April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Sunday morning. Fall is here, and she’s brought the throat tickle. Time for my standby home remedy:
Equal parts honey and freshly minced ginger root.
Add about 1 tablespoon of the mixture to mug.
Stir in boiling water.
The first sip of my sweet, pleasantly spicy tea soothes my throat and brings me back in time. Saenggangcha, ginger tea in Korean. The winters in Seoul were cold and windy, and it felt so comforting to settle into a warm cafe and order a mug of ginger tea. I’d write or draw, sip, meditate. The earthy, pungent ginger punched into my nose while the honey made the whole go down nice and smoothly… There were little chunks of ginger sitting at the bottom, and I crunched them gladly. Warming, soothing, delicious.
I remember the last time I drew as a child before giving up. My parents had given me a deluxe art set for my birthday: markers, watercolors, pencils… it was a glorious art set that packed up nicely into a wooden briefcase. Perhaps I believed that this art set would instantaneously imbue me with talent. I decided to attempt to draw one of my mom’s retro cooking pots with flowers on the side. It came out lopsided and just all wrong. I was disappointed in myself and disgusted at the hideous blob I had created. I wanted so badly to be good, to have proof of my talent. Instead, I was glaring at empirical proof that I sucked. That was the moment that art didn’t feel free anymore. I didn’t deserve that art set, and I would do well to forget the whole thing. I left the briefcase in the basement to collect dust.
Fast forward to Seoul, circa 2010
I’m walking in Hongdae, the young, hip, artsy neighborhood. Streets are chock-full of funky cafés, cheap restaurants, art galleries, and clothing shops. At this time, I’m feeling deeply lonely and generally lost.
I enjoy the atmosphere of this neighborhood, so I find myself here often. I don’t know what else to do with myself, and so I go walking. I just walk for hours on end. Fall is just thinking about getting started, and the bright warm sun feels nice, while the air has a crisp snap to it.
I notice a small, dusty art supply shop. There are no lights on inside, and the sunlight transmutes through the front window to cast everything in a gray-gold soft focus. They’re going out of business, and there’s not much selection left, but that paper, those pencils, the pastels… they smell wonderful. I end up buying a thin sketch pad and the few pencils remaining: moss green, dusty yellow, and a soft graphite pencil with eraser. A few hundred meters away is the little park where children and parents play in the morning, under the blurred watchful eyes of the occasional homeless person. In the afternoons, students sit in the park to smoke cigarettes and drink beer after class. On weekend evenings, young Western foreigners come along to drink, while wannabe deejays plug in their iPhones and use an app to simulate the art of the turntables. Nobody cares.
On this golden lonely afternoon, there are just a few people in the park. I plonk myself down and start drawing again, for the first time in I don’t know how long. I’m surprised at how good it feels. The lonely melancholy in my stomach is mitigated. I’m scratching an itch that I didn’t realize I had. I’m drawing trees and flowers, and soon I’m approached by a woozy bleary-eyed Korean woman. She asks to see my drawing, and I oblige. She turns to the next page, asks for my pencil, then starts sweeping the page with large haphazard swipes. She sweeps and swipes, then finally adds two details, eyes and a nose, and suddenly the picture is coherent: she’s drawn a woman with long hair and robes. The woman hands me back my drawing pad and shuffles away, wishing me a good afternoon. I’m a bit stunned as I wish her the same.
I realize drawing just feels right.
July is long gone, and now I’m face-to-face with another birthday.
I’m 29. One year before the big 30. On a side note: when I lived in Korea, 30 was the magic number: after 30, a woman’s shelf life supposedly reaches its expiration and you creep into that undesirable “spinster” territory if you’re unmarried. 30 is that round magical number where everything changes, and you’re supposed to have a fire under your ass, to get moving and accomplish those life goals you’ve been putting off until “later.” Well, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m acutely aware that this is the time of my life; I’m in my prime, and there is no magic switch that will be flipped in one year. I’m taking things at my speed, doing what I want to do at my own speed, with no one but myself to answer to. This is the freest and most empowered I’ve ever felt. If this feeling follows me into my 30’s, that’d be one of the greatest privileges I could hope for.
