Remember when I started my blog counting the weeks as they went by? Now I have to say. . . I have less than one week left until I move out of my dorm room. I am certainly having some bittersweet feelings. I’m thankful I get to stay a few extra weeks in Korea through.
Living in Korea has been an interesting experience. The social aspect has been the most counter cultural and yet interesting to be a part of. In the early weeks of my time in Korea, I first felt like an observer. Critical, curious, and comparative to my own cultural background. However, as time progressed, I began to see the social pressures that Koreans have for each other. The longer I stayed, the more I felt I did not fit into the Korean ideal (which of course I don’t—I’m not Korea. . . ) However, the beauty standard here really began to weight on me because it was in conflict with the ideas media has thrown at me while growing up. I am not as thin as many Koreans, and I don’t think it is even physically possible for me to be. Korean fashion is conservative in some ways and flashy in others. But in the way that it is done, it is very different from the society that I grew up in. I did not know how to reconcile the two. So this feeling also went on for a while. And then, there was a shift at some point. I slowly began taking some elements of the Korean beauty standard and letting it influence how I dressed and how I did my makeup. And in other areas of social pressure, I just let it go. I accepted the fact that I will never be the beautiful Korean ideal–or the ideal Westerner for that matter. There is one moment I remember, about a month and a half ago maybe, where I was on the bus with some friends. There was this older lady that just kept staring at me. Eventually, she told one of my friends (who could speak Korean) that I was really pretty—my skin was so white. At the time I was just a little embarrassed because this is not a compliment in North America, but also very flattered. Moving forward from this moment, I started to realized just how much I stood out, particularly being the only blond haired, blue eyed girl in some situations. And that made me special here in Korea, something that will probably never make me special in Canada or the U.S. Maybe it isn’t the best way to learn how to be a little more comfortable in your own skin, but having strangers compliment you does boost the confidence a little bit. However, there is also a darker side to this ego boosting.
Just over a week and a half ago now (wow how has it been that long already??) I went to Yeosu and Suncheon with my good Korean friend Soorim and Vi met up with us later. We had a lot of fun being near the ocean in Yeosu and learning more about Lee Soon Shin’s turtle ships, then exploring the wetlands, gardens, and historical filming sit in Suncheon. However, I had an interesting experience. Being outside of Seoul, I got quite a bit of attention. On other trips it has happened too that Koreans are really curious of foreigners. However, on this trip it was a bit different because I was with a Korean who could actually translate. There were a few different people that would tell me I was pretty—mostly because my skin was so white—which actually began to make me feel a bit uncomfortable after a while.
As a side note: There was one interesting taxi driver in particular that was probably the youngest taxi driver I have seen in Korea. He told Soorim that I was pretty. As he was talking to Soorim, she even told him that he was being racist. He kind of agreed, and yet told her that this was their culture and that it would be really difficult for him to think that whiter skin is not pretty. He seemed like a really interesting person. I wish I knew more Korean so that I could talk to him more personally.
However, I think Korean people are really beautiful, their skin color included. And by hearing people call me beautiful because of my race actually began to make me feel sad. Many Koreans want to have lighter skin and there are numerous beauty products to try and help them accomplish this. It made me question why even still in today’s day and age, the white Western image is given so much weight. Coming back to Seoul after that weekend away was a bit of a relief. There are quite a lot of foreigners where I live because of the school, so I once again do not get a whole lot of attention. Enough to be constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, but not more than I feel is necessary.
Another funny story: I was walking to my last field trip for my Early Modern Korea class (and this was on campus) and a group of around six boys (maybe middle school age) came running up to me. They barely spoke English and I could not understand their Korean. They looked so proud of themselves though and just started saying “picture” and gesturing. They wanted to take a picture with me. I thought it was more funny than anything else because I was still on Yonsei’s campus. I’m guessing they were just touring. Anyway, of course I said yes. They were just too excited. I hope this exposure to foreigners helps Koreans (particularly Koreans that live outside of Seoul) realize that foreigners are also just people with flaws, disappointments, and curiosities. I like when Koreans are brave enough to ask and challenge the cultural differences between them and foreigners. Our skin color may be different, but mine is not better just because it is a little lighter. I want people to know that.
Another Interesting story: I went to the Folk Village (another event I had signed up for at the beginning of the semester) 3 or so weeks ago. I ended up walking around with a guy from Germany and a Korean guy. The Korean guy was so surprised when we told him that people get surgery in Western countries to get smaller noses. He was surprised because people in Korea have surgeries to get bigger noses! He was also so confused when I said that telling someone their skin is so white is really not a compliment in North America. People want to have tanned skin. If someone tells you that you are really light skinned, it is almost an insult because it means you never go outside. It was fun telling him about some cultural differences that I had noticed. I was surprised that even as someone living in Seoul, he still did not know some of these differences. I was happy to be able to share with him.
On a different note, I recently met up with a friend from high school. He studied abroad in Korea in the Fall, but came back in May for an internship. He told me that after leaving the first time, he didn’t feel like he was finished in Korea. He still felt he had things to do here. And so he came back. At the time he said he was ready to go back home. But when he got back home, he messaged me and said he had the same feeling as before. He still had unfinished business in Korea. I think I can understand that feeling. After learning only a small amount of Korea, I feel like I want to learn more. I can barely understand people here because of the language barrier. I am so curious what I could learn if only I could communicate with every day average Korean citizens. I even have a Korean friend in taekwondo that I cannot communicate the most effectively with because his English is limited, and my Korean is very limited. I want to know more about Korea. I want to understand why Koreans do some of the things that they do. I am not sure how I will feel when I get home, this is just what I am feeling now.