Appearance is everything

One of my students recently had plastic surgery.

Yeah, it’s like that.

She’s 16 here, so 14 or 15 in the U.S.–9th grade.  She’s one of the “lucky” ones, because her mother works in a hospital.  I had a broken-English conversation with her friend, so I’m not sure if the mother simply works in a hospital or is actually a plastic surgeon or just works in the plastic surgery department or what.  But however which way, she had her eyelids lifted this summer, and will finish the procedure this winter.

The eyelid-lift is so common in this country (to widen the eyes), that most girls don’t even consider this $800 procedure plastic surgery. The student I was talking with currently uses glue on her eyes when she goes to the private academy, or out with her boyfriend, or to church.  When she is 20, she’ll have them surgically widened.  She informed me that most girls wait until the winter of their 19th year, then have the eyelid surgery–this is both a celebration for passing final exams in high school, and getting ready to go to university.

Before you get all high-and-mighty, they don’t get the surgery to “look western.”  They get it to look young.  And apparently, as I was just informed by a co-teacher, quite a few middle school girls get this done over breaks.

(Also, much like the U.S. and probably a lot of other places, middle school girls are already obsessed with diets and looking thin.  Part of the festival a few weeks back had art projects that featured students’ dreams and plans for the future, and many of the little booklets included diets.  Makes me want to broadcast my weight to the school, which is more than my 5’10” co-teacher.  Seriously, girls, it’s OK.  But then again, they don’t exactly prize muscle, so who knows.)

Daegu is the city to go to for plastic surgery here, if you’re ever in the market.  That’s where all the pretty people come from–or where all the other people go to come out pretty.

About 80% of the women in South Korea and a good chunk of the men get plastic surgery.  I’ve been told a few of the more common surgeries for the women are shaving the cheekbones to have a thinner face, adding a nose bridge, and shaving the calf muscles because having calf muscles is unattractive (thin legs are the ideal).  Well, bust.  I guess the bottom half of me is super-unattractive here.

(In my conversation with my co-teacher, I told her that butt-augmentation was becoming more popular in the U.S. than breast-augmentation.  She was shocked, and laughingly told me breast-augmentation was a big deal here, but they didn’t want big butts!  They need a little Mixalot in their lives, is what they need.)

Appearance literally is the most important thing.  Whenever a teacher wears something a little dressier or does their makeup differently, my co-teacher always asks me, “She looks different, right?  She looks nicer today than normal.”

And the 3rd graders (=U.S. 9th grade) criticized one of my co-teachers because her eyeshadow did not match her finger nail polish.  In the words of that beloved cartoon strip character, “Good grief!”

It’s easy to feel self-conscious around town.  When I go to or come back from a hiking bit, and I’m in my t-shirt and backpack, I’m always surrounded by 4-inch heels, designer (or faux-designer!) handbags, perfect makeup and hair, and men who are usually a bit prettier than me. Or at least dressed up a billion times more than I am.  It’s a bit ridiculous!  The bags I’ve seen around that I want the most are carried by men.  I think I mentioned that already.

At any rate, I’m learning how to work the system.  If I know I’m going to have a meeting with the principal, I’ll make sure to wear something extra-fancy to school that day.  If you’re going to judge me by my appearance, well then I’ll play your little game.

There was a story of two teachers.  One loved Armani suits but was a crap teacher–he never edited papers, just gave flat grades, and didn’t put in any real effort into teaching.  The other spent countless extra hours talking with his students, and gave comments almost longer than the papers themselves–however, he was a bit of a hippie in his dress and was rarely clean-shaven.  The student reviews at the end of the year ranked Armani-suit-man almost doubly higher than hippie-non-shaving-man.  It is what it is.

Story #2: the owner of a hakwon (private after-school academy) hired a native-English teacher.  The teacher landed in South Korea and the owner showed up at the airport for pickup.  The owner saw the native teacher, decided he was nowhere near attractive enough to work at his school, and left.  No idea what happened to the teacher after that.

Koreans also like to point out which of their presidents were “very handsome,” as one-of-my-friends-but-I-forget-who noticed when he/she did some sort of history tour. Or something.

In my teacher class last week with the principal and a few other wanting-to-learn-English teachers, I introduced a few “proverbs.”  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Ohh, look at me rhyming without trying.  Wow, I’m like butter I’m on a roll!  Sorry..anyways.)  One we did was Don’t judge a book by its cover, which, I realized right after I started explaining it, that this particular saying is extremely counter-cultural.  Oops. Oh well.

So no fear.  If you come to this country, you will be judged!  Just smile and stare back!

And it’s not completely everyone–just 80%.

(The Seoraksan update will come.  No worries.  For now, just know that I hobbled from my bed to the kitchen this morning, and it hurts to walk down stairs.  And my classroom is on the fourth floor.)

Further reading on the subject.


6 responses

  1. How strange that folks would want plastic surgery. Perhaps it would be of interest to the girls that I used to sit in study hall and put a bit of pressure on the outer part of my eyes so I could have an oriental look. Of course, this didn’t help at all, but I imagined how great it would be to have almond shaped eyes! Side comment: I tried for dimples too, and that doesn’t work either. The Lord made me just the way He wanted and maybe He would be sad to know that I was not happy with that. Through the years, I see that His way is best.

  2. Pingback: Kim’s Plastic Surgery Will Make You Happy-Pretty! | Dispatches by John P. Gamboa

  3. Pingback: Seoul time-lapse, cute IMs, and plastic surgery adverts « rachelshae

  4. I’ve been that picture floating around of Honey Lee and I just have to comment that the before and after picture are two separate people. The name of the girl on the left is Kang Ji-young of KARA, a South-Korean girl group . Just because you see something on the internet does not mean its true. Shame on the writer for a lack of fact checking. This is exactly how rumors start and spread.

    • touche–this was one of my first ever blog posts and I can’t even remember where I researched it. I’ve learned a lot since then. You are right–no proof of surgery for Ms Honey Lee (people think at least a nose job, judging from school pictures, but she denies any), but she does have a very talented makeup artist, as do many celebrities and pageant-winners. Thank you for being so understanding.

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