Korean Acculturation

And you'll never see a Korean alone unless you edit the other people out---as I've done here (the guy photographing this woman is just outside the frame on the left).

It started even before I came here—I had a real job, supposedly, so I had to dress nicer. I realize now I could have gotten away with going to work in an oily loincloth, but while I was still in Maine, still wondering whether I should even come to Korea (I remember that windy green mountain where the decision was made…), I thought I had to don casual professional attire. So much for the casual elegance of the years before, the silkiness in the undulation of a black velvet cat, a scarf in the wind—so much for that!

Koreans like to dress nicely, particularly young ones; I was changing before I stepped out the door.

And sixteen months later, now that I’ve decided to stick around for a good long time, and hunkered down with a nice Korean girl, and submerged myself in the Korean language, that spiced brine of still-boiling stew, I’ve gotta say, I think I’m turning Kor-e-an I think I’m turning Kor-e-an I really think so. My eyes aren’t changing just yet (I’m not even sure they offer that sort of eyelid surgery, since, after all, no one chooses to look Asian), but I’ve noticed a few new ways of thinking, a few behavioral changes.

I now view with a really vicious disdain anyone who fails to conform to fashionable standards, and judge them harshly—immediately!—instantly!—if they express themselves through their clothes in even the slightest original manner. And I come from a college where one of the graduating students from my class accepted his diploma while wearing a pair of old overalls and a whole net of green bacchanalian ivy. I thought nothing of it at the time. Now I would be incensed, spitting venomous 반말 like a black mamba if even a single person in a crowd of thousands failed to show up in a suit and tie.

And I avoid conflict; I don’t spend every thought, every waking moment, prodding my friends on to sudden explosions of rage—poking those swollen pustules with hot needles—and I just smile and agree whenever my coworkers say or do anything that would have collapsed my younger mind, my younger self, in a fit of babbling agony. The poisonous resentment eats away at my insides like the green broth from a burst appendix, I’m going to start flagellating myself in public if these passive aggressive tendencies don’t calm down, and I’m terrible at hiding my disagreement from anyone—my face is an open book—but still, despite it all, despite my somewhat distressing Koreanification, life is good, life is richer than ever.

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4 thoughts on “Korean Acculturation

  1. Jennifer says:

    Oooo that fashion thing disturbs me, I have to say. The conflict-avoidance – who knows, could be good could be bad… I tend to think that some amount of conflict is healthy for individuals and society.

    But is this fashion thing really happening to you?

    Especially for women, I think fashion tends to be like a strait-jacket. If I gave into the pressure to conform to the beauty standards of Korea, I think I would have to immediately take a flight home. All the make-up and foundation and skin cream and whitening cream and nonsense. Then the ubiquitous heels which basically cripple you before you’re 40 (and they just keep getting higher and worse for your feet). Then the pressure to always have something new and fashionable. The women teachers at my school spend pretty much all their money on clothes and make-up, and have a hard time keeping up. “It’s fall so I should buy more clothes,” said my co-worker. Not cause she didn’t have enough, but because she needed to keep up with what’s new.

    And since no one buys used clothes here (or at least no one admits to it), it’s all incredibly wasteful.

    I like fashion, actually. And I like shopping, not that I can do it here. But the idea of one way to dress, one code of fashion is so so so so so boring to me. It’s one of the things I miss most about the States – walking down the street and being surprised by the clothing I see there, by the variety and especially by the aberrations. I feel like everyone here chooses from about 7 different “types” of fashion and they just endlessly repeat.

    Anyway, this might not have anything to do with what you actually meant, but there you are.

    I hope you don’t become Korean. I think you do pretty well as an “Ian”, and I think part of becoming Korean is leaving behind a sense of individuality before group. I rebel against the sharp edges of my “Jen”ness being lost. I don’t know if I rebel particularly successfully, but I feel the pressures to be like the group here, and I’ve never liked that sort of lifestyle, not back home (under the guise of pep rallies or patriotism or even dressing like all the other hipsters) and not here.

