“I was aware I was moving to a country where looks mattered. It was just how much looks mattered that was a shock for me.”
By Ripul Sharma
September 13, 2011, was first time I considered moving to a country which was radically different from where I had been, an absolute mystery to me in every way. I was toying with the idea of adventure, and despite all the problems I would face in both oral and written communication; I made a leap of faith and bought a one-way ticket to Seoul, South Korea.
After 625 days, I am still amazed by the roller coaster ride I have experienced. This journey has been a discovery not only of myself, but also of what the world has to offer. I am in one of the most dynamic countries in the world – a global giant making strides in the frontiers of technology, manufacturing and music.
Despite a largely positive experience here, I am still unable to come to terms with how Koreans focus on my physical appearance.
Korean culture is one where perfection has always been demanded in every field. The same applies to one’s outwardly appearance. I was aware I was moving to a country where looks mattered. It was just how much looks mattered that was a shock for me.
Unlike most of the expat community here, I am deeply embedded in the Korean education system. Being the only foreign student at my university for almost eight months, while possessing a command of the language, has given me a deeper understanding of Korean culture than many foreigners will experience.
Being of typical Indian looks: characteristics – a wheatish complexion, broad nose, a little extra sprinkling of hair, and a beer belly – I never thought of myself as a chiseled, Greek god. But nor did I ever feel that I was on the lower rungs of the beauty scale. That is, until I moved to Korea.
Whether it’s my one-on-one language classes, exchanges with faculty, the staff at my favorite pig-out spot, my conversations with people in Seoul, or drunken people explaining in Hongdae park that I must be handsome, physical appearance is something that comes up at least once a day in my interactions here.
“Ripul, hairy chimpanzee.”
“Ripul, why don’t you go to the gym?”
“You will never get a Korean girlfriend if you don’t lose weight.”
“Korea has creams for making your skin white. You should use them and be handsome.”
“Here is a pamphlet for nose jobs. Many foreign students come here to get those.”
These are some of the common things I hear when I interact with Koreans. While this type of behavior would cause a fight in many cultures, in Korea, it is not considered rude to point these things out. It is considered friendly advice.
Both Korean men and women participate in extreme diets to achieve desired body weight. Plastic surgery is advertised to children and is not considered a taboo. Everyone wants to look like someone else, to the extent that parents encourage their children to be skinny and beautiful, and will help them pay for plastic surgery if they can. Makeup stores are a dime a dozen, and weight-loss pills that can cause lifelong side effects are sold at convenience stores. The entire country is littered with mirrors on apartment doors, lifts and subway station walls. In Seoul, everywhere you go, a trendy appearance and looking good is a must. Boys put on makeup, and girls wear heels to the beach – the list can go on forever.
Those who do not confirm to the Korean standards of beauty are ridiculed, bullied, socially rejected from groups and are viewed as inferior. I have experienced this on more than a few occasions myself, and can only imagine how a 19-year-old would feel to be blamed for something that is beyond their control.
I am not going to rant about how much pressure is put on every aspect of life in Korea. It has been written and spoken about ample number of times in blogging and other media circles here. What I will tell you is that the side effects of not being pretty in this country are not pleasant. I have seen people going to extreme likes saving money for surgeries, surviving on a single egg for an entire day, spending hours in the gym while crying, being depressed, and feeling miserable the whole time because they are not pretty enough.
More often than not, the average pretty girl in class will avoid communicating with me. People will tell me that I don’t look good today, that my sense of style is off, and that my weight should MUST go down. They ask why don’t I use bleach for my skin. Girls at my university ask me if I can introduce them to my “white” friends, while party Invitations often leave me out. The clique of pretty students in class excludes me and a few other average-looking people. Koreans wanting to have their photographs taken with foreigners when I am out with a group will usually hand me the camera while they pose with my better-looking friends. The one time I did ask a Korean girl out, she told me I should loose weight if I wanted to date her. I have a hard time finding clothes here, with some sales people telling me that I am too big directly to my face, when I am a size large in most countries.
This country has provided me with a lot of positive experiences, yet for a society that leads the world in many developed ways, there are a lot of sad statistics that go with them: high depression, growing suicide rates and the extreme amount of plastic surgery per capita. Speaking as someone who is completely an outsider and has fallen in love with the Land of Morning Calm, this probably is the biggest thorn in my side.
Acceptance is the one thing we all crave from our immediate environment. Being an outsider in Korea, you are reminded that you are not accepted every day. From the way you look, to the food, values, language, and art, to the very geography of the country, everything reminds you that you are in a different land. Being constantly reminded that you are not good enough the way you are, has a huge impact on the expat turnover in this country. Most foreigners I know here have complained about this issue ,and feeling frustrated and helpless in this situation causes them to return home. When my course here is done, this will be a determining factor in my decision to remain in or leave Korea for good. It might be heart breaking for me to leave a place I have come to love, but I might do so to avoid to being subjected to more superficial degradation.
Ripul has been living in Korea since October 2011 and is a student of Baking arts in West Coast region of Korea. 23 years of age, He has travelled across India and is enjoying his time between studying and travelling across Korea. He can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/ripul.sharma?ref=tn_tnmn or at firstname.lastname@example.org