Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Losing Face, Saving Face, Part 1

Joni Mitchell--"Sex Kills" (mp3)

Beneath the streets of Seoul lurks a foul beast. When it emits a belch, the sheer putrefaction will take your breath, or worse yet, your appetite away. Except that you never see people holding noses in disgust or waving air in front of their faces because they have smelled the Seoul sewer. Well, except maybe foreigners. But the stench is far too overwhelming for anyone, even a native, to adapt to it. So I can only conclude that Koreans pretend that it isn't there, part of a willful dismal of anything that does not fit the societal image.

This is not a society for the aberrant.

Foreigners, who rarely seem to emerge beyond the confines of Itaewon, do not get acknowledgement on the street or in a store. Unlike Honolulu or New Orleans, where (because your lack of a convincing tan or your t-shirt with the name of another vacation spot on it reveals that you are not a native) a merchant's first question is likely to be "Where are you from?" Not here. No one cares--America, New Zealand, Germany, Russia, it's all the same. It is understood by you and everyone else that you are, indeed, a foreigner, but there is no need to pursue the matter beyond that because, well, you are a foreigner--and not Korean.

Inveterate jaywalkers like me are quickly cowed into waiting for the green light along with everyone else.

But the unspoken Korean societal rules are hardest on its own members who do not fit in.

Per square mile, there are far more plastic surgery and "aesthetics" clinics than there are pawn shops on Brainerd Road. These are for the women. The practice is so prevalent that you see the women who have had work done walking on the streets wearing one sort of mask or another. One of my students tells me that most girls have their eyes done before they go off to college. The goal of looking young and sexy is taken way beyond the American extreme. The ultimate goal is to look less Asian. The men keep their hair dyed black. One ex-patriate told me that because of my hair color, many people would think that I am a 70-year old grandfather. They don't see a lot of gray hair. (But in the Confucian system, the respect I gain, the respect!)

If, God forbid, your circumstances reduce you to begging, then here's how you do it: on the steps leading down to the subway, you lie nearly prostrate, with your face hidden and your arms outstretched. If someone should drop a small coin into your hands, you pull it in and nod vigorously and reach out again, but you do not show your face. The better to remain invisible.

I am told that the abortion rate is unbelievably high. If, by chance, you should happen to have an autistic son with you on the subway, then you are likely only to interact with the three foreign teachers. Because when your son starts to scream and wants to get off, even though you are not at a subway stop, the Koreans around you will stare at you in open disgust or perhaps amazement because they have had so little contact with a "flawed" child. Being of mixed race is just as bad.

Koreans want to follow, they want to fit in, they want to be perceived, according to Simon Winchester's Korea, as "doing the proper thing." This is part of what "saving face" is about. The kind, incredibly patient man whose autistic son ran off the subway without his shoes lost an incredible amount of face from a son's behavior that was beyond his control. It brought shame on him, but I don't think he cared, or else he created a buffer by choosing to speak to us instead.

To fit in today appears to mean adopting the superficial trappings of American style and culture, staying incredibly thin, and having children who will bring pride. The real reason why all these Korean children are studying in hagwons all summer? Because everyone else's children are.

I don't claim that my conclusions are correct and I'm not necessarily trying to pass judgement. This is a confusing, complex society. But I want you to see what we have seen.

"Sex Kills" is off Joni Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo cd, perhaps available at Itunes.


Daytimerush said...


It is all so fascinating. Your descriptions of the food, drink, smells, culture, weirdness. Keep it coming! Are you going out for a new experience every night?

jennifer said...

Some of the most interesting and profound writing on culture is done by those observers who are on the outside trying to look in.

A friend of mine just began an inter-cultural communication class at a university here, and the book she has to buy for class is called "Figuring Foreigners Out". It was a title that had us rolling last night. Thanks for sharing these insights with us as you try to figure the Koreans out.