Monday, February 1, 2010

Culturally retarded

Some of my kids really threw me off yesterday. My last class on Monday consists of six 14-year-old boys. This was one of the few days they didn't seem to be trying to gas me out of the tiny classroom. Our textbook led us to the conversation topic of dieting. I asked if high schoolers in Korea worry a lot about dieting. (I ask them a lot about the norms for Korean teenagers so I can explain the differences with American teens.)

Somehow they decided to discuss who they think is fat and needs to go on a diet: Charles, the previous teacher in my position, and Claire, my favorite of the Korean teachers at school. I was aghast and countered that she was not fat, but they insisted. I explained that maybe because I am from the U.S. and see a LOT of fat people every day, I have a different opinion of the definition of "fat" than they do because they see only skinny people every day, and that no one is wrong; we just have different cultural perspectives. But they would have none of it.

I was really hurt, inexplicably personally offended on her behalf. Claire is only a little heavier than me but in a good way with wide hips, and she wears awesome jeans that look darn good on her, if I may say so. I guess because I don't associate much with Koreans I don't experience the opinions on weight in this society- I've only heard *about* them...until now. It's disgusting.

I have no doubt that I have the mental fortitude to weather a year in this image-obsessed culture, an image I can never ever live up to, fit into, or meet. But it's still depressing to consider the pressures put on young women here to be rail thin, moreso than we see back in the states. The most fashionable clothing is not made larger than the equivalent of a U.S. size 4 because designers don't want fatties wearing their clothes. (See link below.) Children's mothers will starve them out of their natural childhood pudge. And I mentioned in an earlier post a person's character is often determined by his or her weight.

Anorexia runs rampant but is blamed on the permeation of American ideals and emphasis on image. Part of the problem is that this country doesn't believe in psychology. Yeah, you read that correctly. Psychiatric doctors are few and far between and haven't a clue what to do about the cases of ana on the rise. "Crazy" doesn't mean the same thing here as it does back home. Every Korean is the picture of mental health because such a stigma is placed on showing signs of anything to the contrary. Mental health "problems" such as depression and anxiety (both highly treatable, by the way) are screened before you can even get a job teaching here.

"Experts debate whether these problems are caused by Western pathologies that have infected their cultures via the globalized fashion, music and entertainment media..."
"But standards of beauty have changed dramatically in the 1990s with democratization, as South Korea's government decontrolled TV and newspapers, allowing in a flood of foreign and foreign-influenced programming, information and advertising." (Read article here)

But explain to me how the U.S. could influence a whole country to put mirrors on every escalator, cell phone, trees on hiking trails, sides of vendors' booths, even in individual bathroom stalls so one never need worry about how his or her hair is looking. And explain to me how the U.S. can be to blame for upwards of 76% of Korean women getting plastic surgery in their 20s and 30s. (From another blogger, not sure of the source.)

Sorry, my html-fu is limited.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person. But there are just too many things in this culture that are retarded. And I am ill-equipped to influence my students to see outside their wacky Korean cage.

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