Every Korean girl I know freaks out about going back to Korea. Some are yuhaksaeng, the Korean born who study, work, and live abroad. Some are like me, American born and returning to Korea for the first or third or one hundredth time. We represent a range of the diaspora, living in various states of exile.
“I’m so ugly,” we sigh, pulling at our faces as we peer at ourselves, our noses close to the mirrors, examining every pore, every hair, every line, imagined or no.
“Oh, I’m so fat,” we moan, pulling at our arms, our thighs, our middles. “I’m going to get an earful. My mother/my grandmothers/my aunties will be so angry that I’m so fat.”
We count calories. We run for miles. We sweat to YouTube workout videos with cheerful, taut-bodied White girls, bouncing up and down, hopped up on endorphins and hairspray. We do snail mucus face masks. We max out credit cards, buy new clothes we can’t afford, even though we know we’ll need to buy more in Korea because people dress better in Korea than in America. Bring some nice clothes.
But it’s too little too late. This is an exercise in futility. We know there isn’t really anything we can do about it. It’s too late.
I’m about to go live in Korea.
The last time I was in Seoul, my uncle took me to brunch at the Ritz-Carlton. I sat gaping over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” He turned around to see.
She could have been eighteen or thirty-eight, it was impossible to tell. Tiny and delicate, her face mummified with huge white bandages, a sling holding up her chin, another thick piece of gauze and metal across the bridge of her nose. At first I thought she was wearing eye shadow until I realized they were bruises. Her eyes were blackened like a prize fighter’s. Her nails were perfectly manicured, a pale blush except for one nail on each hand, encrusted with crystals that sparkled as she daintily held silver tongs, plucking two perfect slices of watermelon from the extravagant buffet table, laden with fruit like jewels, crab legs and roast beef and bacon and eggs and cakes and pastries.
My uncle shrugged, and with a rueful chuckle he said, “It’s shocking, huh? You probably don’t see that in America, do you?” And then, “Welcome to Gangnam.”
The ideal Asian female form and countenance is highly standardized and uniform. We see this ideal across all manner of Asian countries. In a world where medical pilgrimages are made to worship at the temple of manufactured perfection, South Korea is the mecca, the epicenter for cosmetic surgery.
The Gangnam district is one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in Seoul. The hustle, the urgency, the skyscrapers, are so overwhelming they make New York City seem like a backwater, a country town, slow and lumbering when compared to the sleek, modern efficiency of Seoul. Everyone is well dressed, everyone is on a mission, in a hurry. Everyone seems to be moving as fast as they can.
When you emerge from the immaculate subway station, the first thing you notice are the signs. The giant pictures everywhere, above and below ground. Beautiful Korean girls, large eyes, tiny perfect noses, pale translucent skin, pointy chins, glossy hair. Even I can’t tell one from the other, they are so uniformly lovely. I gaze past these images, at the endless signs up and down the sides of these immense buildings. Storefronts advertise plastic surgery procedures, every window a portal to a prettier face, a better body. A better life, a step up the ladder.
A chance to improve one’s destiny.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have double folded eyelids. If you mention double folds to White people, they look at you like you’re crazy.
“What are you talking about,” they ask as they peer closely at your face. “What fold?”
It never bothered me or even occurred to me to notice it until my best friend mentioned it once. She was Korean, too. “Rub your eyes,” she said, miming a finger over her eyelid. “That way your eyes will look bigger.”
I went home and rubbed my eyes and, wouldn’t you know it, it worked. My eyes seemed to double in size. But the trouble was the folds didn’t hold overnight. When I closed my eyes to sleep, they would vanish and I would wake up to the same eyes, now small. I could no longer ignore that my eyes were ugly. To make things worse, the folds were asymmetrical—sometimes one side would hold and the other wouldn’t, giving my face a lopsided look, like a stroke victim.
I learned all of the tricks. I learned to rub my eyes raw and bright red. I would stand in front of my full-length mirror, stomping my feet when the folds didn’t appear, a panicky feeling rising in me as I saw one round eye emerge and one flat one. The best days were when they folded neatly and stayed; on those days, I felt pretty.
