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.

…and they have no problems openly discussing it to you whether they just met you or not. I’ve mentioned the “handsome” thing before, (I stopped counting, it got old). But it goes beyond that…

Whether they’re telling you good things or bad things, whether it’s people you know or don’t know, it just doesn’t matter. It’s like it’s ingrained in them to be extremely aware of your personal appearance and they also have no qualms about saying what’s on their mind…

The Students…

Have no problem telling you unflattering things about yourself…You have a tall nose…Teacher your head has many lines on it…Very red and bad looking (kid points to a blemish on my face)…Your forehead looks like a gorilla…Your head is big…Your hair is gray like a grandfather’s…Your eyes are blue, it’s scary…Your face has many spots on it (referring to my freckles)…Your arm is hairy like animal…Your nose looks like a dragon (when my nostrils flare) All direct quotes. I could go on, but that’s all I can remember.

Students have called us old (not too bad), but also have made remarks about us being fat and ugly. I laugh it off considering I way a buck-fifty, but my female coworker might not (does not actually) take kindly to. A friend of mine also told me a student at his school pointed to his female coworkers’ stomach and asked if she was pregnant…she was not. I’m sure that stung a little.

They also don’t mind calling you handsome or cute…even the boys. It’s a little weird having a bunch of 12 year olds write in there diary’s that they think you are attractive. I was talking to one of my older classes about sports and when I told them I work out a lot they asked me to pick up my shirt to see if I had a six pack, or “chocolate pack” (I guess because of the way a chocolate bar has cubed pieces you can break apart). This was very odd and I obviously changed the subject and wanted no part of something that would get me fired in a second in the United States.

A day usually doesn’t go by where I don’t hear a comment from my students related to my appearance.

The Coworkers…

Have no problem asking somewhat awkward questions or even making comments that are borderline inappropriate. If mentioning you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, the first thing they have said is “is he/she beautiful/handsome?” I’m not sure if this question has ever gotten a response other than “yes.” Weird it would even be asked.

Furthermore, when my new coworker was hired, the principal said to me “for you, maybe I hope she is very beautiful.” I can’t imagine an employer back home saying that, it’s probably a fire-able offense.

It was also weird that I had to send TWO PICTURES in with my resume before I had an interview. One was a headshot, and the other was a full shot of my body. This is standard procedure for jobs over here.

Last week my coworkers boyfriend told her that I “lost weight and didn’t look good.” Keep in mind he has only seen me twice, the first time was in September and the second time when he made this comment which was 6 months later. He also made the comment after seeing me from across the street, at night, as I exited school and walked home. Not sure how he could make such a comment given the circumstances, either way, I don’t know why anyone would say such a thing.

The People you meet…

It’s funny, but a little awkward as well, hearing little kids (or even grownups) point at you and call you handsome randomly when you’re walking around. They’re sizing you up from the second they see you.

Also, a little awkward when COUPLES make comments about you. I’ve had situations where couples were together, and the man or woman have said something to me. Just a random shout out on the street “you are handsome” and they keep walking. I don’t know what’s weirder, the girl saying that in front of her boyfriend, or the guy saying it to me?

I can’t complain, I guess I should be flattered the majority of comments I get from people and students (the ones who aren’t just trying to piss me off) are positive, however I must say I have seen some VERY attractive Korean females with very unattractive foreigners, so maybe the standards here are lower?

Either way, it doesn’t bother me when the bad ones come, and I don’t think much of it when the good ones come, but it’s just interesting it happens so often in all types of scenarios. Image is everything here in a way.

39 comments:

hae young said...

at first. i think because you are a foreigner the kids act a little bit differently, to them you are a real alien. :P when I went to paris for the biz trip, on the street, the teenagers(boys) they shouted at me "Hey Pretty,Bonjour!" that's weird as well. to them, I am just traveller and foreinger. Same things happen to me.

And you should know that, korean girls standard so high!!!:)
Have you ever thought that your standard about korean girls could be low?(maybe they are not pretty to us at all :P)

Ben said...

disagree, i can't go a day walking around Seoul without seeing an attractive Korean female with a Western cretin..i can't complain, it's better for us

Anonymous said...

What he said. But, I like it.

hae young said...

Then, that means "Korean girls aren't obssessed with personal appearance" They are obssessed with the good heart! :P

Ben said...

that's good spin, but im not buying it

Kafka said...

