Growing up, I remember telling my mother, “All Asians look alike.” I’d draw attention to our flat noses and single-lid eyes, all which made her infuriated. We’d travel to church, to the shop, out in the community and down the East Coast on family trips, all the while I remember spotting these ‘look-alikes’ and our cookie-cutter features. I recall silently trying to place them into a certain ‘box’: Chinese, Korean or Japanese, based on how they dressed and their physique. While my own curiosity led to questions with few answers, I entertained myself with this activity, making unsupported observations that I am now embarrassed about. My only significant reference were adoptees from Korea, which probably guided my misinformed and biased opinions. Yet at the age of 8 or 9, my world was small and did not extend far outside a community of Caucasians. As an adopted Korean growing up in a Caucasian family in a predominantly Caucasian-filled community, I actually took every opportunity I could get away with to not ‘look Korean’. I dyed my hair as blond as it could go without bleach (which meant turning it an original shade of orange-yellow), attempted Kool-Aid for the red-hightlights, and adorned myself with multi-piercings (ear and otherwise) that are now slowly being removed based on my own assertion that “I’m getting old.”
Now I remember stating this comment many times throughout my childhood, and my mom always responded with the same unquestioning, “No they’re not!” At that time I thought it was just parental love consuming her strong reaction; now, having traveled throughout the region, exploring my own identity and the uniqueness of others in which I’ve felt a closer kinship, I realized she was right. We don’t all look alike and Asian features vary by country, by region and for other social factors we learn about just through living or Sociology 101. At least that’s what it’s like when we’re born – free of hair treatment or hair-dye, and body mutilation through piercings and tattoos. But now many are choosing otherwise, seeking a ‘beauty’ resembling a mass ideal and one that could lead to a shift in a culture’s idea of what’s beautiful, desired and ultimately, how a population is choosing to represent themselves.
Recently featured in The New York Times is an article titled, “Ethnic Differences Emerge in Plastic Surgery,” reporting the growing trend toward different ethnic groups receiving plastic surgery specific to their ethnicity, while also transforming themselves to meet a similarity specific to the culture they’ve assimilated into. Dominicans and Latinas seek a silhouette defined by larger breasts and a curvaceous figure; Asians going for double-eyelids, slimming jawlines or larger earlobes. Italians, Russians, and Irish are also reported to be undergoing the knife to conform to what’s considered ‘American ideals’ in an urban space that is largely immigrant – New York City. As quoted in the article, “Everyone in New York is some sort of immigrant…they’re just doing it to feel good.” Yes, I believe it’s important to ‘feel good’, and that having self-confidence and self-respect may be linked to one’s perception of their appearance, but is feeling good, fitting in and assimilating now represented by a similar style of eyes, ears, knees and breasts as the one sitting next to you? If you attended elementary school in North America, and even if you didn’t, I think most of us remember learning that America is a melting pot of cultures. The idea of people coming from India, from Australia, from Morocco and Peru, all with a different way of representing themselves, left an image in my mind of differently sized and shaped people, dressed in a mosaic of fabrics, colored by their various religions, interests and livelihoods. So what happened? Who do we want to look like? How are we choosing to represent ourselves?
I asked myself these two latter questions quite frequently during my year long sojourn in Korea in 2009. It was my first time living among a sea of people whom I supposedly held a physical connection – same eyes, same mouth, same color hair…right? Before commencing this trip, numerous Korean-Americans in New York told me, “They’ll know you’re not Korean. You have short funky hair. And piercings. And your style of dress is different!” I brushed this comment aside, perhaps revisiting my old adage “we all look alike”, and thought I’d blend into the community like hot dog vendors on the sidewalks of Manhattan, or hipsters in Williamsburg. While I can’t say for a fact that I fell unidentifiable like an oasis in a desert, I can say that I did feel out of place at times. Perhaps it was my subconscious telling me my Korean-American friends were right, or maybe I exuded mannerisms and behaviors atypical of a local. Yes I wore bright colors on occasion and I looked people directly in the eye when speaking. Were these clear indicators exposing my foreignness? Should I have opted for darker clothes and longer hair? When living outside of a context in which one is familiar and comfortable, many seek to blend into their environment. I think it’s human nature. Think about it: if you’re working in a company or at a school and knew for a fact that everyone was coming to work tomorrow wearing pajamas, would you risk being the odd one out and wear your typical business or professional attire, or don your blue-striped bottoms and mismatched eight year old alma-mater t-shirt?
Maybe similar to the needs of those individuals reported in the article, I too was looking for a way to blend in during my adolescence. I recall requesting colored contacts, blue specifically, and to my mom’s better judgment (though at the time I had to disagree), this was as far as her tolerance could be tested and my brown-eyes remained. During my year in Korea though I was exposed to this desire, this physical wanting for sameness. Fashion and appearance were just two of many facets where individual A could be a near mirror-image of individual B, and it would be respected and socially-accepted. Trying to look different, or separate yourself from a sea of dark-haired, glasses-wearing individuals was not. Korean culture specifically is strongly bound by the idea of community and not upsetting the majority. If the masses want to eat Ddakgalbi instead of Makguksu, follow the crowd and keep your desires silent. If the crowd wants big, bright-eyes like Lee Hyeori mentioned in the article, follow Ms. Lee and get them. People are.
I suppose what this article sparked in me was sadness, a brief instance of despondence, yet more realistically, the idea that being accepted or part of a group may guide people’s decisions which result in what is my opinion, superficial thinking. I look at my friends, my family, and my community – when I ride the subway into and out of Brooklyn I sometimes casually glance at the people I share a train car with and quietly celebrate our differences and the fact that such varied backgrounds can meet and live on common ground. Prior to leaving Korea it was one of the reasons I voiced for wanting to return – the culturally-rich neighborhoods, diversity brimming from the bodega on every block and the opportunity to reinvent oneself however one wanted because god knows New York City aspires to meet the needs of all. And this is where I met a challenge in Asia, I didn’t feel comfortable doing this because as the article somewhat concludes, “You want to be part of the acceptable culture and the acceptable ethnicity, so you want to look more Westernized.” Well, in my case in Korea, I looked Korean superficially and to look otherwise would be…well, strange. It was there I met the identity crossroads and questioned where I felt I could be…me.
This article doesn’t say everyone aspires to carry the features of their neighbor next door, as many strive not to and consciously work toward developing their own style. But it does make claims that there is a desire to fit in, physically-speaking. While I appear to lean toward arguing for greater physical diversity vs. plastic surgery to acquire the eyes or breasts of a specific culture, I ultimately wish people would be comfortable with themselves, their dress, their appearance, in whatever nation-state they’re in. I understand that’s easier said than done and sometimes, some circumstances warrant a certain type of sameness. Sometimes for reasons that will leave us free from risk, or our lives free from danger. Maybe what I’m saying is that plastic surgery is not the answer. We’re taught not to judge a book by its cover and why shouldn’t we apply the same principle to people. It’s what’s inside that matters and will a new eye line or botoxed bum really do that for us?