It’s early morning. As the sun creeps over the horizon I am dressed and walking as people around me sleep. The eerie stillness of dawn is broken by a 50-year-old woman clad in bright pink jogging around the nearby playground. As she makes her approach to the swings, feeling eyes upon her, she turns to stare at me. Ignoring the glare I walk onwards to the bus stop.

Koreans care for their image. Walking down a high street you will see brands plastered over the citizens who have opted to buy luxury brands with their hard-earned cash. 

As a westerner it is an unwritten requirement that you fulfil a certain English-speaker stereotype. This manifestation must preferably have white skin, be born in a country with English as the native tongue and ideally have blonde hair and blue eyes. In a similar fashion, Koreans also have certain physical features that are appreciated and sought after by their compatriots.

Samsung (Group) is accountable for about one fifth of Korea’s exports. The company itself was founded in 1938 by Lee Byung-Chull and he built his empire firmly on three main factors: market, management and people. He was a pioneer in hiring staff, choosing a psychologist as his consultant rather than a business specialist. It was also his belief that the human face was an open book to that person’s life and personality. He believed this so strongly that only those prospective employees with certain defining facial features would be hired. This unusual method of selection has become ingrained into Samsung’s recruitment process. Although perhaps not as strictly applied, it would appear that this reliance on looks is part of Korean culture.

When applying for a job in Korea, native applicants must provide everything from their social status to a recent photograph. Date of birth, experience, qualifications and references are also necessary. In addition to all this, the strangest piece of information required is details of the applicant’s parents. Curriculum vitae must include your parents’ social and employment status and failure to do so will void your application. And if your parents were unsuccessful in life, regardless of how many qualifications you have, you may well be discriminated against.

But there’s much more to be taken into consideration if you are fortunate enough to get to the interview stage at Samsung. At this mighty company you will be met by the interviewers and a ‘face reader’. The ‘reader’ is there to provide ‘expert’ opinion on the applicant’s face. Such features as the eyebrows and how far apart they are, the shape of the nose and the size of the nostrils, the regularity of the teeth and even the plumpness of the lips. Lacking the prescribed aesthetics, you are likely to be shunned.

Plastic surgeons have capitalized on this and the market has expanded, with many Koreans making the decision to go under the knife in an attempt to change their appearance as a means of upgrading themselves in the recruitment process.

It is common practice for women to have their cheekbones raised to finish up with a look closely resembling a triangle. Also, a more widespread operation is to insert a crease on the eyelids to give the impression of larger and shapelier eyes. This kind of surgery is well-established across Asia – as it estimated that about 50% of Asians are born with a ‘single eyelid’ (whereas most Caucasians are born with a ‘double eyelid’).

As with any surgery, there can be complications. For instance, a faulty operation could disfigure the face by leaving unsightly scars or actually deform the facial structure. However, the risk appears to be the same as in any developed nation. It is just that the deemed necessity to go to such extreme measure is so much more generally accepted, and expected, than in the West.

So does this drastic approach work? Yes, sadly it does. Plastic surgery is changing the rules of the game and if you can afford a procedure then it can give your career a well-needed boost.

Soon we shall see a people with a crisis of identity – a people with only one.

© John Brownlie 2011

Finally, spring has sprung and we no longer have to wear our entire wardrobe before braving the outside world. These past few weeks have seen some glorious spring days with temperatures over 16°C. As the buds begin to open and the blossoms begin to bloom we prepare ourselves for the unbearably hot, sticky summer in the concrete urban jungle.
Meanwhile, the next few cooler spring months are welcoming after the torturously barbaric winter. It was during this weather transition that I was introduced to a strange Korean custom. Travelling shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers in a moving airless box is already uncomfortable, but when you add heat into the equation you get meals on wheels. You would think that opening a window to let a breeze in and the air circulate is a completely natural
reaction. However, keeping a window open as a bus makes its approach to a tunnel creates an awkward atmosphere. Almost perfectly synced it is like observing some ancient ritualistic tradition as the click of locking windows is heard around the bus.

Should one window be open, mad hysteria ensues. People work together in an effort to close it; bodies move and invade personal space whilst attempting to reach their goal. I was blissfully unaware of this tradition and almost made a 16-stone (224lbs) man cry as I fought with him to keep my window open. Sadly, the whiney voice that came out of the mouth of this mature man in his mid-30s was too much for me. It was a sound that reminded me of a half-dead animal, whimpering to be put out of its misery. Pity and weariness took over and for the next peaceful thirty seconds the window remained closed.

When my stop came up, I fiendishly made sure to open the window before I left the bus. As I walked away, I couldn’t help feeling perplexed by the whole fraught experience. I thought why do South Koreans react in this way? Was their some arcane science that passengers would be sucked from the bus as it reached high speed in a tunnel? Could the wind cause uncontrollable resistance to the degree that the bus driver could do nothing to avoid a crash, with the hope that the passengers would survive?

I could not fathom any reasonable explanation for this bizarre ingrained behaviour. After some detective work I found that the Koreans are fearful of the toxic fumes thriving in the tunnel and that inhalation could potentially be fatal.

My girlfriend told me of another false belief currently circulating. With Seoul being 700 miles from Tokyo, concerns about radioactivity have been in the news. Apparently, one questionable way to stop the radiation is to ingest some salt as doing so will offer protection from radioactive iodine. Unfortunately, the large amount of iodised salt (at least 1.5 kg) needed to bring about this ‘protection’ would be enough to put the believer into intensive care, or worse.

Another protective notion relating to radiation and that is actually instructed by her school is to shut all the windows to keep the radiation from entering the building. I’m not a scientist, but if glass had the capability to stop radiation wouldn’t it have made sense for the Japanese to have built a glass nuclear reactor? Whether or not my partner’s co-workers and students had complete faith in the protection of glass I don’t know, but I do know that they became increasingly disgruntled as they slowly suffocated in their ‘radiation-free’ classroom.

So if you don’t want to cause offence in Korea – don’t open a window.

© John Brownlie 2011

See  Death by Fan for another strange belief.