My first lesson teaching English as a Second Language in Korea? Koreans will comment about your appearance. Every chance they get.
It started innocently enough.
“Oh! Teacher, you are so tall!”
“Teacher, hair looks pretty today.”
“Boots today like model boots!”
After a few weeks of bumbling awkward responses to these comments, I was starting to feel good about myself. I must look like a supermodel with a fabulous sense of style to these small Korean children.
I was then schooled on the other side of this phenomenon. Koreans also enjoy pointing out how bad you look. No, this isn’t just the brutal honesty of childhood. It is something ingrained in the culture. As someone who grew up in the Midwest—where talking abouthorrible looks is only done privately behind backs—this forthrightness shocked me the first time it was directed my way.
“Teacher, your hair today. Ugh. Not good. So much better straight. NOT CURLY. EVER AGAIN.”
One of the next times I was at the receiving end of such comments was during a vocabulary lesson in a second grade reading class. I’d just introduced the word “chubby” and asked the students if they understood. One girl raised her hand.
“Yes, teacher. I understand. On Monday you looked chubby.”
Well, the model inside me thought, I definitely did NOT look chubby on Monday so maybe you don’t actually understand this language as well as you think.
Then there is the common and similarly wonderful backhanded compliment. Most recently, a group of girls walked into my classroom and saw me sitting at my desk without my glasses.
“Teacher, SO much prettier with no glasses. Don’t wear glasses again.”
Eventually, I learned to brush off both the positive and negative comments. In a way that didn’t send the class into 5 minutes of uncontrolled, off-topic laughter. In a way that didn’t make my face turn bright red. In a way that didn’t encourage further comment about the large pink bow in my hair.
After being in Korea for a year I’ve been able to accept this as part of Korean culture, a part I’ll never fully understand. A part of the culture I won’t be partaking in myself. But awkward, poorly phrased questions and comments will be coming my way as long as I’m teaching English on this peninsula.
I’ve come to terms with it so much, that when a group of six-year-old girls ran up to me yesterday screaming, “Amanda teacher, you look SO pretty today. SO PRETTY. Like model! No, like number one princess. NO! Like president of the world. Not country. THE WORLD!” I was even able to laugh a little.
Amanda Slavinsky currently teaches writing at an English immersion elementary school in Seoul, South Korea. Most of her time is spent searching the capital city, usually with little luck, for the three things she misses most from the USA: avocados, sour cream, and good Italian food. She recounts tales of her travels on her blog, Farsickness.