“What are you?”
The question came out in broken English from our local guide in Seoul, Korea. My partner and I looked at each other and tried to construct an easy way to explain what neither of us had ever been able to explain well. I am an American-born woman, the daughter of first-generation immigrants from the Southeast Asian/Pacific Islands traveling with a Canadian-born Burmese and French Irish companion. We looked at one another and tried to jokingly answer that we were “Other. Mixed. Mutts.” Our guide did not get the joke and smiled sadly at me before stating, “Well, you would look like a very pretty Korean girl if you were not so dark…”
Unfortunately, this was not the first time I heard that comment on this trip, nor the last. It was not the first time the “darkness” of my skin had been up for debate. The tone of my skin had been a topic discussed throughout my life. As a kid in the US, my immigrant relatives rejoiced in the fact that I was a “light-skinned” Islander. For myself, it left me feeling othered. I was never light-skinned enough to have all the trappings of white privilege and never dark enough to be accepted in my own ethnic community without the need to overprove myself. Some thought it was a great asset that I appeared “otherly,” as it would afford me a better chance to slip in unnoticed amongst the top tier Asians, as they put it, and less likely to be seen as the hired help. Like most cultures in Asian regions, the fairness of one’s skin equated to the financial standing of that individual. I was quickly learning that the same Korean culture that prized devotion to family, tradition, and striving for perfection also held on a pedestal a standard of beauty that was for the most part unattainable.
The South Korean standard of beauty for men was, for the most part, relatively simple: stay in relatively decent shape, dress well, and have the latest and greatest haircut. Everyone was trying to dress in the latest designer fashions. It was reminiscent of the early ‘90s, where the logos could never be large enough. Women were idealized to “look wealthy.” That would include pale and dewy youthful skin, rosy cheeks, and an almost childlike face with a pointed chin and round eyes with double eyelids. Your looks gave you an edge in South Korea. An application to a University often required a photo submission in addition to academic records. Employers have also often required a photo of the applicant in order to evaluate their appearance as a job qualification. Looks played such a vital role in one’s ability to get ahead that any way to alter or fix your looks was encouraged.
Suddenly, the stereotype of “all Asians look the same” made sense. Airlines, hotels, spas, restaurants, and other businesses commonly frequented by visitors would hire only people that matched a certain physical type. Children, especially young girls, were taught from an early age intense regimens of skin care, the top tier products to support it, and were encouraged to plan for plastic surgery well before graduating high school. Most women, by the time they were in their mid-thirties, were well past their first and second surgical procedures to “fix” any perceived flaws. Those that could not afford the surgeries or chose not to get them were often ashamed of being seen. There was an almost invisible caste system for those whose appearance did not measure up. Our cleaning lady for the hotel apologized profusely to me one afternoon when I happened to wander back into my room to grab something. I looked at her face to see her fighting back tears as she scurried around the room. She was completely frazzled that she had been seen. When I called the front desk to ask for an additional bathrobe just a few hours later, she returned, head bowed. She would not make eye contact with me as she begged forgiveness for her error and for having been noticed. She really did believe that she had offended me by letting herself be seen.
Prior to this trip in 2019, my first to Korea, I honestly had not been sure what to expect. What was supposed to be a five-day business trip turned into a ten-day cultural immersion as our plan to travel to Japan was derailed by Typhoon Hagibis. This question of “what I am” became more and more prevalent the longer we were in the city. Each day of sightseeing through this modern metropolis called Seoul, there was a stark juxtaposition of the old city and the new. There were ancient palaces dating back to the 1390s, filled with works of literature and written language categorized and archived during that same time frame surrounded by skyscrapers and subways with ads promoting the latest in facial reconstruction and skin whitening products. Our guide told us “Korea and Japan are very homogenous; not many [people] leave, even to travel.”
Each day in Seoul had some form of put-me-down amongst the beauty of the temples, palaces, and mountains. All of our local guides were men, and some would only speak directly to my male partner. They circumvented questions I asked by turning and instead asking my partner a question. Our guide to the Garden of Morning Calm asked us outright if we planned to have children. When I replied “no,” I was met with a barrage of questions as to why, followed by a grand lecture as to why I should have them. He explained on our route that the previous tradition had been that women never left the house. Thus, elaborate gardens were built for them to enjoy as their form of space. Even the beautiful trees, positioned at the entrance gates, were placed not for beauty, but to ensure the women were hidden and separated from the men; women were unseen and only noticed when needed.
