Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Plots from the North

Some days I feel like I’m wrestling with Korea. Unsuccessfully. Most days are great (“yippy-skippy” as we like to say in the Schnabel family), but yesterday was not one of those days. Maybe it was another subversion plot from our not-so-friendly neighbors in the North.

You can do better than this, Korea, I said to myself when I got home from work. It was one of those days—a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day—where the beautiful view of my lighthouse and the sea were obscured by clouds and work and students who stare at me like water buffalo when I ask, “Do you understand?”

It was also marred by a conversation I had with my roommate last night. Hanna is a lovely person: she is smart and sweet and has fun with life. She likes to take care of people, and when she found out it was my friend Caroline’s birthday she said, “Really? Oh, congratulations! Here is your birthday present!” And handed her a package of melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate she happened to have just received minutes earlier. She is great, but like everyone ever in the history of ever, she is a product of her culture.
“I need to have jaw surgery,” she said when she came home. “But it is very expensive.”
“Do you have to have surgery?” I asked, surprised. She’s quite healthy.
“Yes, because my jaw is crooked and if I get braces it will be more crooked. I want to be a flight attendant so I have to be...” she gestures lines across her face.
“Mmm! Yeah! Symmetrical. You have to be that to be a flight attendant.”

At least both genders are equally idealized. Korean girls
have very high standards for their boyfriends.
I checked with one of my older Korean friends who agreed.

“Flight attendants have to be 164 centimeters and no more than 50 kilograms[1].”

You have to be Korean Perfect to be a flight attendant. It’s a prestigious job here in Korea, and many girls are English majors at Kosin strictly so they can attain this dream. It’s madness from a bygone era. Particularly when girls talk about starving themselves and having surgeries in order to get a job.

“That’s illegal in the United States, you know,” I told Hanna.

“Appearance is very important here,” she said.

“What about saving the money you’d spend on a jaw operation and instead use your English to...work at an embassy or something?”

“But I am not smart. You have to be very smart to get those jobs. And my jaw is so...see? So I have to have surgery.”

They care so much here. It makes me miss the relative earthiness of Americans. You’d never hear a Korean girl say seriously, “I didn’t really feel like wearing make-up today, so I didn’t.” Or a Korean boy say, “I don’t care what brand it is, just give me whatever’s the best price.” Conversations about appearance are daily here, if not hourly. The compliment of choice is “cute” or “beautiful” not “smart” or “diligent.”

Americans are shallow, too, but not like this. In America, there’s at least a sense of injustice if someone doesn’t get a job or a boyfriend based only on how they look. But here it’s only pity and disappointment. I guess there are upsides, though, because it’s true that Koreans are, in general, very nice to look at. They’ve defeinitely created an on-average prettier society. Unfortunately, I’ve read way too many YA and science fiction novels to be too comfortable with what just might be yet another subversion plot from the North.[2]

[1] That’s 5’3 and about 100 pounds for all the yanks.
[2] I found a discarded paper yesterday of a list of interview questions one student had asked another. Question eight said: “If North Korea invades South Korea first and starts to kill all the Christians first, are you sure you won’t deny God?” I’ve got my next exam question.


  1. Sorry that this had to bum you out. It's something that I make fun of to avoid the fact that it does bother me.

    Hope you are feeling better!

  2. Wonderfully stated truth of the pressure most Korean girls live through each day! Thanks for sharing! It became the opening topic for all my classes this week!