People as Topiary

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My husband coined the expression “People as Topiary” to describe the Korean attitude toward perceived imperfections. For Korean people a misplaced freckle might constitute disfigurement. Sadly, I know this from first-hand experience. My mother will scrutinize my face with concern after not seeing me in a while and ask, “Did you always have those freckles under your eye?” She tries to quell the rising note of panic in her voice, but it’s unmistakable…Those freckles (which, yes, I’ve had all my life) are located where tears might be and that is Not Good. Pity the Korean child born with a hairline a millimeter too low over his forehead, for this is an obvious indication that his father is suspect. A nose that is too pointy portends a life of poverty and bad luck. Throw out the prospect of a decent marriage if such a misfortune should befall you — or find yourself a good plastic surgeon.

Korea is now the country with the highest number of plastic surgeries per capita. An astonishing one in five Korean women has plastic surgery, according to a market research survey done in 2009. The most popular procedure is double-eyelid surgery, which creates a crease in the lids. Even Roh, Moo-Hyun, the former president who committed suicide in 2009, acknowledged having had an eyelid job during his term in office.

When I was in high school a lemur-eyed woman in my dad’s Korean congregation would harangue me every Sunday during coffee hour to get this procedure done. I would try to inconspicuously skulk off to a corner clutching my donut, but she’d always seek me out and bray, “Honey, you should get your eyes done so you look pretty like me!” Years later, I got my double eyelids, not through plastic surgery, but the good old-fashioned way: droopy, aging skin. Lucky me.

Currently, the “Flower boy” look is the Korean ideal of male perfection. “Flower boys” are waif-like men with delicate, “pretty” features and flawless skin, often enhanced with makeup. In pursuit of this look, South Korean men spend staggering sums of money on skin products and makeup – more than any other male population around the world. If you’re not born with it, you can buy it.

But there’s not much you can do about the most disastrous misfortune of all, which is to be born without native intelligence. Not that people don’t try. There is a plethora of plastic surgery clinics in Korea, but there are even more after school cram schools (hagwan). Parents choose where to live based on how convenient the neighborhood is to a good hagwan. Plastic surgery, in fact, is sometimes offered as a reward for good grades. The ultimate goal of all this cramming is to earn a spot in an elite university, because to graduate with a pedigree is to ensure one’s place in society.

I think this is why I find the Psy (Park, Jae-sang) phenomenon so entertaining. Much has been written about Psy’s average looks. He has called himself “a chubby guy” and he doesn’t appear to have had any “work” done. For the K-pop stars who have flirted at the edges of the kind of global fame he has enjoyed, looks are as important as musical ability. I think it’s safe to assume that a substantial percentage of these K-pop idols have been pruned, lopped, shaped and sheared to achieve the undernourished, saucer-eyed, elfin look du jour.

Psy’s father, the head of a large firm, sent his son to Boston University to study business so that he could return to Korea and take over the company. Instead, Psy dropped out of Boston University, enrolled in Berklee College of Music, and then dropped out of that school as well. You just know his parents’ innards were twisting into tight ulcerous knots when he returned to Korea without a degree. What a bitter pill it must have been when instead of taking over the family business, he became a controversial musician and was busted for pot. But one of the more interesting Karmic stories that emerged when Psy became so wildly popular that United Nations Secretary General Ban, Ki-Moon ceded to him the title of  “most famous Korean person in the world,” was that the value of his father’s company soared.

There is something truly beautiful in the fact that Psy has achieved fame and fortune, all without being one of these:

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