Recently, I've been reading up on a uniquely Korean phenomenon: aegyo , or what most Korean-English dictionaries would tell you is "affected cuteness". Usually this is manifested in making cutesy poses, but it's also acting childlike/raising your voice/talking like a baby in order to look cute, as seen in this clip, where Ji-Hyeon from K-pop super group T-ara demonstrates:
I've thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a girl--"good" or "bad"--in Korea, right on the heels of blogging about some of my more assertive "bad" girls.
I tend to do most of this thinking at work, obviously, while interacting with my students/creeping on them interacting with each other. The classes at my school are segregated by gender, and I am constantly surprised by how differently the classes respond to things that happen in class. I talked a little bit about the Taylor Swift-induced freakout my class of girls had when I did my music video lesson. Equally interesting, though, was the reaction of the boys to this video--2ne1's "Clap Your Hands":
I was shocked that the vast majority of the boys hated the video. "Ugly girls," "fake," "not good," and "terrible" were all reactions I remember hearing. But when I changed things up, and showed this video, the reaction was the exact opposite:
Personally, I think the girls from both groups are equally as attractive (and equally as (un)talented). My co-teacher Su Jung seemed pretty bemused, watching me experiment, and commented "The boys don't like 2ne1 because the girls in that video are tough and strong. They prefer other things, I think..." Read: Korean boys prefer the "affected cuteness"/over-the-top femininity as seen in the Girls Generation video (the hilarious lyrics of which are translated by The Korean) to the SWAGGA/fake gangsta stylings of the ladies in 2ne1. Hmm...
The other day, I wore jeans, a blue blazer, a simple T-shirt, and my scuffed up brown ankle boots to work. I think I looked pretty professional, considering my head co-teacher recently gave me the go-ahead to wear whatever I want to work (I think Judith Teacher dressed down a lot, because I'm sensing I'm looking nicer, generally, than what people expect me to at school). I wear a lot of dresses and skirts to work, so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that a lot of the boys commented on what I was wearing. One kid bluntly told me "you look like a man," while another commented, "Why no makeup, teacher?" I wore the same clothes out that night, and two different Korean men told me "you look very...tough". This didn't stop them from talking to me, but I couldn't help but think the implication was "I would be a lot more interested in you if you were wearing a skirt/looked more feminine/were making a cutesy pose."
And then there's the gym. Three or four days a week, I come home from work, throw on my workout clothes (hoodie, T-shirt, gym/sweat pants, sneakers), hop on my bike, and ride over to my gym to work out. I am on my way to sweat/pump iron, so I'm generally not thinking about looking cute. But. Maybe I should, because my route forces me to pedal right through Konkuk University Station, which is rammed with hordes of judgmental students eating at restaurants/drinking at coffee shops/ogling me in my sweat wear. I feel like no one really pays attention to me whenever I'm just walking through the station in my street clothes, but people flat out STARE when I'm on my bike. NOTHING TO SEE HERE FOLKS, just another slovenly foreign woman mucking your country up!
Then, I actually get to the gym. Most Korean women at my gym avoid looking like hobos/doing the through-the-station Walk of Shame by wearing their street clothes to the gym*. They change into gym provided shorts/T-shirts, work out, and then shower/re-dress/gussy up before leaving the gym. I don't like the way the gym clothes fit--the shorts have an insanely tight elastic waistband which cuts into my belly, and the T-shirts are HUGE, literally billowing around me when I run on the treadmill. This isn't to say I'm smaller than most Koreans/the shirts aren't colossal on my Korean workout buddies. But Korean women rarely actually RUN on the treadmills. Since I get to the gym less these days, I try and run for a long time when I'm there--I do 5K at the very least. This is not a lot for anyone who has ever considered themselves an athlete. But. Everyone at the gym looks at me like I'm Usain Bolt or something! I've NEVER seen a Korean woman flat out running on the treadmill before, never mind running for a full half hour. And the women I do see exercising are FULLY made up--foundation, mascara, the whole works.
All of this gives me the sense that there's this underlying expectation for women in Korean to ALWAYS look completely poised/put together/made up/glamourous/FEMININE. And exercise--the kind that makes you breathe heavily--is definitely not that (The Grand Narrative talks about exercise/women in Korea a lot more eloquently than I could ever do here).
Of course, in Amurica we have our own warped views/expectations about how women should look/think/behave. But. Once again, I am reminded of 1950's America, in terms of the general social order here.
And just to make it clear whose side I'm on: I'm planing to get BAD GIRLZ 4 LIFE tattooed in block letter across my bicep. I think it will look awesome at the gym (in my own non-collasal gym T-shirt) when I'm PUMPING IRON
*I refuse to cave to societal expectations/"do as they do" on this one. Damn the (Korean) man, I'M GONNA LOOK HOW I WANNA/I refuse to add on another hour + to my gym routine to look presentable for people I don't know