Not all, but most Korean have tendency to judge person by appearance. Because of this disgraceful tacit system, People are trying to fit them for system,full of prejudice. I cannot sure that the other countries don't have obsession but not much than Korea, I bet.

Ben said...

Oh yeah, I totally agree. Obviously other people/countries do it as well, but like you said it seems a bit more common here.

Thanks for reading and commenting Kafka

Kafka said...

Every posts you wrote is totally what I always wanted to say. But Korean nationalism is somehow highly strong than the other. This is why I can't discuss this with Korean. For example, Can you criticize Korean in front of Korean? If you do, I bet you will be outcast out of them from making issue about that.

Ben said...

It's hard, but I find ways to do it. I don't think America is perfect (I know it's not) so by discussing flaws we have I think it allows me to discuss flaws here. I've had talks with some of my coworkers about some cultural things here I don't agree with (too much school, students coming to school sick when they should be at home getting better, too much pressure from parents about relationships, etc.)

No place is perfect, but it's good to be able to talk about differences and realize what could be better

Kafka said...

Yeah, But you know? It maybe a kind of lucky you're not Korean. Even if my looks is Korean and Korea is my birthplace I can't get along with Korean culture. I don't get it. They have attention each other so much! It's like it's weird to see someone who want to be independent for them.

Ben said...

maybe foreign culture and influence will be a benefit to korea in this respect..maybe

Kafka said...

I'm afraid to say it won't work unless the standards of beauty change in Korea.. Maybe the next century?

Ben said...

A lot of it probably has to do with the fact the country went from one extreme to the other. Now the economy is booming, many people have a high standard of life so they are becoming pretentious. It's one of the downsides of having a lot of money I guess.

Kafka said...

Exactly. They ham it up because they aren't. I think their easy money will disappear sooner or later. If they show off their fake for themselves,it isn't a big deal I don't care. But the problem is they are trying to force another to be like them.

Richard said...

I have encountered weird cultural behaviors at my workplace also. I work with Korean coworkers (they're not Korean Americans) but immigrants from Korea. On two occasions this coworker comes over and grabs my shirt collar and flips it back to see what "designer labeled" clothes I'm wearing. I'm not really friends with this person and I thought it strange that he would do something like this out of the blue.

Another thing is when another coworker (caucasian woman) was showing pictures of her two daughters - a Korean woman comes over and tells her that the older girl is uglier than the younger one. I could sense that the caucasian coworker had her feelings hurt. She told me that both her daughters are beautiful to her.
Just differences in social behavior I thought.

Ben Gwynne said...

Very interesting indeed. It doesn't surprise me now that I'm here, but a year ago I would've questioned you.

Always interesting though, I'm sure we do things they think are weird. Actually, I know we do.........

Kafka said...

It's same in Korean college..Some Korean estimate people's multiple shape with the tight standard of beauty even their daughter. But I think it's a kind of pernicious behavior should be changed. How could it be cultural things?

Richard said...

I think what we (in America) percieve as inappropriate behaviors and comments are just social norms in Korean society. I can't think of any other ways to describe it.
Like the butt poking that Ben encounters daily and the approval of this behavior from adults - seen from a display of sculpture dipicting this strange action.
It is very odd, strange and weird. Can I also say rude? But to an average Korean this must be just normal stuff.
Makes me wonder what we do here in the States are considered offensive. Perhaps burping or spitting in public (like in a baseball field) - but that's not directed towards a particular individual. That's just one person's ill manner. Can you think of anything that we do that makes others cringe?

Ben Gwynne said...

You two make great points.

The thing I'm most interested in is finding out about "odd" things Americans do back home similar to this. Everyone has their cultural differences, I understand that. I guess I'm someday hoping to find a website by foreigners in the US commenting on social mores.

I wish I spoke Korea, I heard a rumor there's a website for Korean teachers where they talk about their native coteachers, lol

Richard said...

Hello Ben
Here's an interesting article.
Click: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2010/05/272_49123.html

Richard said...

Oops the link was broken.
Hope this one works.
http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2010/05/272_49123.html

Richard said...

Sorry when I click publish - the latter part of the URL gets cut off. I'll type the whole thing.
http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/
www/news/opinon/2010/
05/272_49123.html

Ben Gwynne said...

That's a great, GREAT article. Thanks for sharing that.

There does seem to be a major disconnect with their attitude toward English. In some ways, they seem to really embrace it and Western culture, while at the same time shunning it entirely. I'm going to book mark this and read it a few more times before I leave. Great find.

