By Autumn Yates
I grew up idolizing Sarah Connor, and upon moving to South Korea was in a sea of Holly Golightlys. It didn’t help that I’d come woefully unprepared: Egged on by my military father’s stories which painted a picture of rugged mountains and vast rice fields, I hadn’t really considered the modern environment in which I’d be living. Busan, South Korea’s port city is not quite as metropolitan as Seoul, but it was a far cry from the MASH episodes I’d jokingly based my expectations on. I was taking a position as an ESL Teacher, and had picked South Korea because it was completely unknown.
I remember my first day at the hagwon (the name for a Korean private English Language school) felt like that nightmare in which, only after you’ve shown up to a fancy gala does the realization dawn that you’re wearing footie-pajamas. The staff room was bustling with my Korean co-teachers: All women in sky-high heels, micro skirts, immaculate make-up, and flowing hair. As I looked down at my REI issued Adventure Pants, I realized I might have made a mistake. I felt self-doubt creep up my spine and hunch my shoulders. My insecurities weren’t helped by the token Korean bluntness. There, one’s beauty and appearance are openly acknowledged as a commodity that is critical to success in many areas. Additionally, because the ideal is objective and relatively uniform, blunt observations are thought to be helpful, and frequently shared.
“Teacher, your nose is so tall!” was a comment I often heard from my students. Co-teachers asked if I had undergone rhinoplasty to achieve the high-bridged nose that was considered desirable in South Korea, and balked at the idea that it had been the object of much teasing when I was little.
“You have small head, is very good teacher!” was another common observation on my appearance, and as devoted member to the church of Hot Rollers to disguise my child-size hat measurements, this one was never well received.
But despite our differences in beauty standards and their prioritization, my Korean co-teachers were amazing. Over the following months, I came to dub them “The Unicorns” for the graceful femininity that they exuded. Vicky, Sophia, Ray, and Kim were sympathetic emissaries to Korean culture, and would patiently explain the intent and meaning behind some of my more confusing interactions. I found with them a sisterhood that I had yet to experience back home. We examined and questioned each other openly. Because criticisms were not taboo, compliments seemed more earnest (although I could never be truly proud of my tiny head). Before moving overseas, I had viewed beauty as a competition. There could only be one prettiest girl in the room. I had imagined she’d win some sort of prize, but didn’t know what it was, because I’d never even put myself in the running.
In hindsight, as difficult as that initial year in Korea was, it created in me a deep sense of gratitude: I am grateful to have been raised in a culture that strives to celebrate variances in beauty (although there’s still a long way to go), and expression of individuality is seen as strength. However, I’m also forever grateful to the The Unicorns. They taught me to celebrate one another’s beauty, not to tear each other down- and that cargo pants are no more an indicator of internal strength than a lady-like ensemble.I went on to travel and teach for an additional two years, through Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, and even returning to Busan. Doing so taught me many things about community, expression, culture, and friendship. The lesson I most frequently reflect on however, is that any ideal to which I compare myself is arbitrary: The banana-nose that blighted my youth is desirable in Asia. My wide hips that make denim shopping a terror look smashing in saris. Alternatively, the strong legs I’d cultivated from years of jogging were once described as “monstrous!” My epiphany that the desirability of any feature was completely subjective freed me to be happy with all of myself. It also allowed me to let go of the notion that there is a competition. I learned that everyone fits an ideal somewhere, that features are less important than the whole, and that it’s not shameful to be proud of your appearance. And most importantly, that everyone looks good in a sari.