I learned about the glues and the sticks to poke the skin back. I learned to cut tiny crescents of scotch tape and sleep with them on, training my face overnight. No more lost hours, these were literal beauty rests. I still travel with a spool of scotch tape in my makeup bag.
“How prepared you are,” people say backstage when their sheet music falls apart, relieved when I hand them the familiar clear tape.
My eyes are now folded. I don’t know if it’s the result of years of scotch tape and willing them to be rounder.
“You had the sanggapul surgery, right?” my female Korean friends ask me.
“No,” I say, and their eyes widen.
“Oh, how lucky you are.”
At Juilliard, a White boy once asked me: “You’ve had that surgery right, the eye one?”
I was unprepared for how to answer—I knew it wasn’t any of his business, but I was blindsided by his question. Years later, I still think about how I was both ashamed to be asked and relieved that I could honestly say no. No, I hadn’t altered my appearance—at least, not to that extent.
Many of my female Korean friends have had the surgery. In Korea, matchmakers demand pictures of their female clients from when they were in elementary school to verify whether their double folds are authentic. I don’t think they ask the same of the men. It used to be that getting sanggapul suseul was a gift your parents gave you as a high school graduation present, with the understanding that college was the most valuable time. The time when you would meet your future husband, so you should be the prettiest you could be. You can tell when they close their eyes; you can see the deep groove where the incisions were made, often they’re still red. Sometimes, drinking brings up the redness.
A tell-tale mark. The permanent scar that makes their eyes round.
An American surgeon, a White man, David Ralph Millard, developed surgical procedures after the Korean War to make Asian eyes rounder, redistributing cartilage to elevate Asian noses. Soon, this surgery was performed on Korean women, war brides and sex workers, stitching up their eyes to make them more appealing to White men.
Known as an upper eyelid blepharoplasty, this procedure is done to reshape the eyelid to create a double fold. It’s the most common cosmetic procedure done in East Asia and in parts of India. And it’s the third most requested aesthetic procedure amongst Asian Americans. This procedure is also one that can be deemed medically necessary, for example, for heavy eyelids that can block vision.
The earliest recorded documentation of this kind of procedure is from 1895, when an unnamed reporter wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the surgery as it then existed in Japan: “In their efforts to acquire recognition in the civilized world, the Japanese have found their greatest barrier in the unmistakable mark of their Mongolian origin. The prejudice against Mongolians is undeniable, and among the Japs, the slanted eye being its only evidence, the curse is being removed.”
About 50 percent of East Asians do have double folds, we insist, so it’s not necessarily that we want to look more White. It’s that we want to look more pretty. We want to be prettier. We aspire to a “universal beauty.”
But what the hell does that even mean? Pretty according to what? According to whom?
The idea of the innocent vixen-lady in the streets, freak in the sheets is even more exaggerated in Korea. Women are infantilized; just take a look at the K-pop girl groups for a glimpse of this distressing message of hypersexualized prepubescence. And across Asian porn is this idealized figure, this woman-child waif who weeps and wails in a performance of protest as she gives in. The man’s role is to push her, to override her protests. Her repeated denials are not meant to be taken seriously, but instead, she is meant to be fetishized. The message is this: the Asian woman’s body is meant to be raped and plundered, her protestations are flimsy and false, her conquest inevitable. It is the man’s role, nay, responsibility, to command the Asian woman, to take over, to pillage and seize what is rightfully his.
I can’t think of a clearer metaphor for the West’s colonization of the East.
One Sunday, when I was small, my mother took me to church alone. A Korean church, where, of course, the congregation whispered and stared at this new parishioner, this young mother with her small daughter. They speculated that my mother had married a White man, the easiest explanation for both the father’s absence and my light brown hair and round eyes. A White husband would also explain other invented stories in their minds: that my mother was a single mother—unusual even in 1980’s America and a scandal in Korea—and a White man would have likely been a GI during the war and my mother would have been from a poor background, because everyone knows that only prostitutes or poor girls married White soldiers as a way to get out of Korea, to escape poverty or a bad family, or even worse, a broken hymen.
They invented a whole narrative, based on my face, my hair, my skin, my small body.
