The more I learn about Korea, the more it seems like I’m being fed the same stereotypes I heard in the States, but with a real face put on to them. So to speak.

On top of our four hours of Korean class a day, our lesson planning, our “Cultural Adjustment Checks,” our mandatory workshops, our supplementary Korean study, our extra-curricular activities (most signed up for in the first week before we realized how much we’d have to do three weeks in), and everything else, we also have to attend two supplementary talks as the English camp is going on. Today I went to my first, ostensibly a panel on what it’s like to be an Asian-American “other” in Korea that turned into an all-around “what to expect” mishmash of body image, race relations, gender issues, and the like. In part this was due to the fact that only three Asian-Americans showed up, and two had been in Korea long enough that they talked more than the panelists. But it seems that everything I heard in workshops earlier was just the tip of the iceberg.

Today I learned that, popularly in Korea, if you’re a male under 5′ 11″ you’re a “loser.” This is more pop culture than anything, as some celebrity TV personality made this statement offhand and it swept the country. How seriously do they take this? Who knows. I’d prefer not to apply such a bizarre little memetic requirement of “coolness” to an entire country. But the panelists seemed to take it seriously.

What you wear matters, always. Many Koreans won’t leave the house without wearing their best, because you “never know who you’ll run into.” Women don’t leave the house without makeup, ever. Whether it’s to shop for groceries or buy a Pepsi at the corner store. If you run into a Korean woman without her makeup, she’ll cover her face and wave you away (as evidenced by one of our Korean teachers who a few students ran into late at night on campus). Money matters, status matters, owning shit matters. I got the point the first time, but hearing it again made me wonder where this is all happening. In Goesan, it doesn’t exist. The women and men walking down the street remind me more of Chinese from Chengdu than fashion plates from Seoul. But my brief jaunt to Cheongju last week to go to an ear specialist showed me that it’s not just talk. Walk down the shopways and virtually everyone under 35 is dressed to the nines, with perfect hair and a complete absence of body fat. This isn’t to say they’re all gorgeous – they’re not. Plastic surgery or no, finding a genuinely gorgeous person in Korea isn’t common, just as it isn’t in the States or anywhere else. But damn, they sure do try hard. It would be an interesting bit of sociological nerdery trying to trace how things became this way in South Korea, and to a lesser extent in the Korean diaspora.

What’s funny about all this is that you’d have a hard time telling one of your liberal, diversity-loving friends that this is the case. It sounds so stereotypical and insensitive. Like calling Chinese people cheap. Except in all my experience, a lot of Chinese people are cheap, but they consider it a good thing – they’re frugal. It’s a cultural thing, not a racial thing. That’s the distinction. Pinching pennies is good in China, and spending excessive time and money looking and dressing as well as possible is a good thing in South Korea. Not every Chinese is cheap and not every Korean is shallow – it would be stupid to assume as much. But like all stereotypes, it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s important to note that it has nothing whatsoever to do with race. It’s not a judgment of their ethnicity but an observation of cultural standards. You can judge those cultural standards, of course, but that has nothing to do with being ethnically Korean or Chinese. Cultural and ethnic lines blur considerably when you’re an outside observer from a multicultural society looking at an homogeneous society. But I think white liberals, in particular, tend to conflate ethnicity and culture far too often when discussing non-whites. And I think any cries of protest from the diversity-loving and politically correct to some of the statements above come from a place beyond the dismissive excuse of “white guilt.” Most American whites have mixed ethnicity – taken together, we share a skin color, but little else.  You’ll still find plenty of  concentrated Irish in Boston and Italians in New York, but that’s negligible relative to the size and scope of the white population in the rest of America. It’s the exception, not the rule. Maybe because whites tend to blur their ethnicity and culture so often, they fail to properly note the distinction in other races? There’s another sociological research paper for you.

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