#3. Your Personal Health Is Everybody's Business
Americans as a whole greatly value their privacy. Over here? Not so much. Maybe we're not exchanging credit card information, but just about everything else about our business is everybody's business. It's not unheard of, for example, to hear somebody call someone else fat. This isn't meant as an insult; just that they're concerned about that person's health. In a South Korean's mind, if they buttoned their yap about such things because it was "private," the other person's health might suffer. They're not being nosy or insulting; they're saving your life! You probably just didn't realize you were being attacked by a rogue pair of love handles. Thanks for the body update, stranger!
Andersen Ross/Blend Images/Getty Images
"You're lucky those fat fingers can even fit in your mouth. Just sayin'."
I went to the hospital for an ear infection once (no doubt brought on by that goddamned pear truck), and later on the nurse wanted to make sure I was OK. But instead of calling me, she simply asked the nearest foreigner how I was doing. As if we all knew each other!
I mean, we did actually know each other. So chalk one up for well-meaning xenophobes, I guess?
But still, she thought it was totally OK to pass my medical records around like a jug of house wine. Luckily, this time it was just an earache, but what if I had something I didn't wish to share with the whole town? Based on what I've experienced, not a whole lot would change. One time I went for an allergy test with a friend. When I picked up my results, the doctor gave me my friend's results as well. Even though it was her personal information, the doctor believed it merely convenient that I bring it to her.
I absolutely didn't exploit this information and hide peanuts in her pancake as a hilarious prank.
More worryingly, if you're on South Korea's national insurance plan (and there's a really, really good chance you are), your employer knows your entire medical history. If you have depression and seek psychiatric help through the plan, your bosses will know. That might cause problems, as depression is still deeply stigmatized in most of South Korea, and your bosses knowing how sad you are could very well cost you your job, which would make you even sadder. I'm pretty sure that's the circle of life Elton John was talking about.
#2. Prostitution Is Technically Illegal, but Realistically Totally Cool
Prostitution is everywhere in South Korea. Problem is, it's also totally illegal here. The government can't legalize it, because then they'd look like a bunch of sleazy pimps, but they can't stop it either, because that's like trying to stop the wind from blowing. So they silently tolerate it, while everybody around you denies its existence, then turns and wades through a sea of prostitutes just to get to their car. I live just across the way from one of South Korea's dabangs (good name! Can you guess what might go on there?), or "coffee shops." Notice the dark windows. Not pictured is the car that's constantly dropping off and picking up young women at all hours of the day for "home delivery coffee."
"I like my coffee like I like my women: sexually."
Don't like coffee? What thinly veiled excuse would you like to use for meeting with a prostitute? You can get a haircut from one, a foot wash -- you can even hike beautiful mountain trails with the hooker of your choosing.
I also live by an alley full of noraebangs, which literally translates to "singing rooms." You ostensibly pay for the privilege of butchering "Islands in the Stream" with a pretty young lady, but at the end of the night, you two usually go off to make more beautiful music elsewhere. My male co-workers have told me it's pretty normal for them to go there after a business dinner together. Girls come in, they sing and dance, pour you drinks, feed you ... and then provide more "services," depending on how much you pay.
Some places are less subtle than others about what goes on there.
It's not officially prostitution, but remember that nothing here is, because prostitution is totally, for-realsies, cross-your-heart illegal.
#1. They're Obsessed With Personal Image
If you visit South Korea, there's a really good chance the first thing somebody says to you will be a comment on your appearance. Sometimes it's just to call you handsome or beautiful (how sweet!); other times they'll remark to you, a complete stranger, about how tired you look, or how your hair looks like shit, or how you could probably stand to do a few thousand extra situps each morning. Slightly less sweet.
A J James/Photodisc/Getty Images
And they're not just targeting you because you're American. Probably not, anyway.
They don't mean to be rude -- it's just that, to South Koreans, a perfect appearance is everything, so if you don't look perfect, something might be wrong with you. This goes a long way toward explaining why everybody's so damn vain over here. My high school boys are constantly fixing their hair in handheld mirrors. Even my male colleagues will randomly stand up in class and go to the mirror to fix their hair. The hallway outside of the teachers' office has a mirror on every pillar so you never have to go a moment without scrutinizing your appearance, which many don't. I don't have co-workers or students -- I have Zoolanders.
The women, as usual, have it worse. Check out all of this girl's different hairstyles:
Now, slowly realize that's actually a collection of 18 different women. Hold up, it's not just the normal casual racism at play here: All of those women are working very hard to look identical. South Korea is the place to go for plastic surgery, but there's pretty much only the one "look."
My friend teaches at a girls' middle school. She'll ask them, "Hey, what did you guys do over vacation?" and they'll proudly respond, "Mommy bought me eyelid surgery." They don't want some trite platitude like "But sweetie, you've always been pretty." They want confirmation that their procedure brought them one step closer to the ultimate South Korean beauty ideal. A big part of that is the vaunted "double eyelid" look.
via Anime Picks
Fun side effect: This removes your ability to cry.
This and other plastic surgery procedures make up Seoul's #1 graduation gift year in and year out.
So what exactly do these girls hate about themselves (besides everything)? Well, they think their faces are too big and round, so they undergo jaw reduction surgery and cheekbone shaving to achieve the V-shaped face that brings all the boys to the yard. They believe that their eyes are too small, so they double lid it, get a blepharoplasty (further work on the eyelid to make it squeaky-clean), and widen their eyes by cutting the inner corners with an epicanthoplasty. And of course, they want the ideal "S-line" figure, so they undergo rib removal. In short, the worst parts of an Eli Roth torture-porn are just business as usual for young South Korean women.
Asia News Network
Why do both before and after pics look like desperate cries for help?
Beyond pure culturally imposed vanity, there's another reason so many Koreans spend top dollar to recreate the Clone Wars. There is enormous pressure to compete here in every way. You need to submit personal photos along with every single resume (even for jobs where that shouldn't matter), and those precious, scarce jobs often go to the "prettier" party. To many, plastic surgery isn't done just to look like the Hollywood ideal -- it's considered a sound career move.
Read MJ Stacey's short stories and general musings at http://mjkorea0989.blogspot.kr/. Jason Iannone is a Cracked columnist, freelance editor, and dick joke journalist. He also likes coffee, and whether he meant it in that way or not is left to your sick, perverted imaginations. Let him know what yours dreams up via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and eponymous website.
Now see what South Koreans think about us in 24 Things Other Countries Suspect About Life in America.
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