So I did my first hour in the English Cafe today. It was alright I suppose, though there was one conversation and one expression I thought worth noting.
I’ll start with the expression first: 동부인 하다. It means “to go out with one’s wife” or “to accompany one’s wife”. What a nice thing, to have a specific verb for going out with your wife. Sounds nicer than saying, “We still date, even though we’re married now.” Anyway, I liked it.
More amusing was this conversation I had with a girl who came to the cafe to interview a foreign teacher. We were talking about cultural differences and whether self-modification is acceptable. The girl showed me a collection of little plastic fixtures (pulled, a little shyly, from her purse) which she uses to adjust her eyelids, making them appear to have a fold in the middle. She pulls one of these things off everyday, and because it has a mild adhesive, the bit of transparent plastic stays on her eyelids, giving the illusion of the “double eyelid”. She said that affixing these bits of adhesive plastic to her face was a good solution to her beauty care needs, much more practical than the much-performed but somewhat expensive cosmetic surgery that is used to achieve the same effect permanently.
If you are asking yourself the question, What’s a double eyelid? at this point, well, believe me, I understand your confusion. I assure you, most Westerners don’t much care about this, rarely notice it as a trait in people they meet, and often don’t understand the obsession that some Asians and Asian culture in general seems to have with this aspect of womens’ appearance. Here are some examples which may help you to at least see what they’re talking about: (1), (2), (3).
This, apparently, is a wholly natural beauty method, in Asia.
Why do I say that? Well, when the girl brought that up, I told her I’d read some SF novel or other in which Westerners were having eyelid surgery so that their eyes looked “more Asian”. The girl found it funny that people would do that, of course.
Well, later on in the conversation, when she said that she wished she could just memorize the whole English dictionary, I told her that in a similar novel, I’d read about people who, wanting to be able to speak a foreign language, could simply go and get a chip implanted in their brains and then upload language data for whichever language they chose.
This set the girl off. She started explaining, in a very dramatic fashion, how bad this idea was. She said she’d read a “publish” (I am guessing it was some kind of Christian magazine) which claimed that implants in the body, such as using chips implanted in the brain, was bad and sinful and that God will “[CRASH!!!!]” people who get such implants.
(She was using big hand-signs and it looked as if she meant to say “punish”.)
We got into a long conversation about how, in her opinion, God thinks that putting bits of plastic on your eyes every day, and not accepting the way you were born, is natural, but getting implants of any kind other than, say, transplanted organs, is unnatural.
I asked her several times why she is so convinced that God thinks so, and the thing that surprised me wasn’t that she couldn’t exaplin much in response: her English wasn’t that good anyway. No, what surprised me was that she very clearly only had two answers to my question. “But why?” The first, which she repeated a lot, was that she’d read it in some publication. (Apparently this girl is naive enough to believe that some magazine speaks with authority on what God thinks.) Finally, she admitted she’d never thought about it much.
Meanwhile, Gordon (the other Gordon in the office, who is always referred to by his full name) had asked her about why so many trees in Korea have poles on them, holding them up and guiding them to grow straight. He knew that the poles were there to make the trees grow straight, of course, but he wanted the girl to explain why. Once we finally got her to understand the question, she didn’t know what to say. I asked her the question most likely to get a sensible, explanatory response:
When trees grow this way, do they look pretty?
I was gesturing the shape of a crooked tree.
That did it: she told us that no, trees that look that way aren’t pretty.
I don’t want to go into the fine points about it, but I do think that a highly normative sense of beauty, and a very unrealistic one, affects the way many women grow up in this society. Actually, the girl even said this, when we talked about differening Western and Korean standards of beauty. She said that she thought that people generally think too much about appearance here, and I agreed with her.
I will say that I looked at that little wallet of plastic pastie things, thought about some of what the girl said, and I couldn’t help but see her mind as a tree bound with poles, sadly growing tall and straight and “perfect” like all of the other trees. Poor things, all those trees. Sadder still when they are minds.
Of course, the same thing happens in other places. This is not just a Korean problem. I’ve seen similar things in Canada, actually, and if you want to, just watch a show like “Canadian Idol”. But in a foreign country, with foreign standards of beauty, you see it more clearly, I guess; that, and of course the fact that the status of women is still, now, not for Korean women what it is for Canadian women. To be certain, this is not Iraq, but there is a lot more distance left to go before they occupy an equitable position in Korean society.
And what can I do about it? There’s very little, unfortunately. The best I can do is show up at the cafe and ask questions about why whoever I’m talking to thinks how he or she does.
As an additional bonus to this post: the best comment of the day:
“Wow! That’s beautiful!” I said to a student who came in fifteen minutes late. I was pointing at her watch. “It’s a beautiful, nice, silver watch! And useful, right?”
The girl paused, waiting to see if the question was rhetorical. When she realized it wasn’t, she said, softly, “Yes.”
“Then please use it.”