Ajumma and Agasshi: Hello Princess!!
[box]Ajumma and Agasshi: The Reign of Korean Women” will focus on examining Gender, Society and Culture in Korean daily life.[/box]
Living in South Korea as a foreign woman, I almost always feel as though I am living a double life. When I first flew from Australia to Seoul three years ago, I fully expected that my life would revolve around become immersed in Korean language classes, learning Taekwondo, and mixing with Korean people. This all seemed very straight-forward. Until I arrived, and I soon realized that due to my being female, I had to accept a more close-mouthed and less aggressive persona than what I would in my native Australia. To get as much out of my Korean experience as possible, I would have to behave the way that Korean women were taught to behave: to respect men, to not question men, to behave coyly in front of men, and to not act as though I were smarter than any man. This was a tough blow to my feminist ego, and I knew I would have to appear subservient, while maintaining my inherent opinions on the inside. I was not ready to be the Korean Princess that my Korean company and peers so badly wanted me to be.
Groomed for Princess-dom
My gradual assimilation into Korean culture has been a steep and harrowing process, and I have felt strongly conflicted about what has happened to me over time. Before arriving in Korea I had studied in the US, Australia, and Israel, and I had traveled to many corners of the world. I had never felt pressured or obliged to alter my behaviour or appearance so significantly until I lived in Korea, and I have sacrificed as much of my Australian values as I am willing to sacrifice, to make my life and relationships in Korean run more smoothly. Specifically, I have found that I am treated as a delicate Princess in Korea, more than I would in any other country. While I inherently know that I am no Princess (in fact, far from it), I tend to go along with this implied-Princess-label, instead of asserting my independence or power as an individual. While Korean culture is constantly grooming me to accept this more subdued and dependent Princess-role, internally I know that this is just role playing, and I am internally refusing to abdicate my opinions or independence.
Korean Social Climate
It is true that not every girl in Korea is forced to cover her opinions and act coy all the time. There are Korean women who don’t care about their weight, who voice their opinions loudly, smoke, and use slang. But these women are most often marginalized in Korean society, as society prefers Korean girls to be shy, delicate, and mild. Korean girls are taught by the media and by their family members from a young age that appearance and mannerisms are extremely important for a woman to achieve status in Korean society. This cultural climate has ushered in an era of the Korean Princess, and has also spawned the (slightly offensive) term 공주병 gongju byung, aka ‘Princess Sydrome’, where a cross-section of young Korean women in their teens and early to mid-20s have been strongly conditioned to believe that they are reserved certain privileges in society because of their beauty and girlish attributes. I work together with many strong, intelligent, and witty Korean women, but we all sadly accept that we are judged by our appearance and our gender before the quality of our work is assessed.
Beauty above Talent
I have to be frank here. Australia has many beautiful girls, but I am not one of them. I have always known that my intelligence will always be steps ahead of my appearance. I’m no beauty. In Korea, however, a smart girl counts for peanuts. I know plenty of smart women in Korea. They work their guts out, and their salaries rarely match the salaries of Korean men doing the same jobs. In Korea, a woman’s beauty is almost always praised above a woman’s intelligence. This sad reality became even more clear to me recently when the Korean Olympic team returned to Seoul from London. The Korean female Taekwondo champion Hwang Kyung-Seon walked through Incheon airport with her gold medal and nobody seemed to care. She was the only Korean to win gold in Korea’s national sport of Taekwondo at the London Olympics, and yet the Korean media has barely paid her any attention. Compare this with the Korean rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-Jae, who finished in 5th place in her competition, but was given hundreds of presents and hounded by the Korean press when she returned to Korea. Pictures of Son Yeon-Jae blanketed the Korean media for two weeks, and she was interviewed by almost every broadcasting station and signed numerous sponsorship deals to feature in commercials across the country. I did find it unsettling that very little attention was being paid to the Taekwondo gold medalist, while so much attention was being directed towards the 5th-placing rhythmic gymnast, however, my Korean friends later clarified this situation by commenting that; “The Taekwondo gold medalist is not beautiful, so Koreans are not interested”.