One day, I played dress up and wore the traditional hanbok like many other tourists. I was not expecting the shop girls’ remarks about how pretty I looked in it except that I was too dark. As I walked the streets of Insa-dong, I was stopped by older Korean women who came up to me on the street, remarked about my appearance, and took liberties to help me with my outfit. They reached across my chest to fix what they felt needed to be fixed. Many commented that I was so pretty, but my shoulders were too muscular. This was a byproduct of my enjoyment of CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting. I found I could only swallow the bile down my throat as my tongue was silenced by the excitement I saw in the eyes of those women. They genuinely believed they were telling me good things and that their words were going to help my future and my life. By the end of that day, I had been handed at least five pamphlets encouraging plastic surgery, as well as skin whitening samples given, graciously, to me by every shop we passed.
The women by the hotel pool were in full visors and wetsuits to protect their skin from the sun. It was the first time in a long time I had seen outright shock and disdain on people’s faces at my tan. Every female had their hair perfectly tied back and the palest makeup on their faces, even by the pool. My partner and I were the only couple who requested a sunbed with actual exposure to the sun. I felt self-conscious that I was not wearing any makeup and that I had a two-piece bikini as opposed to a one piece. I realized that I was the only woman with any muscle definition showing in her arms and legs, and I could not help but retreat in as I heard whispers and pointing as the women took selfies of themselves by the pool.
I could probably have stomached and brushed off all of those incidents independently and then taken my business elsewhere. Except that would require that my business was wanted. On one of our last days in Seoul, I walked into the Hyundai shopping complex in the famous Gangnam district. I entered a shop at the same time as another typical looking Korean girl. The shop girl looked me dead in the face and said, “No, nothing for your type…” She proceeded to dismiss me with a shooing motion and talked to the other girl. I did not think I could feel sicker. When I told my partner what happened, he just laughed it off as a joke. He had never experienced anything like that in Canada. In the next store I looked in, he asked why I would not ask if they had my size available. When I hesitated, he asked, and the shop girls giggled at him and said, “No, she is too big.” By the third time he saw me being ignored or dismissed, I had walked off as he trailed after me, apologizing for not taking it seriously.
Back in our hotel, as I was crying in his arms, the memories of the cutting words about my ethnicity, race, gender, and skin color began to overwhelm my mind. He reminded me of something our guides mentioned when we first arrived: “Koreans don’t have a word for ‘please’ — we don’t say that sort of thing. The most equivalent word we use actually means ‘give me.’ We don’t ask, and we don’t beg.” He told me that he was sorry because he could now see the privilege and attention he had been afforded and enjoyed on this trip. He liked that every door had been opened for him before asking, that attendants offered to tie his shoes, and that his whims had been deferred to without his asking or saying please. “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but it absolutely brings out this sense of entitlement when everyone is kowtowing to my requests. I see you ask questions and getting nowhere. I just stand behind you to see who you are speaking to and they stand straighter and immediately acquiesce, simply because they realize you’re with me. It’s powerful and intoxicating, but it still pits us against each other—you versus me, man versus women, us versus them.”
Nothing I could say or do would change the color of my skin. Yes, I could sit and angrily type that it was not fair and it was wrong. At the end of the day, however, the problem was not about what I wished I could have said to those people who commented on my skin color, my size, or the shape of my face or eyes. We were all trying to survive in this world and trying to get a little more than our average share. We want that slice of the prize that meant we had made it. We were all searching for the same feelings of happiness, acceptance, understanding, even love. We just did not always agree what paths would lead us there. The problem was that the people who were giving me the advice did not see we were not fighting in the same battle anymore. They were fighting for achievement within their social constructs, and my fight would be to challenge and even destroy those constructs.
By default, my physicality ensured that I never fit in. I was a symbol that the conventional norms could be broken, changed, or even destroyed. What a lifetime of being outside the norm has shown me was it makes people both uncomfortable and inspired when you stand apart from the crowd. It was those of us who lived in this gray that served as a beacon for those people fighting to get out or push their boundaries. There were protests when we were in Seoul for social reform pertaining to the rights of women. Women were bucking the system, challenging the standards of beauty with the growing feminist movement called “Escape the Corset.” Women were trying to work through their cultural feminism as it adjusts to the changes of technological advancement along with the push to keep tradition. Their movement was just starting and as one sitting further along the journey, the truth was I’m not their competition or their enemy. I am a resource. I am an example. I am an Other.