Richard said...

Hello Ben
On a lighter note - there's a Korean coworker who acts and sounds just like Ms.Swan from Mad TV. This episode is a dead ringer. She is just like the character. I think Ms.Swan character is a Korean.
Click: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b69Bj9H1zZY&feature=related

Kafka said...

Not really. Well.. You're right. They're more individual than Korean. There are many people who are spitting in public even that's illegal. It must be the lock of civic mind. But not all. There is always an exception. If you can read Korean, These are quite interesting to you.

1.The several problem of Korea.

http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/specialsection/newspickup_section/347673.html

2. [interview]How do you think of Korean extreme Christian?
http://todayhumor.co.kr/board/search_view.php?table=bestofbest&no=17457&page=12&keyfield=subject&keyword=%C7%D1%B1%B9&search_table_name=bestofbest&&html=1


Use babel-fish.
If you want, I can translate these things in English.

Ben Gwynne said...

thanks for the links. Google has a great translation service which is almost perfect, not perfect, but close.

Are you saying spitting in public is illegal here? I never knew that, I see it happening all the time. I must say I've done it a few times myself, I just hope I don't keep doing it when I go back to the US!

Ben Gwynne said...

And yes, Mad TV was amazing while it lasted. They had some good skits

Anonymous said...

I think Koreans are obsessed with looks and money, there is no need to deny that. And Korean is one of the countries with the highest number of plastic surgeries (per capita). Brazil and Argentina are also countries with lots of people who have gone under the knife for the sake of beauty. To all its own, I do not think having plastic surger is wrong. Nonetheless, I will never really be like most of the Koreans in Korea, but it is OK since I do not live there anymore.

Anonymous said...

No country is perfect though, remember that.

- ben

Anonymous said...

http://www.lifeinkorea.com/boards/read.cfm?boardid=19&msgid=155

Anonymous said...


If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your web page with more details?

fareeha said...

i cant imagine living in that kind of community.... no wonder the rate of people who went under the knife are high.... the pressure to look beautiful is there

Anonymous said...

Good post, Ben. I'm a foreigner in Korea, an I've had two one-year stints here. I agree with almost everything you say in the article. It's very well said. But we must also be critical of ourselves and our own countries. If we look at Korea, we can also see the massive materialism and the brain-washing effects of the K-pop culture, the endless stream of comedy shows, the music blaring out of every shopfront, relentlessly drumming it into us to buy things. It's more overt here in Korea, but in Western countries it's far more subtle, and we must admit that most of what we think and our opinions are determined by the society in which we are brought up. Look at the obesity epidemic in Western countries, the mindless computer-game obsessions (in Korea too), the massive amounts of sports-heads who are distracted by trivial games of grown men running around on a field, the chronic lack of book-reading.

As far as what Americans do, the most obvious thing to any non-American is that when an American is around everybody knows it because most of them speak so loudly. Secondly, Americans are generally arrogant and ignorant and are excessively patriotic. Thirdly, most Americans are extremely self-righteous and patronising, and have a view of themselves as the leaders of civilisation.

To the person that said plastic surgery is not wrong. There is no "right" or "wrong", the meaning of these terms are completely subjective. Having plastic surgery is a physical manifestation of low self-esteem and displays the fact that the person in question values aesthetics and image above personality. It's a symptom of the image-obsessed culture in Korea. The focus on image is in all cultures, but the sheer intensity of it in Korea is staggering and oppressive. I recently visited Fukuoka in Japan and felt positively liberated, and didn't really feel like a "foreigner" at all.

This may come across as a diatribe, but overall I do like Korea. The respect for older people, the lack of vandalism and crime, the feeling of safety, the transportation system, the kind people (who are friendly after the foreigner makes the initial contact). In many ways it is better than my own country - which is far from perfect, I'm certainly not a patriot nor do I think that my country (or its people) is superior to any other.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your opinion. That was a lot to read but I enjoyed it. Cheers mate and thanks for reading

- bg

Anonymous said...

but isn't the whole world obsessed with appearance these days? they're just not ashamed to express it.

Anonymous said...

https://www.facebook.com/beautymew?fref=ts

Leidy Arizala said...

Ben, are you still living in Korea? If so, how is it going for you? :)

Leidy Arizala said...

Ben, are you still living in Korea? If so, how is it going for you? :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Leidy, I'm not. But if you have questions shoot me an email. It's on my homepage.

bg