Plastic Surgery & Absent Childhoods

Disclaimer: My last post left everyone with the promise of more frequent updates. . . ooops. Hear me out readers, I fully intended to divulge all of the experiences I have had and expose the juicy “secrets” about Korean society that my students told me. However, I found myself caught in an (internet-less) weekend trip which left me with little time to post when I got back (had to plan out that week’s class schedule/plans) followed by weekdays spent with said students even after classes were done for the day (I’m too popular I suppose). Nevertheless I’m free now so prepare yourselves to hear some amazing tales of . . . well read the title of the post. . . HERE WE GO. . . .

In one of the many meetings outside of the classroom with my wonderful students, we were in a coffee house when I noticed that a woman was wearing a surgical mask and sunglasses. Thinking little of it, I casually point her out to my students saying “oh, she must feel sick.” “No,” my students replied, “she just had plastic surgery.” Surprised, I asked my students how they knew, to which they replied that the attire of a surgical mask and large sunglasses usually indicated that someone was recovering from surgery. This seemed strange because to me this woman looked no older than 25, an opinion which I quickly voiced. “Ah,” my students said almost in unison “most people here get ‘the’ surgery done here around university age or younger” and by “the surgery” my students informed me that they were referring to “double eye-lid surgery.” My students briefly explained that Western/large eyes are coveted by many Koreans (yes, I’ve been told that gentlemen sometimes get the same procedure done) and it has become an almost customary “graduation gift” from parents to children to have the procedure done (my students have informed me that it is quite cheap and from what I’ve seen there is no shortage of plastic surgeons here). The exact steps in the procedure are unknown to me (perhaps some research shall be done), but the gist is incisions are made on both eyelids and “brow fat” is removed to create an extra layer of skin that resembles Western eyelid creases (resulting in the much-coveted “larger eyes”). I can’t help but think how strange it is that a significant percentage of people my age (my students estimated that 1 out of 5 Koreans have had this procedure, and they thought they were underestimating, especially with larger cities such as Seoul) have gone under the knife to alter their appearance; usually you hear about 40-somethings trying to keep up their youthful appearances, but from what I have heard/experienced, the “surgery craze” is about the population conforming to a idealized beauty that seeks a “Western standard.”

To summarize the “surgery craze” my students told me a (supposedly popular) joke:
“Every woman in Gangnam (Soho-like area of Seoul, also the inspiration of PSY’s catchy tune) looks identical because they’ve all gone to the same doctor.”


Above: A sign for one of the many plastic surgery offices that clutter the streets of Gagnam (L); underground/subway shopping venues where you can easily haggle a ₩10,000/$10 shirt down to ₩5,000/$5 (R)

The final topic of this post is one that still astounds me: the work ethic that the students of South Korea must exhibit while in high school. When I asked my students the hours of their typical school day in high school they told me “7am to 10”. As in 10 pm.  Might I also add that many students here apparently can sign up for additional “study school” after they are dismissed at 10 pm. They eat all meals at school, to which I asked if their parents missed them while they (my students) were at school. Their response? “A little, but they knew it was necessary to get into University.” With hours like these, I asked my students if they had any comments about Western schooling systems to which one of my (quite insightful) students responded in a heartbreaking manner “when I watched Western shows as a kid and saw slumber parties and playing in the front yard, I felt envious because I knew that the childhood those children had would be one I would never experience.” Cue the foreigner tearing up in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. It is a strange thing to acknowledge as something that is a cultural “privilege,” but I have discovered a tremendous amount of gratitude for the free time (however sparse I thought it was back then) that I enjoyed after school between dinner and bedtime. How strange are the things we come to appreciate when we are away from home? Nonetheless, Korea has not ceased to amaze me, and I cannot wait to discuss topics I used to consider “normal/average/not worth discussing” all the while continuing my enjoyment in experiencing the uniqueness that is Korean culture.

Wonderful (and Odorless) Students

My first week teaching English to college students at Dankook University (as part of my 3 week internship that precedes my 4 week academic program) has been nothing short of an amazing and enlightening experience. I teach from 9 to 4 in two-hour blocks. Each two hour block ends with a new rotation of students who I have already grown to respect immensely. Not only are they dedicated and respectful to me (even if some are a few years my senior thanks to the Korean age system), but they are so enthusiastic in ensuring that I enjoy my stay in Korea. While we are encouraged to meet with our students outside of class (for dinner, shopping, bowling, etc; it is up to the students and teacher what activity they will do) at least once during the 3-week English Village program, already I have seen most of my students 3 times to search for local hot spots. Essentially, as eager as I am to teach them about American culture (amongst other things in class such as complex grammar rules, colloquialisms, how to order in an English-speaking restaurant, etc), they are eager to indulge my silly-Western requests to eat kimbap or samgyeopsal nearly every day.

