So after school I walk into the store across the street, and one kid jokes, “hey, this store is for students!” I go in to buy a snack and pass a bunch of boys sitting at a table. As I’m looking at the junk food, I hear one of them say, “The English teacher just came in. Oh my God, she’s so beautiful.” And others are agreeing.
This estimation of late (from many of the students, from the principal, from some male teachers, from females at the English Club people, etc.) has me both feeling perplexed and also really great. Are they just being nice? Is it just because their vocabulary doesn’t have in-between words? Is it just code for ‘she’s so different?’??
As a teenager, I always said to myself, “I’m not ugly. Why am I not more popular?” It seemed pointless at the time to even try. It’s not that I wanted to look white, either. It’s just that I felt it was really UNFAIR that I couldn’t possibly make the grade because I was measured by a different yardstick, just like I thought it sucked that war vets always made a bee-line to talk to me, when they of course didn’t do that to my white girlfriends. I always wondered how I would have been viewed if I grew up with other Asians. I hated being the only Asian. I hated my fat eyelids with no creases. I hated how makeup had to be impossibly perfect due to this lack of complexity, and how I couldn’t wear it like everyone else, because my eyelids would give me linebacker smudges under my eyes. I haven’t looked in a mirror much since.
So what is this – this sudden being superficially appreciated by Koreans? (at the same time not being able to have conversations with any of them) I look around, and I am NOT the standard of beauty here. I am FAR from perfect. I am short, (height is the holy grail here) dark-skinned, (whiteness is high class) have freckles, (flawless skin is a must) and DON’T wear make-up, (occasionally eye liner or occasionally transparent lip color) and have a slightly crooked, down-ward turning mouth.
I STILL wonder what it would have been like growing up here. When I was 17, freckle-less, and a size 0…
Lately, I’ve been looking in the mirror trying to figure this out, why suddenly overnight I am thought of as beautiful. And all I see is this big huge spot. The one that appeared after my trip to Jamaica.
If that wasn’t there, then maybe I could accept this.
Back at Baekyoung…
“Gladiator” comes to school one day, his face covered in scabs. Young-a teases him unmercifully, calling him Spot. “Hey Spot! Tell Leanne why you have spots today! Tell her! Tell her!!!” I can see him starting to boil. (he’s called ‘gladiator’ because he never speaks, but has been known to fight like a gladiator when pushed) She informs me he went to have his dark spots removed, and I remember that yes, indeed, his face had been a mine-field of scarring and dark spots prior to the procedure. She teases him all through lunch, but has lost interest by the following day.
A few days later, his scabs gone, gladiator’s dark spots had almost all disappeared. It really was quite amazing. He looked wonderful, brighter, happier!
My spot drives me INSANE. Since coming to Korea, I’ve been on t.v. umpteen times, in print,and have had to have portraits taken (which I always avoided successfully my whole life until coming here) and every time that damn spot just makes my whole face look strangely dirty. Precisely because I DON’T wear makeup, it’s also not going to get covered up. I don’t mind my large forehead mole, the freckles and age spots I’ve gotten over the years: for the most part I like them, especially the freckles, which I think are cute. (despite the many instances of men putting women down for their freckles I’ve seen in Korean movies) But this sun spot thing the size of a dime occupies just too much real estate prominently on my face. For three years, it’s been driving me crazy, this looking dirty all the time.
No, I didn’t photo myself, but here are some photos of others who had similar spots to mine: (taken from http://www.ilovebeauty.asia/skin/eng/ilove/ilove_03_2.asp)
What are Black Spots?
Black Spots are the brown flat results of pigmentation that occur from too much exposure to the sun that leads to an increase in pigment cells. These spots can be easily mistaken for melasma.
I decided it had to go. I did a little research, found a clinic that spoke English, and called for an appointment. For three days I fretted about the sheer expense and vanity of going to a skin (pibo) doctor (kwa) for something totally unnecessary. And I’ve never been to an aesthetician (wait. I did go once: I had one free facial when I was in hair school) or dermatologist in my life, and I don’t wear makeup and am not constantly mirror-checking, and I’m not vain. I’m not vain. I’m not vain…
The dermatology clinic is in Apgujeong, which is the center of vanity in Seoul.
Apgujeong is an up-scale area catering to the well-heeled. It’s famous for its expensive salons and boutiques, its plastic surgery, and the night clubs (booking clubs) with the most eligible (read: wealthiest) clientele. As such, I’d avoided it and never been there before. And yet had a lovely time, because: the scale of the buildings is accessible, the buildings are very tasteful, the streets are calm, the apartments feel like real residences and have character, and there are many sidewalk cafe tables out – even the 7-11 is more gracious here. No wonder the rich live here…I suppose it’s like window shopping…too much can make you miserable…but it’s a nice breath of fresh air from the crush of metropolitan Seoul to go and visit.
As I walk towards the clinic, I see several women with those little tiny flesh-colored spot bandages coming out of the building. They’re to dry up a blemish without leaving a scar, (when I first got to Korea I thought women were just covering up their pimples with bandages and I couldn’t figure out how having something as obvious as a bandage stuck on your face could possibly be more preferable than the pimple) and Miwha told me those cost 10,000 won a piece. So she and her two girls probably dropped at least 60,000 won just for their one trip to the dermatologist.
