Posts Tagged ‘South Korea’

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

It’s funny how something I see every day here in Korea stirs memories of primary school in England. During that time, my days sitting at the back of the classroom were numbered as it became harder and harder for me to read what the teacher was writing on the board. My difficulties were not really noticed until my first visit to an optometrist. It was there I was diagnosed with mild astigmatism and recommended that I needed aid in the vision department. To me, having my eyesight corrected was nothing short of a miraculous opening up of the world. Suddenly, I could fully enjoy growing up in the heyday of Thundercats, Grotbags, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and other such delights that I considered to be the finer things in life. So, to sport my affections, I chose a pair of tortoise-shell blue frames for my first glasses.

On the sides of these frames were small pictures of the TMHT Raphael (named by a giant talking rat after the famous renaissance painter). However, it was not until I got to school that I realized that whilst many of my fellow pupils shared my love for the four green heroes they did not have the same taste in fashion accessories as I did. Mocking ensued and it was not long before I attempted to scratch off the green turtle with the red bandana. But to no avail. Recklessly uncaring, I played sports with those glasses on, I fought with them on, and they were dropped, thrown, dumped and stepped on during my younger days. Finally it was not my destructive attempts that won me a new pair of sight enhancers but rather they no longer fitted properly. So, they were replaced with a huge pair of eighties’ gigs.

 Then the troubles began. As a ten-year-old of above average-height, the glasses I had to wear were big enough for a giant. Now at middle school, with kids coming into puberty and bigger guys and bullies I was introduced to a whole host of new words; Biggles, four-eyes, geek as well as other equally unimaginative sobriquets. Not surprisingly, this made me angry and more fighting followed.

By the time of grammar school (13-16) I had a reputation for not taking insults lightly but, more importantly, I was more comfortable with myself and I also wore a less confrontational pair of optical aids.

Roll on five years and I start wearing contact lenses and rarely use glasses. Another set of years roll by and I’m here in Korea getting laser eye surgery. Today, I’m looking at this computer screen with better than 20/20 vision.

What does this have to do with Koreans and Korea? Here, every day, I get flashbacks of my early days at school. This sorry condition is brought about by constantly seeing people wear those 80s style glasses as part of their image. Indeed, so desperate are they that many wear just the frames without lenses. They are choosing absurdity purely to be part of the scene. As a kid I don’t believe I ever had a real choice but I quickly discovered the meaning of absurdity and also the troubles that come with it.

© John Brownlie 2011