  • Photo of some of my fantastic students and I along with my equally-wonderful co-teacher (to the far left; each teacher is assigned a partner teacher that has their class combine with yours for group activities)

While my students are in every way shape and form superb learners (in fact, they’re superb people), their is one major difference that I still cannot fathom. Despite the constant 85+ degree weather, my students do not sweat nor do they wear deodorant NOR do they smell in 90 degree heat with 100% humidity. Pure insanity is what I would say that situation is. In fact, while I brought 3 travel-size sticks of deodorant, I asked my students where I could find more (at the time I had yet to stumble across any in any of the convenient stores that are a staple in Jukjeon). The look of puzzlement that most of my male students gave me told me everything: I need to ransack all of Korea to find deodorant for less than $8 (which I saw in one of the mega-stores,shoved in a dark corner like a black-market item).

But there is an upside to the extreme heat: delicious, cold, summer treats with the favorite being “patbingsu.” Patbingsu is shaved ice with ice cream, typically fruit (or sweet red beans). I better watch out for the “freshmen 15 version 2.0/ version Korea,” because I have yet to encounter a food here that I would not eat incessantly.

I will post more often from now on, with my next topic being the fascinating exchanges I have had with my students (whom, despite still being English learners, as absolutely eloquent in expressing their opinions on hot-button topics).

051003 Left: My high-tech podium in my classroom, complete with a hidden computer.
Right: Patbingsu (a “brunch” variation, with corn flakes, mochi, bananas, cashews, shaved ice, and ice cream).

First Impressions and “Seoul Searching”






The 14 hour flight to Korea was surprisingly short; I was able to sleep at least half the way, and it was super comfortable. If only. . . In all seriousness the flight crew was extremely polite, and once we touched down immigration/security were accommodating and helpful in getting me to the meeting area that Dankook had established. Getting in around 430, I found the welcoming committee (around ten Dankook students who, thankfully, were fluent in English). Although we had to wait for other flights (some of which had been delayed an hour or two) and got to the campus around 830, I had a surprising amount of energy (despite little sleep on the plane) and a group of fellow students (around 8 in total, myself included) went off to explore the town, the size of which I would compare to Syracuse (a bit more compact). Although none of us had an appetite at the time, we did manage to sample some of the convenient store snacks (7-Elevens in Korea have some really interesting options for food).

Day 2 and the morning of Day 3 were reserved for orientation, but several groups decided to venture out to Seoul. First of all, the public transportation buses have features that you would find in “charter buses”: nice seats, televisions (nice flatscreens at that), window curtains, and controllable air conditioning. The ride was roughly 35-40 minutes, and soon we found ourselves in Myeong-dong (a section of Seoul that I would say is a miniature and again, compact, Times Square). Food (both in restaurants and street vendors) was delicious and fabulously inexpensive; the photo of food shows a meal that I purchased for only 8,000 won which would equate to around $7.50. I was also brave enough to try a packet of dried/roasted squid,which coincidentally is now my favorite street food (so far).

Restaurants in Jukjeon have been very patient (so far) in helping the foreigner students in deciphering the few menus that don’t have pictures/ Romanized spelling of items (which for the most part are cognates of American food). A key difference here that I have noticed is while the food is very spicy (which back home I can handle without a problem), the meat is almost always sweet. It was quite a surprise when I bit into “Koreanized” fried chicken and found that the meat was neither savory nor salty. As a “foodie” however, I am quite excited to discover more novel flavors!

Tomorrow I begin teaching Korean college students, so stay tuned, I will report back soon on my progress!

Korean phrases I’ve learned so far: Hello, Thank You, Goodbye, and “Can I have a water please” (the food is SUPER spicy, and yet sweet at the same time)

Photos: The view of Jukjeon (town where Dankook University is located) from the top of campus;  Delicious Bibimbap; view of Myeong-dong; Statue of Dankook’s mascot.