    There can be a virtue in learning to get along in another culture and to be diplomatic in a group. And I don’t think America has all the answers about life. But I don’t think I will gain anything, particularly as a woman, by Koreanizing.

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Heheh, I haven’t bought any clothes in months, but I still feel the call. Angelica frequently complains that I “break [her] fashion” when I suggest wearing sneakers rather than heels, particularly if we plan to walk more than five feet during our various forays into the metropolitan wilds of Busan, but I think she’s coming around. There’s definitely a happy medium between obsessive dressing and dressing like a slob; I hope I’ve found it, at least.

    Yeah. “I miss the variation” should be a bumper sticker affixed to my buttocks. I particularly like the current trend, also last year’s trend, of wearing fake fur vests. It makes the women here look like the crewmates of Khan Noonien Singh.

    Things were even worse in the past here. Have you seen pictures of Korea from fifty, a hundred years ago? Everyone—everyone—just wears white. This trend continues vis-a-vis the colorlessness of the cars, buildings, everything, etc.

    There are strengths to being Korean, a dedication to hard work and self-sacrifice being at the top; lots of Americans our age don’t seem to be so professional, and despite all the horror stories you hear about schools and hagwons I have to say that the Koreans I know, the Koreans I work with, really try to do a good job. Avoidance of conflict can have its uses as well; even though I can be quite venomous on the internet, I cower before the slightest disagreements (from strangers! from strangers!) in the real world; now that I think about it this trait may have been present before I came here.

    You’re definitely right that there’s nothing to gain by being a woman here, and that Korean women have it pretty rough by any (non-Afghan) standard. But my girlfriend’s a Korean woman, and she’s alright.

    • Jennifer says:

      I’d like to know Angelica better, haven’t gotten much of a chance to talk with her. That said – when I say you couldn’t pay me to be a Korean woman, it’s not so much a reflection on Angelica or the women I know here, it’s more that I myself can’t imagine having to deal with the internalized norms that I’m not sure a woman growing up here would even really notice – it might be like the water a fish swims in, the fish doesn’t think about it. But to me that water looks just ghastly – the pressure to get married before 30, the imperative of being beautiful, the way the ideal woman (on TV at least) is always so nauseatingly cute with the little baby voice and the cute little gestures like a little girl, and the ideal woman is obviously like 18 and in a pop group with 6 other women. Ugh! Sometimes it drives me absolutely up the wall just living here on the outside looking in.

      I was talking with some of the other ex-pat women I know here the other day and we were talking about how we all feel either less beautiful here than we did back home or even outright ugly. (and these are HOT HOT women) How our failure to fit into the narrow beauty standards over here and being surrounded by all this plastic surgery, skin whitening, high heel craziness and general obsession with fashion and “beauty” has made us feel not ourselves anymore.

      At home I felt gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous, sexy, on top of the world. No one in Portland wore make-up and a natural style of beauty was favored. I biked everywhere so I was in great shape, the air was fresh, and I could express my sexuality freely, which to me is a huge part of a woman’s attractiveness. Here sexuality seems either packaged in a sort of commercialized way or hidden entirely.

      I feel like in Korean culture women are supposed to be some kind of Asian Barbie doll- perfect bodies and faces even if they have to fake it, always perfectly dressed and made-up, rejecting what is natural and free. I almost never see a woman walking around who seems truly comfortable in her own skin, well, at least rarely do I see a woman under 60 who meets that description. The ajumma seem pretty down with their bad selves.

      Everytime I write a comment here I wish we could just discuss in person. Because I think the things I say are possibly so prone to be half-understood. I love the written word, but I love to clarify as well.

      Ah well – maybe someday you’ll have free time again. Until then it seems like you’re living 1,000 miles away like all my other friends with whom I communicate by blog only.

      Take it easy, Mr. Schwartz.

      – Jen

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