Around the time of the New Year and my birthday, it seems to be the season for reflection. Perfectly spaced, twice a year, the time to take stock.
In the past year, or indeed since I arrived in France a year and a half ago, I’ve learned to speak French, become a freelance English teacher, gotten PACSed (in other words, signed into a legal partnership), found a good job where my coworkers call me on my birthday to sing me Happy Birthday, rekindled my interest in writing and drawing, succeeded (FINALLY) at having an herb garden, and started to delve into cooking more seriously (as a seriously pleasurable hobby, that is).
I’ve also lost friendships, hit my lowest emotional point, rebounded from that point, and evolved more than I ever have before.
But most of all, I’ve learned how and where to educate myself outside of the classroom. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be a complete island. And I’ve started to research my family history, which is so much richer than I could have imagined, as well as the complex and fascinating history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Having an intimate knowledge of where my family comes from is both empowering and valuable. For me, learning about the history of colonization, political and even musical and culinary history is a responsibility that I hadn’t fully realized the importance of.
It has simultaneously cemented my heritage: I am, without question, 100% Latina. I come from a mixed lineage of Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, perhaps even French settlers and the Tainos. The first time someone told me I didn’t “belong” with my family was when I was 9 years old, and now twenty years later, I can say with assurance that I do, in fact, have a place. And it’s my job to claim it.
Now that I’ve got a clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say, it makes me more open to writing and sharing information with whoever is there to receive it.
Last night, shortly after midnight we saw the International Space Station zooming across the sky over France. A bright speck that moved so quickly from one end of our horizon to the other, that we barely recognized it before it disappeared. And I can only imagine, to the people onboard the ISS, we looked like a dark patch of night; to them, we were less than specks. Makes me think about my whole infinite-universe-gives-us-ultimate-freedom theory.
I suppose I’m a speck that accepts its speck-hood and wants to enjoy its speck-sized glory while it has the chance.
[Warning: Nothing but poop-talk here.]
As a reasonably well-seasoned traveler, I think my sensitivity to shit has diminished exponentially. They don’t tell you that in the guidebooks, but it comes with the territory. Having to use questionable toilets (if you’ve got the luxury of calling it a toilet, so much the better), with or without anything for post-action cleanup, open bins for paper disposal, and other such experiences have helped build me into the iron-clad stomached woman I am today.
In Japan, there was Shair (shit + air = Shair). A lovely breeze while walking through the streets of Osaka would occasionally slap you into reality with a dose of rank, thick Shair. This was almost palpable on the tongue, and it would immediately strip away the joy from the moment.
Then I went to South Korea, where toilet paper wasn’t meant to be disposed of in the toilet. The horrors that I witnessed in those ladies’ restrooms… It was astounding sometimes, to see such put-together-looking women entering the bathroom, and leaving such carnage in their wake. Open wastebins seemed to be a general suggestion: “Aim somewhere in this vicinity.” Not everyone was an accurate shot, nor were they particularly worried about concealing the nature of their excretions. Not to mention the wretched Shair that I caught in the mouth on a bus ride to Siheung one day…
Now, I’m in France: land of baguettes, cheese, stripey shirts and not picking up after your shitty dog. People on a stroll with their dogs in the countryside, in small towns, in the city: no matter where, you’ll be sure to find a steaming pile of go-fuck-yourself left by some lazy dog owner. And depending on when it was deposited, you’ll be dismayed to find that several unsuspecting pedestrians, bike-riders, or even other dogs have stepped in it. And then, realizing their mistake, apparently decided to smear it all over the sidewalk. You could piece together the entire history of an ill-placed dog turd by analyzing the surrounding area. In front of restaurants, in busy pedestrian areas, on stairs: you’re never safe from danger.
