn’t take comments like that to heart and recognized it as what it was; banter, a sign of affection. Occasionally friends still walk into a room where I am or meet me outside of the train station, gaze at me for a moment, and then say in amazement, “you are so white…”
Now the same bodily feature that plagued me and that I hated so much as a youth in America is drawing me good attention in Korea. It’s no secret that Koreans (and many Asian cultures, as I’m told) prefer a lighter skin tone to a darker one, although the range of naturally-occurring skin tones in Korean people has a spectrum that ranges similar to how white people have a range of naturally occurring tones. You can barely find a cosmetic product here that doesn’t boast “whitening” or “brightening” properties (the latter is a thinly-veiled euphemism as I’m sure you’ll have no trouble ascertaining for yourself). People continually comment about my pale appearance–once, standing on the street corner across from the hill that the school sits on top of, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street, a couple of first year students said hi to me and then, after debating about how best to say it in English (unaware that I could understand them anyway), approached me from the side and said “Teacher’s face is very ha-wha-eet,” and then asked me if my eye color was from circle lenses or if it were real.
This is just one example, but there are literally dozens more similar occurrences. One of my favorite memories is from last year in a kindergarten class when one boy–I’ve written about this before–looked me over carefully and unflinchingly and then said “I think Teacher drinks a lot of milk,” and when I asked him why he thought that he said it was because my skin is so pale. To Korean youth, I embody an objective criterium which they’re forcefully, almost violently taught to believe is the standard to which they should arise. Sometimes with the kindergarteners, I would say “well, I like the color of your skin,” but I haven’t figured out a way to respond to the middle-school aged girls, who in Korea are 14, 15, and 16 years old.
I’ve written about this so many times before, but comments on my appearance are just such a matter of daily life for me here that they’re also always on my mind. These days I’m particularly aware of the gazes of others; not that I’m ever not aware, but because it’s summer and I can’t cocoon in my safe layers of autumn or winter wear, my body is more and more available to interested eyes. Last week, while walking home from school, I was following a group of first year students out of the school gates and down the hill. Before them was another group of first years who occasionally turned around to shout to them in conversation. One of the girls in the front group saw me and began speaking in English, though none of the others knew I was there.
“Where is..uh…Kang Min Seo?” she called, in English, and one of the girls in the second group replied “I don’t know” in English before switching to Korean: why did English suddenly come out…?
By that time some of the other girls had spotted me and had burst out into self-conscious laughter.
“Hi, Teacher,” they said, and I greeted them back. By this time I had passed the second group and was levelling with the first. One of the girls, who always comments on my clothes when I walk into the classroom by screaming “TEACHER FASHION SO GOOD!” also paid her compliments to my fashion that day: “Teacher fashion good,” she said, throwing me a thumbs up. I thanked her and passed the first group.
One of the girls behind me said in Korean, teacher is so cute. Then one said in English, “cute!”
“Cute! Cute, cute, cute, cute!” The chorus rang out behind me. I hung my head, not knowing how to respond, and kept walking.
“Teacher…ongdongi!” 티쳐 엉덩이! My shirt was tucked into my slacks.
Oh, I thought, my god… and I hurried down the hill, holding a book over my backside. They thought it was funny and began to chatter too quickly for me to understand as the distance between us grew.
That same day as I waited to cross the street at a stoplight near my apartments, an old woman stared at me from across the street so intently that she even didn’t notice when her dog took a poop on the sidewalk next to her. Whenever I go out at nighttime the old men cluttering the street after their 회식 ends watch me openly. The other day while I was walking back from the post office a group of 3 twenty-something aged boys were walking slowly ahead of me, blocking the sidewalk. When one of them moved out of the way (by accident) I hurried up to pass them while the chance was open and one of them noticed me. One of the others started talking but the one who’d seen me cut him off, saying “잠깐만! 외국인!” (wait a sec! Foreigner!), probably thinking that I couldn’t understand him or didn’t hear him. But I did. I always do. As I walked to the cafe where I was headed I was quite aware that they were chattering about me and probably watching my back as I gained more and more distance on them, eager to get out of sight.
