One of the common “compliments” I would receive when interacting with complete strangers in Korea was how “capable” or “academically successful” I looked. The notions that, one, certain appearances represent intelligence, and two, having such looks can be a positive attribute baffle me. But the position of importance held by one’s outer appearance in South Korea has long been a tradition, especially under a practice called gwansang.
Gwansang, meaning physiognomy, is a Korean concept that refers to the prediction of fortunes using facial features, just as one would do with a palm reading. Though the younger generation generally pays little attention to the custom, people from older generations still regularly use gwansang to tell their fortune or determine their compatibility with another person. In fact, some companies went as far as to have a physiognomist during their interview to evaluate whether the candidate befits the company. The companies appraised the distance between eyes or eyebrows, the shape of the nose, the balance of the face, etc. to find bad or good omens of the interviewee.
While such drastic measures may have decreased, the ripples of the practice remain. It is a well-known fact internationally that South Korea is known as the “haven of plastic surgery” with its highest number of plastic surgery procedures per capita in the world. In Korea, it is merely a societal trend that some, regardless of gender, choose to partake in. However, for many Koreans (especially those in 20s or 30s), the change is more than just a choice; it is a prerequisite for a better life.
That being said, I understand in full force the importance of outer impressions, such as gwansang, in the day-to-day social interactions. Impressions are not all about pure aesthetical characteristics; it includes minute details, including posture, voice, smell, and other subconscious attributes we combine to compute an output of the person’s personality in an instance. Despite what some may say, such judgments are useful for initializing relationships. Problems arise when the assessments block opportunities of deeper understanding by serving as the primary definition of an individual.
Say what I will, I also discover myself judging another through their looks and dress. It takes effort to backtrack from the initial judgment and refrain from solidifying the caricature without interacting with the person further. But out of all the people I judge, the most difficult person to re-evaluate is myself. I become self-conscious of my body and my behavior, contemplating whether my lack of make-up, small voice, or awkward smile live up to the expectations of the community. Despite the struggle, I will keep seeking my fortune on my own terms — hopefully the compliments won’t be on how “capable” I look, but how “capable” I am.