The Korean Princess in Korean Dramas
Sometimes I feel like I have been given a role in a Korean drama. I often feel like my role in Korean companies is more decorative than substantial, like I am a peripheral character in a Korean soap opera. Korean dramas and movies do not generally depict strong Korean women making life choices for themselves. Female characters in Korean dramas are often painted as;
… ‘poor victims of strange and unlikely love triangles involving incredibly wealthy men…’.
Typically, while the Korean female character dreams of her wealthy ideal man, she must not directly communicate her intentions to him. She must hide, pause, appear shy, and wait for him to seduce her, as her social rank is much inferior to his. These are mannerisms that I also feel pressured to adopt in Korea, if I am to successfully date a Korean man or successfully contribute to a Korean company. If there were stronger images of independent women in Korean society, then maybe people wouldn’t point and stare when I eat by myself or travel alone. The idea of a woman doing things by herself and for herself is still not fully embraced in Korea.
Princess Methods for charming Korean men
Along with learning the Korean language and Korean pronunciation, I have adopted a slightly more feminine tone of voice while living in Seoul. Many girls in Korea (including myself) utilize a language/behavioural tool known as “Aegyo”. In Korea, Aegyo 애교is a combination of cute behaviour and a child-like tone of voice that Korean women employ to try and appear more charming and attractive to Korean men, and occasionally to people who are older than them. This word has no perfect translation in English, and I feel that the reason why it is difficult to translate is because Western women do not have the know-how or skills to employ this effective ‘Aegyo function’.
When I sit in a cafe with my Korean friends, and one of them receives a phone call from their boyfriend, her voice suddenly changes and she starts making ‘cooing’, ‘whimpering’ and sometimes even ‘meowing’ sounds at the same time. These noises, combined with highly rhetorical questions such as; “Boyfriend, aren’t I beautiful?” constitutes ‘Aegyo’. When my parents heard me employing these baby-like ‘Aegyo’ noises on the phone to my then-Korean boyfriend, my parents thought I was in pain, or reverting to some infant-like state. My parents were suitably embarrassed and shocked that a grown woman be making such obscene sounds. While I do feel uncomfortable with the idea that grown women are employing child-like noises and puppy-esque facial expressions to bend the whims of men, it must be quite powerful, as many Korean women seem to manage their boyfriends quite effectively after employing the ‘Aegyo function’.
The Elevated Princess on the Dating Trail
In my native Australia, dating was always fairly relaxed and I almost always payed dutch when I went on a date. In Korea, however, women are given quite a lot of power over the way that dating is conducted. My Korean friend Heeyeon expects any guy she dates to organize the first date, pick a relatively high-quality pasta restaurant, and the man is most certainly expected to pay for the date. To date Korean men in Korea, I am always told by friends that I need to employ ‘내숭’ Naesung, which is where the girl apparently acts naive and shy, even if she is neither of those things. As part of society’s goal for me to become a true Korean princess, I find that acting shy and uninitiated is one of the trickiest tasks when interacting with Koreans. I am almost 28-years-old, so to pretend that I am going on a date for the first time, or pretending I have never let a boy hold my hand before feels rather absurd, not to mention unbelievable. When I did not do well on a recent blind-date in Seoul recently, my female friends again scolded me by instructing; “You need to act more shy. Don’t mention your opinions”.
