Superficiality

Okay, so I’m willing to admit that the baby’s pretty cute, but the difference between me and everyone else on Earth is that I don’t want to dwell on it too much. I would say, now, to those who wonder just what my wife and I do when we’re alone together—those who seek to illuminate the mysterious darknesses of the world—I would answer that a great majority of our conversations go like this:

Wife: [So-and-so] says Harry is [physically attractive].
Me: Heh.

I once caused a whole conversation (among my in-laws!) to grind to a halt when I declared, in Korean, that all Koreans talk about is people’s faces. And I think those few outsiders who have even bothered to notice Korea would likewise agree that the usual Western love of the superficial has been taken to unusual extremes here, where really every problem is one that can be solved with the aide of plastic surgery. If your eyes are too small, if your nose is too flat—if you look too Korean—you can always get that creepy eye and nose surgery to make yourself look more white. Then there are the pictures you have to send with your resumes, on top of that…

But when I told my wife it was kind of disturbing how so many Koreans are so desperate to change from being Korean to white, she herself also seemed embarrassed, disturbed, and chagrined; clearly she had never thought of it that way; these noses and eyes were features that some Koreans are born with, they don’t belong to white people exclusively; white people just happen to possess them more often than Koreans…

Still, I can’t help thinking how obvious it is that the standard of beauty here is to look as white as possible. And that brings me back to my kid. I hesitate to constantly compliment his appearance because I know that standards of beauty are relative, and that before Korea’s contact with the West, the only beautiful people you found in paintings here were ones with very small, thin eyes. The idea of beauty is, again, obviously, to me at least, totally subjective and relative, which is one reason I’m kind of bothered by this endless slew of compliments directed toward my son.

It’s natural for people to compliment a cute baby. But I’m afraid the complimenting is not going to stop, ever.

The anecdotes I can throw your way are so odd, and so peculiar: Koreans believe that pregnant women should only look at good things during their pregnancy, and that, of course, means no homeless people, and no horror movies. At the same time a pregnant woman should also direct her attention to the beautiful, to help make her unborn child more beautiful, which is why my wife revealed to me yesterday that one of her pregnant friends was looking at pictures of my son, essentially for good luck. This is called taegyo (태교).

My brother-in-law just joked that we should pay him some money for photographing Harry because it’s a foregone conclusion now that the boy is going to be a model—no, you say, looking back at his photo, is he really that pretty?—who knows, maybe not, he certainly looks ugly enough when he’s shrieking for attention.

All of this gets to me because I know that the compliments aren’t going to end as long as we stay here. Koreans are a rather outspoken people, they say what they think, which means that if you come to this country, and you’re fat, or handsome, or ugly, people will constantly tell you that you’re fat, or handsome, or ugly, or whatever, and they won’t expect you to be offended or disturbed because it’s the norm here—if you’re ugly, and you live in Korea, you should be used to it by now.

To contrast, discussing people’s appearances so blatantly is really not something that polite people do in America, at least in the northeast—maybe we talk about clothes, or something ridiculous and strange, like breast implants, and that’s pretty much it. Only a rude, boorish, superficial, and unintelligent person would obsess over physical appearances, but that’s not the way it is in Korea. Either it’s a different culture, or everyone (and I’m serious, every single person) is an idiot here. You should see how they primp themselves in the (rather ubiquitous) public mirrors: so blatantly, in a way that would get them ridiculed endlessly back in America, for being narcissists.

My wife has also joked that she performed plastic surgery on our son when he was in her womb: this may seem really creepy here but it was pretty funny when she said it.

Anyway, I’m disturbed, piqued, bothered, worried, because Koreans think the boy looks good (for now at least), and so long as they do, they’re going to tell him—which means it’s going to go to his head. I think it’s safe to say that constantly telling someone he is handsome through the course of his most formative years is a guaranteed way of making him an idiot.

This is obviously the reason I am so luminous now: maybe I was a cute baby, but I only got uglier as I grew older, and my teenage years were essentially a continuous humiliation of the human spirit, where I was confronted with the most monstrous beast whenever I looked in the mirror, unable, on top of that, to escape my inborn idiocy, laziness, awkwardness, and slovenliness. If I started to look better at all in college, it was because I finally found a place that allowed me to be myself; in high school I felt the most horrific pressure to conform, while in college it was the opposite, and if you acted like anyone else you were a poser. In High School it was so painful for me, and I still have the fiercest resentment directed toward that period, and I sometimes feel like my former classmates are still laughing at me for being such a loser. But college changed at least some of that.

What does this senseless, gratuitously self-indulgent ramble say? That intelligence is best (even though we’re all basically the same), that superficiality is worst, that to gain intelligence, you must lack superficiality, and to lack superficiality, you must leave Korea, and go to America, where people probably won’t obsess over your son’s appearance so much, but you’ll have to live through an economic collapse if you go there, and that will totally suck, so what can you do except sell your baby to the diaper companies (like Mason Moon) and ride the wave of cash like a bellyboarding slob?

This is what we can hope for—that the baby will be cute enough to whore out to photographers for exorbitant amounts of cash, then turn ugly as a teenager so people stop complimenting him (my wife and I were both pretty unattractive youths), and then grow up a nice smart philosopher, with two parents still benefiting from the absurd superficialities of his babyhood.

