Moving to Daegu, South Korea (hereafter Korea), to teach English was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I traveled throughout Asia, taught the most adorable children you’ll ever meet, and made friends from around the globe. The Koreans I met were friendly, and South Korea is an exciting up-and-coming force in technology, entertainment, and music (“Gangnam Style,” anyone?).
Leaving Korea was also one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My experience was largely positive. But I also sat next to a crying student and tried to comfort her after all the boys in her class called her the “mayor of Africa” for having slightly darker skin than the rest of the students. I watched my 28-year-old co-teacher (who is already smaller than I’ll ever be) starve herself every day on a diet of black beans, grapes, and weight-loss shakes. And I saw high school students get handed pamphlets on plastic surgery as they left school.
Despite loving so many aspects of my life in Korea, I felt the culture’s extreme emphasis on young women’s appearance became too much to handle. When it was time to either renew my contract for another year or quit and go home, I knew I couldn’t stay.
Coming to Korea as a Cuban/Filipino/Korean-American, I was excited at the idea of finally being amongst the majority, at least in terms of my looks. Though I don’t consider myself ugly, I can’t pretend it was always easy to grow up as the only Asian in a sea of white friends. However, I quickly learned that despite sharing the genetic traits of many Koreans (round face, high cheekbones), I would not be accepted as a true fellow Korean. In a culture where so many people strive to look the same way, any slight difference in appearance rapidly singles you out. In my case, I was too tall, too fat, and too dark — traits that are not typically considered beautiful by Korean standards. In many ways, being partially Korean actually made my experience more difficult than that of my foreign white friends. Whereas Koreans admired their white skin, small faces, and upturned noses, I remained a vaguely Korean-looking girl who didn’t quite stack up.
At first, I pushed back. I tried to fit in. I made multiple trips to Korea’s seemingly endless makeup stores, only to find there was no makeup for me: My skin was too dark. “No, no — very, very dark,” the saleswomen would say, fervently nodding their heads as they escorted me toward the face washes or nail polishes that I could actually use. And as for buying clothing, I’m sorry to say the experience was not much better. Every major subway station in Korea feels like a giant Forever 21, each stall packed full of the latest trends, most of them for under 10,000 Korean won (about $10). Everyone buys the exact same clothes, no matter what stall you stop at. Wearing the same exact things, armies of young Korean teens and twentysomethings end up looking like clones. (Stores sell only a limited variety of things; my friends and I would routinely end up buying the same shirt on accident.)
And yet despite the plethora of cheap, trendy clothing, 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. Walking into shops where everything was “free size” (one size fits all), I felt like I was playing Russian roulette with my waist size. 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. Department stores weren’t any better, making the scrutiny hard to escape. And though I was allowed to try on the clothes in the store, I was lucky if I found a shop that carried my size. In the U.S. I fit very comfortably into a medium-size shirt; in Korea I was always an extra-large. Always. And though I understand the system of sizing is different in every country, the fact that clothes bigger than a U.S. medium were mostly unavailable means even larger Koreans can have a really hard time finding things to wear.
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 was sick of my students calling me “plain face” or “tired teacher” on the days when I wore no makeup, sick of getting looks of disgust from strangers if I walked two blocks from the gym to my apartment in my workout clothes, and sick of feeling of ugly in a country that was once home to my ancestors. I had been thrilled to live in a place where I expected my heritage to make me feel like I belonged. But discovering the opposite was soul-crushing. I felt like I couldn’t be beautiful or fully accepted as Korean because I had fallen short of mainstream Korea’s unattainable beauty standards.
My personal experiences weren’t all that led me to leave Korea. It was also the deep sense of sadness that overcame me when I thought of my elementary students and the lives they will inevitably feel forced to lead. They will always be playing catch-up, running in a cultural rat race that has yet to reach its breaking point. By their society’s standards, they will have a hard time feeling smart enough or beautiful enough. In Korea, roughly one in five women ages 19 to 49 has undergone plastic surgery, with the number growing every year. This means my students — my unimaginably adorable second-, third-, and fourth-graders — have a good chance of going under the knife themselves.
There are many countries — including ours — with unattainable beauty standards, but there is something to be said for the rhetoric that tells us inner beauty means something and that looks aren’t everything. In Korea, that didn’t seem to exist. When I told my students they were all beautiful on the inside, I was met with nothing but blank stares. Eventually I realized they couldn’t understand what I was saying, they had no idea what “inner beauty” even meant.