I Live In Korea

My name is Ben Gwynne. I USED to teach English in Incheon, South Korea. Here's some photos, stories, videos, etc.


While sucking down a delicious smoothie at Smoothie King I took notice of a very interesting ad they were showing on their wall…
Although spitting in public is acceptable in Korea, spitting smoothies is not. I decided to take a picture of the sign and spent a few hours thinking about the picture and ask myself if the hidden message in this sign has been in front of my face for the last three months, but only when it was spelled out in front of my did I actually realize it. Then I faced the truth…

Asians want to be whiter

The desire to make your skin whiter is a growing phenomenon in Asia and without thinking much into it there’s two immediate explanations that will come to mind…

1. Symbolism - From a Western standpoint we might assume the desire to be white in Asia stems from the symbolism behind the color and it representing purity, innocence, light and serving as the contrast from darkness and evil. However, in many Asian cultures white is the symbol of death, so that’s not it.

2. “The grass is always greener” – There’s no denying a large number of white people wish to be…darker. Those who know me will attest I’m a big fan of Banana Boat SPF 4, and a strong advocate of switching sides at 11 in volleyball when the games is to 21 (just to make both sides get an even glow!). However, I have never gone to a tanning salon, used fake tan spray or wished I was darker. I simply enjoy being out in the sun as much as possible. Getting tanner for white people is a seasonal obsession in the summer or on vacation, getting whiter for Asians is a cultural obsession that persists throughout some of their lives (I want to stress some here so I don’t generalize about all Asians).

So what’s lying beneath the surface for the Asians who strive to be whiter? The implication of class.

See way back in the day in Asia, if you had darker skin it meant you were basically a peasant who spent your days tilling fields and harvesting rice while the wealthier folks lounged around and…did something else.

The method of altering your skin color is quite obvious…

- The natural method of getting tanner is quite simple: spend more time in the sun.
- The unnatural method of getting tanner is quite simple: buy products that will make you tanner.

- The natural method of getting whiter is quite simple: spend less time in the sun.
- The unnatural method of getting whiter is quite simple: buy products that will make you whiter.

I’m sure most people never heard of products that make your product whiter, but we all know Michael Jackson (r.i.p.) showed us it was possible to have the procedure done medically.

“So BG, do you go to the Korean CVS and pick up products to make your skin whiter?”

Well, not CVS, but yes they do sell whitening products over the counter here, though for some people those aren’t enough. A black market is also available where you can by whitening products which are too…good?…to be sold in a store. The problem is any chemical you apply to your skin to alter its color that is sold on the black market will and has caused a lot of horrible and irreversible results.

Though if you’re not willing to injure yourself from using black market whitening products that’s okay, feel free to peruse http://www.ASIANWHITESKIN.com. On their homepage you’ll see such links as “Whitening Pills,” “Injectables,” and “Skin Machines.” My first search on the internet was “asian white skin” and that website was the first site which popped up much to my dismay/delight. I was expecting to begin reading articles about the significance and history behind Asians trying to make their skin whiter, I didn’t expect to be given more ammunition.

While these products claim they are safe, even over the counter and legal lotions are problematic. One of the key ingredients in these lotions which helps skin whiten is mercury. Mercury is an extremely dangerous subject, and even with my little medical knowledge I know it is a toxic chemical that has lethal consequences if there is over exposure. I did some research about mercury laden skin whitening products and found a case where people were using a certain brand which had “between 9,000 and 65,000 times the recommended dose.” Then I felt the need to look up the real dangers of mercury and found that side effects are “impairment of peripheral vision, speech, hearing, and walking, muscle weakness, skin rashes, mood swings, memory loss, mental disturbances, lack of coordination of movements such as writing…”

In the Western world we lay in cancer beds, here they just apply some rub on lotion which could have immediate results, for “better” or much worse.

Examples of the picture I posted are all over signs and the TV here, and now I can easily see there is a preference in the media towards people with whiter skin. I kicked myself upon this revelation for not remembering I’ve witnessed this somewhere else…Bollywood. (Although this entry focuses on Eastern Asians, this stigma also carries over to India as well.) If anyone reading is familiar with Bollywood films/movies, you’ll notice that the Indians starring in those roles are always much lighter than the ones you see, know, or imagine in your head.

Being whiter was an association with class and royalty during ancient times in Asia. Although that is outdated, I'm sure the perception still resonates with some of the more old school families here. Now, being whiter gives people a "leg up" to fame. The singers are “whiter than average,” so are the models and the movie stars. The media is telling us this is what's beautiful, so it's now only natural that people will aspire to be that way at costs that are detrimental to our physical and mental wellness. Back then people aspired to be whiter because it made them feel like they were nobility, now we all want our moment in the sun, even if it’s just for a little while, to make us feel better about ourselves, and that's all we want isn't it? Shaking my head...

On that note, I just booked my plane ticket to Vietnam where I'll be spending a week catching rays under the sun. Isn't it ironic...

* Random fact regarding mercury. In the 1800s a certain type of hats were made by applying mercury to them. The chemical seeped into the peoples brains from their head just by wearing the hat, and caused damage to their central nervous system. People who wore these hats had mood swings and extreme behavioral changes, and they were described as being “mad as a hatter.Yes, that is the origin of the Mad Hatters name from Alice in Wonderland. Pretty cool…I guess.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

But spending less time in sunlight will not make a brown person (i.e. born brown) whiter. So unlike whites, there is no alternative but to use artificial products to invert your color.

Ben Gwynne said...

Or you can just do nothing and be happy with who you are. Crazy world we live in, no matter what color you are some people aren't happy with it.

Anonymous said...

very interesting..good post!

Anonymous said...

thanks !! very helpful post!

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog from a random search that displayed your page about the weird things Korean kids are obsessed with...great blog.

In the Philippines, skin whitener is huge...it's all over the radio and ads all over towns. My fiancee is Chinese/Filipino and light skinned, so she is considered highly favorable. (Some)filipinas desire to marry whites so that their offspring will be lighter.

It's sad that people can't be satisfied with who and what they are.

Asep S.M. said...

Very informative and thank you for sharing! I have to agree with you that natural skin treatments are better for our skin because they generally are safer and does not cause skin irritation. The common misconception most people have about charcoal is that they can cause skin darkening and does not realize the importance and help it can provide for our skin.

Gangmei Jaojianlung said...

Korean have light skin not brown