So, the next Sunday, when my mother returned with my father holding my other hand as we walked into the church, the hostile, suspicious congregants gave a collective sigh of relief.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” they greeted our young family differently this time, with respectful bows, a full ninety degrees from the waist instead of the insolent head bobs of the week before, and warm smiles, the women bustling around my mother and me, the men slapping my father on the shoulder. The fact of my parentage—Korean on both sides—transformed my light hair and round eyes.
“How pretty,” the church parishioners cooed at me, stroking my hair that glinted nearly blond in the light as I stared up at them with my eyes, round as coins. To have a fully Korean baby who looked like she could be part-White: what had been tainted the week before, was, this Sunday, my family’s great good fortune.
In the years following the Korean War, South Korea was swept up in “American fever,” which peaked in the decades of the 1970’s and 80’s, a cultural tsunami that infiltrated and watered the underlying cultural beliefs of the country. The ongoing and substantial US military presence in South Korea gave rise to the idealization of all things American, this belief that America was powerful, wealthy, and modern. Superior.
The brutal years of Japanese occupation, and then the devastation of the Korean War, a “forgotten” war, overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War, a war of containment that the US implemented as its Cold War privilege in its ongoing battle to beat back communism. It left the country literally broken, divided in half. Korea, 4 million dead, war-torn and impoverished, looked to America and Americans as an example to be emulated.
After all, Korea relied completely on America for what remained of its economy. Why would I want to be Korean—small, pathetic, impoverished, sitting bewildered in the rubble of a war-torn country, with nothing to eat or wear, no future to hope for—if I could be American, walking its streets paved of gold?
America as pathological liar.
I wonder if this is where it really began, this elevation of Whiteness in the Korean psyche. Is this a dot on the timeline of the toxic obsession with Westernized beauty that continues to dictate and oppress Korean women? Is this how we learned to despise our own culture and aesthetics in favor of chasing after Whiteness, the all-American beauty? And perhaps it makes sense.
After all, if the land of your birth is also the foundation of your trauma and pain, where the very intergenerational inheritance is one of self-loathing, oppression, and colonization, of course then, it makes sense. I, too, would reject myself in order to strive for the other, so that I might have a fighting chance in a world that I’ve learned, generation after generation, will always forsake me.
If I am perfect enough, good enough, maybe then I don’t have to grieve. Maybe I can be perfect enough that I won’t have to look back. If I’m perfect, if I’m beautiful, then maybe I can stop running, stop chasing so hard.
Maybe then I can finally rest.
In Korean there’s this way of saying, my heart aches too much so I cannot express it. Wordless heartache. A heartache so big that it catches in my throat and I cannot speak it.
When I am in Korea, I feel a peculiar longing, this strange feeling of, oh, this is almost it. This is almost belonging. This is almost beautiful. I am almost home, but not quite.
I think of the ways my parents don’t belong anywhere. The Korea they left no longer exists, philosophically and even geographically, and so there is no way to return.
And what is returning, homecoming, homegoing, really? Is it actually possible?
And I think about the ways America will never be home either, not for me or for my parents. How assimilation is both impossible and entirely too costly.
Because to assimilate would mean to disappear, to sound and look and act so White that our Koreanness would no longer exist. And the material impossibility of this; after all, no amount of plastic surgery will ever make me White.
And I think of all the Korean parents who deliberately never taught their children Korean, fearing that their children might have an accent, might not sound American enough. How we relinquished our identities in the hopes for a better future. And how this created yet another loss, another chasm there, between generations and culture and language, separating all of us.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, writer, and educator. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is the host and producer of an original podcast called, “Is it Recess Yet? Confessions of a Former Child Prodigy.” Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. She is a Juilliard graduate and received her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2021, Tricia was awarded a Fulbright Grant to Seoul, Korea, where she worked on a literary and musical project. Her writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and F Newsmagazine. She was also a finalist for contests in C&R Press and The Rumpus. Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Currently, Tricia is Associate Director of Cleaver Magazine Workshops where she is also a Creative Non Fiction editor and faculty instructor, teaches for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and maintains a private studio of violin students and writing clients.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #34.