So I went to the clinic and stopped into their restroom first, at which point I almost turned around when I saw how lavish the bathroom was: we got our own one-use real finger towels and washlet toilet seats. Was this where my money was being spent? But forward I walked, to hit a wall covered with famous celebrities and Korean personalities who’d been there. Great. I had to tell myself that up until treatment, I can always turn around and leave. Instead, I check in and read their promotional literature and realize I am sitting in what is part of Korea’s burgeoning “medical tourism” industry. I had previously convinced myself that seeing a dermatologist was somehow separate and above all of that cosmetic surgery stuff, but here I was – about to undergo a procedure based only upon vanity in the center of the vain world / a destination spot for tourists with big egos and too much money.
The consultation with the doctor was odd. He seemed bored the entire time. His speaking English was only medium level, though it was obvious his comprehension was stellar. The technique I had read about, the Lumenis One IPL, (Intense Pulsed Light treatments) that showed no effects immediately after, also cost a fortune. (well, to me. It also takes 3 to 5 treatments, and it already costs a fortune. Later I found a place in Daejon that will do this procedure for 1/4th the price) Not only that but it was designed to take care of larger regions, and despite their suggestions to get rid of my freckles, my insistence to only take care of the one spot meant I would be using the previous technology which, like gladiator’s procedure, would leave a scab for several days. But – it only cost $100 for this, so I figured that was totally worth it, compared to the daily irritation of living with the spot these past three years. (and the huge expense of the other treatment) But, I also elected to have many of my blackheads removed, so it ended up being pretty expensive after all. The guy got a little more animated after I noticed a photo of Hundertwasser’s housing cooperative and started talking about his art. I figure it’s always a good idea to have someone about to cut you with a laser to at least have some good feelings about you before hand…
After the consultation, I got escorted to an accountant’s office and they called an interpreter, to make sure I understood what the diagnosis, recommendations, expectations, and fees were. I am told 70% of the dark spot will be gone, but I must come back for the rest another visit, and that it will be half the price. Then, they asked me when I’d washed my face last and I told them, “this morning.” “What time? ” “6 am” At which they all gasped. (???) So they hustled me off to have my face cleaned by an aesthetician prior to having an antibiotic/anesthetic applied to the spot area for 20 minutes.
The blackhead removal procedure would be first, which was a combination vacuum/light machine called PPx. First, a wand is pressed against your face, at which the doctor turns on the suction. * Remove, reposition, turn on the suction, repeat from * across. Then, about five minutes later, he has you close your eyes and then he repeats the same procedure, except instead of suction there is a blast of light…and a light smell of burning flesh…Afterward, they put a gauze soaked with (probably) witch hazel over the area and I napped a couple minutes.
I had to move to another room for the spot removal and as I was laying down on the bed, I was given eye protective cups like the kind used in a tanning booth. “This will be very painful.” he said. BUT it wasn’t at all. It felt like he was drawing line after line with a knife, though the flashes of light reassured me that it wasn’t. I imagine it’s much like what getting a tattoo filled or removed feels like. But I’m a tough broad and it didn’t bother me at all. The slight smell of burning flesh is a bit gross though. Less than ten minutes later, the aesthetician covers the wound with a clear protective barrier and then starts putting on a lot of different creams. I am told she has put on UV protection, BB cream (omg – skin whitening cream. I suppose one application won’t turn me into a ghost) and spot cover-up. She tries to give me (probably sell me) the cover-up for my freckles/age spots, and I tell her I don’t want it and she is totally surprised when I reject it. They’re like hair-dressers. You tell them you hate product, and then they slap as much as they can on you before they’ll let you out the door…
I stop and buy an ice-cream, sit at some cafe seating, and people watch. A woman walks past with a half-face flesh-colored neoprene mask to cover her recent plastic surgery. This must be a common sight here.
As I write this, I am looking at all of the other female Korean teachers in the office, and 7 out of 9 of them wear make-up. It’s hard to tell, because the use of eye shadow is minimized here or used only at night. The number one thing used is foundation, foundation, and more foundation. Then eye liner and eyebrow pencil. It really does look nice from a distance. But me, my skin crawls just THINKING about wearing that stuff, and it’s a good thing the job with the V.P. of the major corporation didn’t work out, because the three times I had to wear full makeup nearly drove me crazy. And what a hassle every morning and evening. And that’s why I chose to do this. Because I want to be hassle free and I don’t want to have to put on makeup, and yet I still don’t want my face to perpetually have a shadow across it.
At school the next day, everyone wonders why I have the big spot (scab) on my face. I don’t know if it’s because here in the country nobody would think of spend money on something like that, or because I should have bought a flesh-colored bandage to cover my clear bandage, or if they think I’m shameless for not hiding that I did something elective to myself, or what. I get the feeling it’s not approved, even though we’re in Korea, the facial cosmetic surgery capital of the world, even though I didn’t get surgery (I don’t think…hmm…did I?) One more day before I can remove the protective cover and a few more days before I can see how light the spot area is. Thank God Young-A is not here to tease me.
I hope it looks good enough to warrant all this self-questioning of my own values…and would I have ever even considered this if I wasn’t in Korea?