I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of living in South Korea when I taught English there after university. I thought: I live in an ethnically diverse city. I’ll make friends with Korean women. I’ll be fine. What I didn’t realize was that knowing Korean women living in Canada is not quite the same as knowing Korean women in Korea.
I found I couldn’t know them well at all. Not only did I struggle to speak and understand Korean, but they seemed wary to confide in me. The teen girls I secretly (and I think illegally) tutored in their bedrooms for cash were quiet and curious but reluctant to share details about their personal life. I remember a similar experience with one married woman I tutored. She would spend our hour catering to her three-year old son and asking me questions, but seemed afraid to answer any of mine.
There were usually three or four women teaching at my school who spoke English. They talked about make-up, boys, clothes, night clubs, and movies, mostly with each other, and mostly in Korean with the occasional translation for me. I knew nothing about their lives once they left work. Maybe there wasn’t much left to talk about. They had to stay until the last kid was picked up which could be late in the evening, and were there for early drop-offs. It seemed they were under pressure to be unfailingly cheerful and willing to take on any task at any time.
I learned about Korean women through watching them. I watched how hard they worked for long hours. I watched them defer to the men in their lives. I watched them touch up their make-up. I watched them buy clothes with the seriousness that I reserved for buying a major appliance. Appearance was everything. If my bra straps peeked out from my tank top, a woman in the crowd would tuck them in for me. One recommended I eat only puffed rice to try to lose weight, or better yet, blow up balloons to flatten my stomach.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is a way in to finally get to know Korean women. I’m horrified by the pressure for them to be perfect. The focus on plastic surgery and perfect skin and hair is relentless. I remember my students worrying about university by age ten. The characters in this book started out on a different path from my students. They live on the fringe and they see life for what it really is.
Women’s lives are worth learning about. Korean women are worth knowing. Reading this book will make anyone consider them differently, and I hope, more empathically. I recommend listening to the book, if only to hear the correct pronunciation of occasional Korean words.
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