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3 thoughts on “Superficiality

  1. Jennifer says:

    So there are many things this post made me think.

    The first is that I think complimenting the appearance of babies is more universal and not necessarily part of a specifically Korean superficiality, because, really, you can’t compliment a baby on much else. You can’t be like – wow, your baby’s really smart. Because most babies develop at roughly the same speed, especially when they’re as young as Harry. You also can’t say, what a considerate, funny, sensitive, mysterious, exciting, baby. You can maybe say – what a happy baby! Or what a quiet baby! But really “cute” or “handsome” are about as accurate you can get with a baby. And most people will say a baby looks good even if it’s ugly as hell (which your baby is not).

    That said – yes, Koreans are totally superficial about appearances which is one of my top 20 or so pet peeves about living here. It’s definitely worse here. For Christ’s sake, the teachers were actually making fun of one of our students the other day for having greasy hair! (and it didn’t even look greasy to me!) I can’t imagine what they must think of me on the days I’m not trying too hard.

    However, I seem to remember a certain Ian Schwartz spending a considerable amount of time, in person and here on his blog, talking about the beauty of Angelica – indeed it is almost exclusively beauty that you have talked about when listing specific qualities about your wife on this blog! So it is amusing to me to see you turning towards a state of thinking it’s somehow wrong to comment on appearances so much.

    For me, I’d say intelligence is not even the prime quality, but things like compassion, empathy, kindness – that whole package. I only came to this conclusion around about age 27, but I think I’m right that the best people to acquaint one’s self with are not the most beautiful or the smartest but the kindest and most compassionate. There is even a certain wisdom in kindness which is not always present in the super-intelligent and of course appearance has nothing to do with it whatsoever.

    Korea definitely doesn’t value the quality of compassion and kindness very heavily when compared with looks or intelligence. Compassion isn’t a big money-maker and it won’t get you a seat on the subway.

    But of course there are Koreans who do value it highly and I have met them, too.

    Anyway, your baby is cute, and eventually I’m sure he’ll be old enough to exhibit other commentable qualities!

    And don’t worry too much about him getting a big head. It can happen, but while some mockery is character-building I think I took enough in middle school and high school to actually harm the trajectory of my life considerably. Remember, you’ll be around to keep him down to earth, and also remember that wherever he lives Harry may face potential stereotyping or discrimination for being mixed-race, so being handsome like a K-pop idol couldn’t hurt.

  2. mal says:

    Oh my gosh, Ian! I am cracking up right now! Yes! Whore that baby out! Make a little moolah! And can I just say, you now know what it’s like to live in Saipan as well. I once came back from a summer in Maine and the first day at school a Filipina friend of mine exclaimed, “Wow! Mallory! You’ve gotten fat!” I told her it wasn’t polite to mention something like that and she just stared at me blankly. (She was a little bit of a ditz, hence the stare. But the comment she made was pretty typical of people, especially Asians, on Saipan.)

    Although I agree with you on the whole, I certainly don’t think it’s any better to be constantly informed of your imperfections–particularly physical ones. Having skin-deep aspects–good or bad ones–pointed out on a regular basis can lead to superficiality. You’re either trying constantly to improve the situation or constantly thinking about how everyone else needs to improve theirs. The best would be to comment on altogether other accomplishments, and mention areas of correction when needed in attitude, etc. A beautiful boy can be just as bright as a hideous one, and just as down to earth. It’s where the focus sets that makes the difference.

  3. Tatiana Luna says:

    I understand so thoroughly, Ian. Chinese people are the same way about bluntly stating what they think of your appearance, and they have the same sense of “white is beautiful.” I feel sure I’ve talked about it before either on my blog or with you somewhere, but Isabelle is a cherub of a child in terms of appearance. I mean, it’s easier for a child to be cute than ugly, but Isabelle’s about as cute and beautiful as they get. She was a little angel, goddess, baby celebrity sent to bless the lives of all the Chinese people who ever set eyes on her over there. Almost every single person who ever stopped to talk to us about her or who even just talked openly about her right next to me thinking I didn’t speak Chinese, said that she looked like a baby doll. One of those typical Western looking baby dolls, which are the ones that populate China, rather than Chinese looking baby dolls, of course.

    Anyway, I was very sensitive about this too. I was very worried it would go to her head. But as I’ve been learning back in America too, your reactions as parents are more important than anyone else’s. Even in China, Isabelle was quite confident, she knows she’s cute, but she’s never been able to get anything from us by being cute. And by the time we were leaving China, Isabelle’s reaction to almost any stranger (and unfortunately Chinese person) was the get shy and protective, because the smothering with praise is overbearing and she just didn’t like that.

    I’m glad we got out of there for her sake for many reasons, and I think it’s a relevant concern. But I also think that what you and Angelica do at home is going to make the biggest impact on him. I don’t think that means never letting him know he’s cute or handsome. For you, as parents, your priorities and values will come out naturally with him as long as you and Angelica agree on most of them. You do want a confident child and appearance is a natural part of that, but then there’s a lot more to focus on in addition, and that’s really what’s lacking in Korean culture I’m guessing, just like in China.

    So I loved your post, I felt like you were channeling some of my thoughts that I never got to writing on my own blog. And it turns out to be a great tribute to the misfits who grow up to be better people 😉

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