Living in Korea has really had an effect on me, one I didn’t realize until recently. There I was, riding the elevator up into the fifth floor, where our school is, and everyone in the elevator – myself included – is not looking at each other, no, we are all gazing at our own images in the mirrored walls of the elevator.
Before Korea (hereafter referred to as B.K.), the first time I looked in a mirror all day was when I caught an accidental glimpse of myself in a store window. Even when I first got here, I rarely looked in the mirror before leaving for work. But people here put so much care in their appearance that it started to wear off on me. My female coworkers are always impeccably dressed despite the fact that they have to chase after small children all morning. They still wear high heels and miniskirts to work. Now, I spend a good long time every morning fixing my appearance before I even leave the house. I have even taken to carrying a mirror with me wherever I go.
In the time B.K., my makeup bag consisted of eyeliner, some foundation and occasionally eye shadow. Three items. I now have two (2) makeup bags, neither of which can close properly because they are too full. This is partly because I have been given a lot of makeup by the parents of my students (I can just imagine that conversation at home:
Mother: What is Emily Teacher like?
Student: Well, she doesn’t wear makeup. Like, not at ALL.
Mother: That POOR GIRL. She can’t even afford makeup! I must give her some!)
But it is also partly because of the fact that I am becoming rather vain. The problem is compounded by the fact that the makeup I came with, bought when I had been living in Florida for most of the year, now is too dark for my pale skin. In Korea, paleness is to be desired and I’m pretty sure the skin products here all contain some sort of whitening agent (again, this would not have been a problem B.K. because I never used ‘skin products’). This plus the effects of the hideously long winter have made me so very pale. So pale that I can now use Korean makeup. My new vain self doesn’t know how to feel about this, as I have been raised with the notion that a tan is healthy. But here, it’s like having face cancer. I’ve seen women use honest-to-god sun umbrellas, or, if they are not available, any non-translucent object – including their own children – to avoid the toxic rays of the sun.
In the same way American women are obsessive about their weight, Korean women are obsessive about their skin.
Some of this change in my attitude is a good thing. I am the first to admit that I could take a little more care in my appearance. But a lot of it I would do well to leave behind when I go. Maybe I can have a ritualized burning of my second cosmetic bag. My friends and I could use the extra makeup as warpaint to accompany the bonfire.