South Korea – Beauty and Recycling Obsessed

Betty’s story

South Korea–my homeland. I am a 1.5 generation immigrant. While I was born in Seoul, South Korea, I came to Canada as a toddler still learning how to speak. My upbringings here in Canada, no doubt shaped the person I am today and how I understand the world around me.

As someone who is an insider and outsider to the place I was born, my perceptions and understanding of South Korea might be different from others. It happens quite often that I feel very disconnected from my place of origin (not just because I’m a half the world’s distance away). Many times I don’t understand the culture, attitudes or the opinions held by Korean society. But that doesn’t mean I feel completely alienated, because there are certainly times when I do feel connected, especially in relation to food. The feeling of being in this weird middle zone seems to be a feeling shared across a lot of 1.5 generation folks out there.

Through my strange and foggy lens, I want to share with you what I believe to be a troubling issue going on in South Korea, but also what I believe to be something wonderful about my country of birth.

Beautiful or Ugly 

One of the things I can’t seem to understand about Korean culture is this preoccupation (bordering on obsession) with “beauty.” Aside from the fact that South Korea is the world’s plastic-surgery capitalwhere if you wanted, you can choose to have the corners of your eyes cut (for bigger eyes), shave your jaw line (for a leaner V shaped face) or put implants in your forehead (for a rounder forehead)–I want to talk about the more implicit and subtle ways Koreans emphasis the idea of being “beautiful” verses “ugly.”

Photograph by Jean Chung, The New Yorker

On more than one occasion, my family members in Korea have made remarks about my appearance. Even my mother has suggested to me years before that I could get my nose done (I still don’t know if she meant this as a joke or not).

Now, as a 25-year-old, if anyone ever makes any kind of suggestion to “upgrade myself,” I just respond with “I’m good, thanks.” But as a young self-conscious girl, these remarks were hard to hear. I’d replay these comments for days, chipping away at my self confidence. And this is what worries me the most–the young Korean girls (and boys) who are growing up under this normalization of toxic beauty standards and scrutiny.

I found Korean entertainment to be a big contributor to this normalization: just a couple of months ago a popular Korean variety show aired an episode called “An Ugly Friend Festival”; people are casually compared to “squids”; and ranking people by looks is pretty much a social norm.  Now, you can say all these things are in “good fun”. Don’t take things so seriously. But that’s just it. The “not-taking-things-seriously” is what’s perpetuating the normalization of these beauty standards and scrutiny in Korea. It’s not just a “haha” moment. These one-off remarks are routine. And now it has become an idea and perception effecting the way young Korean girls look at themselves, how Korean women are perceived and treated, and how Koreans value self-worth.

I can go on and on about all of this, but I’ll stop it here. Again, I’m not an expert in Korean culture, and as I’ve said in the beginning, I’m as much of an outsider as I am an insider. Even so, it makes me sad and frustrated to see my Korean society put so much self-worth into something that is never meant to last.

Food Waste Galore! 

South Korea has an exceptional system of recycling and food waste! When I visited Korea two years ago, I was immensely impressed by the way the country implemented policies for managing food waste.

According to the StraitsTimes, “a volume-based food waste disposal system has been in place since 2013. Some flats require residents to pay for garbage bags, while others have a centralised bin that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to weigh how much waste each household dumps and bill it accordingly.”

I can say from personal experience that it is no joke. The food waste and recycling system is incorporated at every corner of the peninsula. It’s like a mini factory at every condo and apartment complex, and it’s amazing. It’s one of the main causes of why I started being so conscious of food waste here in Canada.



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