Mass Scrutiny: Korea's National Pastime

The first thing my mom said when I showed her this site was, "That's the photo you're using for your bio?" I replied that it was. "Nooooooo, no no no. WHY. You're better looking than that, and you're making a weird face!" Her voice rose in dismay as she jabbed an index finger accusingly at my laptop, like there was no way that imposter could be the fruit of her womb. I very calmly explained that I like the photo because it was captured in a natural moment, that I'm smiling genuinely, and that it has an unposed, real-life feel. But my mom just continued to scowl and cluck and give me the "this-is-out-of-my-hands-it's-your-funeral" look.

This, my friends, is one of the cornerstones of a Korean upbringing: cultivating humility with frequent and relentless criticism. And it's not just moms. Literally any Korean person regardless of age, sex, or relationship to you will laser in on your flaws within .3 seconds of an encounter and loudly, unabashedly point them out to you. A typical conversation might go like this:

Me - Happy New Year, auntie.
Her - Yes. You look GHASTLY.

A popular topic in which to indulge this behavior is, of course, weight. I think discussing someone's weight ranks up there with sun avoidance and fermentation as one of the nation's favorite pursuits. This one is a particular favorite of mine because it's always mentioned in a way as to make you believe you are being offered a public service. Like, "Hey you've gained a shit-ton of weight. You should eat less." Thank you, person I've met twice before! I had no idea! Lady, I recently spent an entire day mired in gloom because I now need 4 pumps of lotion when I used to use only 3, I don't need you to tell me I've gained more surface area. 

Another preferred subject: age. Spoiler alert: subtlety is not a consideration here, either. Two gems I've heard recently "Hey, you've gotten so old!" (directed at my husband) and "You really look like a mom of two now hahahahahahahaha" (pour moi). Both of us grinned bravely as our souls withered and died, but it wasn't all least the whole situation was followed up with a lively debate about whether we should have more children.

I realize this behavior is not limited to Korean culture. I had a conversation about it recently with a couple of girlfriends, both of whom are also the children of immigrants (China and Iran), and they could relate all too well. So is it just born-and-raised Americans who have developed a sensitivity filter when commenting directly to a person about themselves? Because goodness knows it's not a lack of observation or opinion; we can analyze celebrities or talk about each other behind our backs until the cows come home. If this is the case, which is actually better? Would I rather know up front how someone truly perceives me, or would I rather have my feelings & ego spared?

On the one hand, one might find the absence of artifice refreshing and honest. On the other, I'd rather not feel like shit because I've just been urgently told to start using better skincare products. So the jury is still out on that one.

Here's my mom smiling lovingly & wondering why I didn't wear my hair up

Here's my mom smiling lovingly & wondering why I didn't wear my hair up

Camilla Kim1 Comment