Perhaps the best-placed turd I ever witnessed was in a busy pedestrian walkway in the center of Angers. On a corner in front of a store was a gold-painted living statue, who apparently wanted to make a few bucks on a nice, sunny day. He was positioned near a huge, already well-trodded dogpile, in the perfect spot where anyone that caught a glimpse of the living statue while walking past were taken off-guard and distracted by him, thus placed in a direct path to make contact with the turd. It was so perfect that I had to ask myself whether he didn’t pick that spot on purpose. I imagined how great it would be if instead of changing poses when he received a coin, he’d change everytime someone stepped in that monstrous shit. And so this scene made my day.
Unfortunately, this arguably charming type of poop story comes up far too infrequently. I’m just glad my stomach is strong enough to see the humor before the disgust sets in.
Never before was I bombarded with pressure to look attractive than when I lived in Seoul.
I say Seoul specifically, because it seems that, out of all other cities I visited in South Korea, judgment on one’s looks is the most suffocating there. Unless you shop at the Western franchises like Forever 21 or H&M, you’d be hard-pressed to find clothing that accommodates larger than a size 6. Subway advertisements show images of women (and men) before and after plastic surgery: larger-than-life sized posters with close-ups of eyelids, stomachs, hips and thighs, cheekbones and complexions. Parts of your body you never thought to scrutinize before are laid out in painstaking close-up detail. So I started to scrutinize parts of my body and notice things I never imagined before could be a problem.
In Seoul, I was constantly bombarded with the “ideal” image of beautiful. There is ONE standard of beauty for Korean women to fit into…and it’s an ideal that, for nearly ALL Korean women, cannot be achieved without surgical enhancement. Slender frame, with a butt that’s not TOO large, C-cup bust size, milky white blemish-free skin, long pin-straight hair, large eyes framed by a prominent eyelid crease, a high nose bridge, prominent cheekbones, and a V-line (a chin that comes to a distinct point).
Plus-sized figures, beauty marks, body hair, tanned skin, rounded cheeks, naturally curly hair—not only are these traits completely absent from the typical South Korean beauty advertisement, but they’re relentlessly criticized and stigmatized.
The “before-and-after” images on these advertisements are relentless. A sad, gloomy expression haunts the “before” photos; women with their blemishes, small eyes, and flat, round faces seem to be looking into the camera with no confidence, no hopes of being beautiful. They’re miserable faces indeed. But after! They’re smiling into the camera with their sparkly new veneers, cheek implants, and shaved-down chins to match that beautiful, perfect standard.
If you start feeling a bit self-conscious when you start comparing yourself to these images: Not to worry! Those adverts tell you exactly where to go if you want to change anything that doesn’t match that robotic, freakishly unnatural standard to a T. In the bottom corners of those advertisements, some doctor and his/her team of cosmetic surgery experts wear idiotic smiles and point you in the right direction to their clinic. Come on in, we’ll turn that frown upside-down, they promise. Here’s a handy map in case you get lost—hurry on down today!
To me, the “after” images are more depressing than the “befores.” Congratulations, you’ve given your hard-earned money to another clinic that has successfully pumped out one more plastic mannequin to parade around downtown. You’ve bought your confidence from one of those smiling doctors, and you’re fit to take on the world now!
“Beautiful people are successful people,” my students would tell me. I found there was a woeful lack of dialogue on acceptance, on natural beauty, on the possibility of loving yourself and being confident in rejecting that impossible standard of beauty.
So for as Eurocentric and warped as the American standard of beauty is, it pales in comparison to what I saw in Seoul. At least here in the States, there are more and more women of color, curvaceous figures, and natural hairstyles being shown in beauty advertisements and in the media. There is plenty more improvement to be made, but at least those images are out there. In Seoul, it’s not just limited; it seemed to be absent altogether.