These days as I pass students in the hallway, I’m receiving more and more comments: the other day, I was walking up the staircase to the third floor and some students passing by on the second stopped to call up after me “선생님 완전 pretty! So pretty!” and today some students told me the same thing as I proceeded them out of the annex building on my way to the office after class. Two days ago when I wore the shorts, three different students confessed their love to me as we passed in the hallways–티쳐, 아이러브유, complete with Korean accent. I’ve said this before–I know that compliments from students aren’t a direct comment on my appearance, and are more of a sign of a desire to connect with me, which I take as a compliment itself. So while I appreciate the students’ effort to communicate and connect with me, and of course while the teacher in me loves that they’re using English outside of the classroom in a real, authentic way–I still can’t figure out how to respond.
Think about it: if standards of beauty are just another criteria that is either met or not met, then aren’t compliments on appearance just a roundabout way of saying “congratulations! You match this particular country’s set of desired and worshipped physical characteristics!” and if it is, how can you respond to that? Can you do it with a “thank you?” After all, meeting that criteria didn’t have anything to do with me or my choices (unless you count staying out of the sunlight as a personal choice but I view it more as a matter of survival).
I said before that comments to kids about how their appearance is lacking limits children’s ability to become their best selves. But there’s something worth mentioning that probably comes as no surprise by now: children aren’t taught that each of them has special talents that they have a duty to bring to the world. Children are taught that if they’re a man, they’re meant to grow up and fulfill one of a certain, limited number of acceptable roles, and if they’re a woman, likewise. Young people these days are looking at other cultures, are looking at other countries, and are listening. Distances are closing. Space-time has become so compressed that two people on opposite sides of the world can share the same now, through facetime, chatting, any number of internet-related activities. We don’t know how to wait for things anymore. In a country where same-mindedness has allowed the extremely rapid expansion and development of the national economy and where dissent has been systematically repressed as a tool for nation-building, instant and predictable gratification for individual action on behalf of the nation has become a traditional expectation. Korea is an incredible country. When their economy tanked in 1997 during the IMF crises, families donated their own gold and savings to banks to pay off the country’s loans. And they paid off their loans three years ahead of schedule (by 2001) and got the economy back on its feet so quickly that by this year it’s the 11th strongest economy in the world.
Of course, in this situation, single-mindedness and the respect of national value over personal value is what saved the country’s future. What I’m saying is that beauty is a separate issue and needs to be treated as such.
But with such rapid success and such predictable results all occurring within an instant built into the national way of thinking, added to the increasing intolerance for delayed results caused by the easy access to internet-stored information, SOMEBODY needs to slow down, reevaluate. Desire for your children to succeed in this world cannot override loving language. Where will children learn tenderness and acceptance if not in the home? And if parents continually submit their child to derogatory remarks concerning appearance or performance and tell them they say these things out of love, won’t children grow up a little bit confused about what love is? And when these girls grow up and meet a man who mistreats them and is violent towards them and tells them it’s because he loves them, won’t they believe him? Because they grew up learning that that’s what love looks like? It isn’t love. It’s single-mindedness. When single-mindedness of a country’s national prerogative overrides love and affection and affirmation in individual relationships, children become trapped in a cycle that doesn’t respect their potential.
People say it’s not my culture and I shouldn’t have an opinion. But I think it’s irresponsible not to try to help students make a better world, make the world they want. So when I can, I expose them to other ways of thinking; never telling them what to think or what I personally believe, I simply expose them to as many ways of thinking as I can. I use literature to do this. In a world that is dry-heaving with conflict, that is over-saturated with information, literature can provide a grounding to work from: the exposition of human relationships, which can often get forgotten in the chaos. The body is one medium through which we form and maintain relationships with others: through physical interaction, but also through gaze. As long as the gaze is critical rather than curious, we’re just–as one Welsh poet put it–teaching kids to walk into the trees, rather than climb the branches and look up at the stars.