Monday, October 3, 2011

Try Saying Epicanthoplasty Four Times Fast! (hint: faster!)

Korean Fashion Icons
This weekend a group of us headed over to Jinju for the lantern festival. It was supposed to be a flashy sight, with lanterns glowing on the water and fireworks later in the evening. I was excited, but occupied with a great many thoughts on Korean fashion.

The first time I caught one of my students pulling out her cell phone in the middle of class to check how her hair looked, I was disgusted.  But it’s not only Daisy, sitting in row four and completely uninterested in learning English, who obsesses over her looks, it’s everyone.

If I had to choose one aspect of Korea that’s given me culture shock, it would be Korean fashion—particularly men’s fashion. The fact that they even have fashion is fascinating enough to an American girl who sees the majority of young American men adhering to one simple fashion rule:spending time on an outfit is gay and unmanly and therefore unsexy. Here, men’s fashion celebrates those men with good bodies, good taste, and the common sense to combine the two. I thought I was having a good time in Spain, where the men are secure enough in their manliness to wear a scarf and gel their hair to perfection.

Herro, preez.

Men here know how to dress. They know their styles and they flaunt their Korean beauty like they’re advertising for Chanel, whose purses they are unashamed to carry as their own (the manpurse here? Ubiquitous). For women, the clothes fashion is far less flashy. In fact, the outfits currently in style for women are dowdy by American standards, let alone when compared to men’s styles. Baggy shirts are in—particularly if it can fit three normal-sized Korean women inside of it—but they are never low enough to flash some cleavage or strappy enough to bare a shoulder. In contrast, the shorts here are short and the jeans are tight. For women here, beauty is a full-time pursuit.

You decide which is worse: the fact that every single one of the girls in my Global Conversation II class had said her hobby was “shopping” or that estimates say 76% of Korean women in their 20s or 30s have undergone epicanthoplasty (double eyelid surgery). It’s also pretty popular to get the bridge of your nose raised.
And that's saying something.

I have to admit: I have a thing for Asians. I think they are beautiful. I think their sense of style is unique and playful in a sexy and outrageous way. I think Asian women could look stunning in a burlap sack, and I think Asian men pull off a suit in a way no one else can. With a skinny tie and artfully rolled up jacket sleeves, many a Korean boy could give Brad Pitt in his Meet Joe Black days a run for his money.

But this obsession with appearance is tiring. There are mirrors—full length mirrors, too—everywhere: subway stations, churches, grocery stores, school. Girls and boys alike take their time to publically preen, fixing hair, collars, and scarves as they gaze at their own reflection. I’m now spending three times as much effort on how I dress in the morning in an attempt to keep up with the Kim’s (and Lee’s and Um’s).

I recently bought a few Korean-style bag shirts—when in Rome—and wore one with leggings this past Saturday for the lantern festival. I couldn’t manage plastic surgery on such short notice, but I tried to make my hair cooperate and I wore my make-up like a good girl. (Koreans have a word for going out of the house without make-up, and you can bet your mother’s homemade kimchi that it’s not a positive word.)

Jinju was flashy that night, as promised. The river lit up with enormous paper lanterns depicting epic scenes. On one section of the river, brightened 3-d images of Aladdin and Jasmine floated alongside Belle and the Beast. The Bremen Town Musicians (for those of you savvy in your folklore) were in attendance as well, as was Santa Clause, holding up a cross like a missionary. Nearby, one lantern depicted the local story of a Korean prostitute killing the cruel Japanese general occupying Jinju by snagging his fingers in her rings and dragging them both under the water. Couples in matching sweatshirts ooh-ed and ahh-ed as they crossed the lit-up floating bridge (1000 won admission).

Finally, about an hour later than scheduled, the fireworks began popping above our heads. The red, gold, and green sparkles burst happily over the dark sky. Joyous and empty they called us all to worship. There were “waaa!’s” and occasional clapping, but mostly people just stared silently upward, an wide-eyed mob of devotees doing their duty to the colorful night.

Some nights I don’t like fireworks.

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