The Extreme Case
In the extreme case, Princess Syndrome can cause the breakdown of friendships. Last year, I had to unfortunately cut all ties with one of my Korean female friends who caused large-scale devastation when her Princess-mentality grew out of control. This Korean friend (lets call her ‘Yoona’), briefly dated a German colleague of mine, and over the course of the month that they dated, she repeatedly pressured my German colleague to buy her Tiffany’s jewelry, pay for her groceries, and take her on a holiday to Germany. When my German colleague suggested that Yoona occasionally pay for a coffee or a meal on a date, Yoona became angry and protested that; “Only losers ask the girl to pay on a date”. As I got sucked into the middle of this ‘awkward romance’, I realized that while my German colleague had a fairly liberal attitude towards dating, Yoona’s princess-like-demands were getting out of control. Perhaps the most astounding scenario occurred when Yoona met Mr. German for a casual date, only two weeks into their new relationship, and she led him down a side street to a luxury hair salon. She sat down in a seat and told him she wanted a haircut. She asked the German to put his credit card down to pay for the haircut. With a shocked expression, he begrudgingly put down the card. But Yoona was not yet satisfied. She begged him to pay for a manicure too. The German realized that this date was not really a date, so much as a trap. Again, he paid for the manicure, and realized that while he barely knew Yoona, he was already suddenly supporting all her lifestyle expenses.
In Korea, after Christmas, White Day (after Valentine’s Day, when boys give candy and presents to girls), and birthdays, my Korean female friends all exchange messages to compare what presents they have received from their boyfriends. I also receive messages from my female friends about what presents I have received from boys on these ‘special occasions’. Part of me feels that these inquiries are too invasive, and I feel slightly unclean when I have to provide detailed notes at the request of other Korean females about what gifts I may or may not have received from a boyfriend. It feels as though our ‘group of princesses’ are defining our so-called ‘romantic relationships’ in terms of what luxury products we can collect on these days. When I told my Korean friends that I don’t expect a luxurious Christmas present from a boy I am dating, my best friend gaped and cried; “But how will you know he likes you?”. I think I can personally get a better impression of a man’s intentions from his behaviour and mannerisms, rather than how many gifts he is giving, but my female Korean friends do not agree. They seem to be happily collecting quite a lot of Chanel bags, wallets, and Prada sunglasses with each passing relationship. Needless to say, after the German and Yoona parted ways, Yoona started asking me to introduce more men to her, which made me quite uncomfortable, leading to Yoona and I parting ways as friends.
In Australia, women are presented as ideally active or independent, or even sexual. In Korea, the opposite image of women is presented in the media and in society. When I first arrived in Korea, I was very comfortable wearing sneakers and jeans, with no make-up, and shaggy un-straightened hair. This was how I lived in the US and in Australia. However, in Korea, I discovered that my boss and my (now ex) Korean boyfriend did not appreciate my ‘comfortable/active aesthetic’, and they indirectly (and sometimes directly) encouraged me to wear heels, pastel-coloured dresses, pink blush, and my hair pinned in a bun. Since I partly moved to Korea to learn Taekwondo, become more independent, and more active, I felt that my dainty 1950s-style-headband and lacy beige dress did not quite match or reflect my lifestyle or personality, but everyone seemed so pleased with this transformation. My (now ex) Korean boyfriend even insisted that I attend ‘compulsory’ weekly visits to a beauty salon in the upmarket Gangnam area in Seoul, as he wanted me to have a “smoother, younger complexion”. This ‘princess-grooming’ was infringing upon my own personal aesthetic and my desire to be an individual, but it was easier to accept these changes to my appearance than to further encounter more criticisms about my presentation and my old sneakers.
Broadening Spaces for Women
While my ability to express myself is evidently curbed and restricted in Korea due to my gender, I am not sure about how long I am willing to tone down my persona to fit into the Korean feminine ideal. In most parts of Western Europe or in the US I don’t feel so compelled to watch my weight or wear make-up, but in Korea I do feel that I am being judged very severely based on my body shape and on how well I can apply BB cream (famous Korean foundation). That said, these are concessions I am prepared to make to live comfortably among Korean people, and to gain social and professional recognition in this society. While I have experimented with pushing the boundaries and trying to communicate in a more direct manner in Korea, as a woman, this has usually caused me more trouble and has awarded less results than choosing to act in a more indirect and shy manner. The closer I move towards my Korean Princess-role, the further away I get from my independent Australian identity, and managing these two conflicting public personas will always be an ideological battle for me.