Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Black Hair, Brown Eyes

Two Koreal Life things today: I got my hair cut and I had to call the landlord about a leaking faucet. I'd like to think that these two opportunities to use my broken Korean in real-life situations makes up for the fact that, otherwise, I did absolutely nothing productive today.

First, the haircut. I'd been tempted for a while to "be frivolous", as a friend put it, and do something more off-the-wall with my hair. It seems that everywhere you look in Seoul, especially in Hongdae, people have their hair dyed, permed, and styled in crazy fashions, men and women alike. Many of my American friends have gone the same route and splurged on a new hairstyle.

On the other hand, I've got a bit of a complex when it comes to changing my hair, especially with regard to color. Yes, in college, I did bleach and dye my hair; it was a fantastic shade of maroon for several months. But ever since my hair returned to its normal black, I haven't thought about going back. I think a part of it has to do with being in Korea. I feel like I don't want to change my hairstyle these days because everyone does it, and maybe the way to be unique -- as an Asian -- here in Korea is to remain completely normal. Also, and this is more important, I can't shake the thought that the bleaching and perming that has become so ubiquitous has its roots in the culturally ingrained notion that Western faces and heads are more beautiful than natural Korean looks. Am I about to get very controversial? Sure.

In Korea, "white" is beautiful. A pale complexion is prized and many women go out of their way to prevent a tan. It doesn't surprise me that there is a prejudice toward a certain skin color, since this kind of look-ism exists in all cultures in different forms. But it's not just skin. The most beautiful Korean woman is not only pale, but also tall and skinny, and has large eyes and wavy brown hair. Look around at all the advertisements and posters featuring any of Korea's hundreds of music and TV personalities: the majority of them have faces and hair all perfectly sculpted to appear distinctly un-Asian.

Honestly, when I say that "white" is beautiful in Korea, I fully acknowledge the ambiguity of that statement: white is not just a skin color but also a race. And it seems to me that the beauty standards in Korea are greatly influenced by those of white-majority countries such as the US. Do Koreans explicitly want to look like white Americans? No, of course not. But American culture has such an undeniably strong presence in Korea that it's easy to see how our standards have rubbed off on theirs.

I wonder every day now, when I see beautiful Koreans walking down the street with unnatural hair, "What's wrong with straight and black?"

So there's my complex. I want to dye my hair because I think it would look cool and because it does seem like the kind of "when in Rome" thing to do while I have the opportunity. But I can't help but question: why would it look cool? Why do I want to do what all young Koreans do? Does changing my hair play into a kind of pervasive insecurity that Asians have over the way they look naturally? Does it reinforce the power of the US's (cross-)cultural hegemony?

Furthermore, I've thought about the message I send to my Korean students with my appearance. Perhaps they were surprised last September when the American English teacher they'd heard they were going to get turned out to be Asian (the assumption being, of course, that all Americans are white). But even after the novelty of an Asian-American English teacher wore off, I think I still managed to have an indirect influence on them. My co-teacher told me flat-out that, from what she could observe, my students felt more comfortable around me because I physically resembled them. That, in addition to my weird insistence on eating lunch with them and talking to them in between classes -- something the white Canadian English teacher who preceded me never did -- puts me more in the position of friend and possible role model than of aloof, classroom authority figure.

Thus, when I think about the complexities surrounding my identities as Asian and American and my role as a teacher, I realize that what I choose to do with my face, hair, and clothes says a lot to my students, maybe more than I've noticed or have cared to think. I don't have to just tell my students that they are already beautiful people no matter how they look, I can show them how to have black hair and rock it. It's similar to how, rather than simply tell my students that exercise is important, I can also run into them while working out at the school gym and show them how to do it. For my students' sake, perhaps it's better to represent the natural me and not give in to whatever the Mainstream Monster dictates is cool or beautiful.

Okay, I'll stop there. Let me just add that vanity is not even the issue here, although it is my decided lack of vanity -- plus lack of disposable income -- that persuaded me eventually to get a simple ($15) haircut instead of a ($100) perm-and-dye job today at a hip salon just a few minutes down the street called Ekihair.

Speaking of Tina Cohen-Chang... (from Glee Wikia)
Oh, yes, and the part of this story that is Koreal Life is the fact that I called ahead to place my appointment and chatted briefly with my hairdresser in what little Korean I know, and although I didn't understand every word, I managed to get my point across. For example, while listening absent-mindedly to the music playing in the salon, I realized so my shock that it was not PSY's original Gangnam Style being aired, but the Glee cover instead. I tried to explain this to my hairdresser, who had assumed that it was Hyun-a. (I thought: can't she tell that Jenna Ushkowitz's singing has an unmistakable American accent?) Eventually, I whipped out my phone to show her the video of Glee's performance of Gangnam Style and pointed out Tina, saying that she was an 입양한인 (Korean person adopted abroad).

In the end, although my hair turned out looking very average and not K-pop-star-awesome, I appreciated the chance to practice speaking Korean and use vocabulary and grammar that I've learned recently.

Second, the leaky faucet. I realized as soon as I called the landlord that I didn't know how to say "The faucet is leaking" in Korean, so I quickly looked it up. (싱크대 수도꼭지가 조금 물 새하고 있어요.) As I type this, he is in the kitchen fixing it up. I'm proud to say that all of our interactions have gone smoothly, despite them being in Korean. I think back to seven months ago, when I first arrived in Korea, and I realize that I wouldn't even have had the guts to call a landlord then, let alone the language skills to explain my problems, and do it politely on top of that. But now, I can. Hurrah!

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