Having a the white Western look (and not the browner South East Asian look) is an obsession in Korea right down to the make-up they put on their face also. While white people in the West are always striving for more colour to their skin with a healthy brown glow, Koreans go the other way and protect their skin at all costs from the sun when they are outside and most of their skincare products and make-up have a skin whitening ingredient in them. The picture (below) shows the lengths some Koreans go to avoiding the dreaded tanned skin, and this is often seen in the summer in the middle of soaring temperatures.
But with all of these obsessions about the West, when you live in Korea - despite being called handsome or pretty on a daily basis and all the 'love yous' from your students - there is a great sense that some people very much entertain the idea of Korean superiority in almost all departments. This comes in the form of the purity of Korean blood, the food, their history, their companies, their dedication to work, and their sometimes excessive patriotism.
Plastic surgery goes to the very heart of the mystery, in that I assume by asserting the greatness of Korean blood they mean that their genes are some of the very best around. Why then they feel the need to change their personal appearance in record numbers to mirror that of a different race becomes puzzling. What is even more extraordinary is the attitude Koreans seem to have towards getting plastic surgery.
My wife wants to have the nose job and bizarrely her parents are not at all against it and even partly encourage it. There is no discussion with me, I like her the way she is and she has absolutely no need for any plastic surgery. My wife also tells me that almost all of the friends would have plastic surgery if they could afford it, indeed a couple of them have had plastic surgery already from money given to them by their parents.
My students are all boys and therefore have slightly less of a desire to have any procedures done on them but again strangely have no issue whatsoever in girls having plastic surgery and most thought plastic surgery was a good idea. In the lesson on things they like about Korea, every class said that plastic surgery was something they liked, saying that it could make girls prettier (they thought this could only benefit them). Not one student said that the commonplace nature of it was a bad thing.
Viewpoints such as these is one of the most interesting parts about living in a different culture. I am almost always totally against the need for surgery except for special cases, and I guess this is the prevailing attitude in most Western English speaking countries. The argument is that we are all beautiful so just get over the urge to mess around with your appearance. But this is just not true for some people and many Koreans think that not everyone can be born pretty so why not have a few things changed. The argument starts to make sense in a perverse way, why rely on the lottery of your genetics when you can pay to make youself look better? The fact is that some people are just downright ugly for no fault of their own, so from the Korean standpoint they should just have themselves 'fixed'.
While I can sympathize with this argument a little, there are some underlying uncomfortable truths.
a) The really ugly people will still not be attractive after plastic surgery. It cannot perform miracles.
b) It is often those that are quite attractive already and who don't need it that have surgery, this is especially true in the case of Korean women, most of whom look great already.
c) People usually gain very little from surgery - even if it is largely successful - because most of the people who matter to them are usually happy the way they were anyway.
d) There are risks and procedures can go horribly wrong and be counter-productive.
e) Personally, I have always thought it to be a terrble waste of money. In Korea, people break the bank to have procedures done, often incurring debt (Korea has a massive debt problem) and asking loved ones to fund the costs.
I believe there is only one good reason to have plastic surgery and that is to improve confidence and self-esteem and I am sure in some cases it can really help. I used to know a girl in England who had the biggest nose I had ever seen. Apart from her nose she had a good body, a nice personality, and a pretty face. She would have been so attractive if it was not for her nose. Everyone I met used to say, 'lovely girl, but shame about that huge nose'. She must have been well aware of this so decided to have plastic surgery to reduce its size. The next time I saw her, it was incredible the difference it made, not only to her appearance but to her levels of confidence and she was delighted with the results.
With all this in mind, perhaps since living in Korea I am not so anti plastic surgery because I have had more exposure to the other side of the argument. However - and this is especially true of Korea - the need to have plastic surgery, I feel, is still only in a limited few. I don't think I will ever be persuaded that it is a good idea in the vast majority of people, and particularly not with my already lovely wife.
(Note: I also recognise the health benefits of some surgeries, but this post is about purely cosmetic plastic surgery where the person has no major facial or bodily disfigurements or health problems).