Korea For The Curious seoul
IFIRST W ENT to Korea over a decade ago at the invitation of the Korean government. It was one way to see the country: state guest, guide, interpreter, limo with driver, meetings with senior officials and formal dinners in fancy restaurants. Though I went back a few years later for a conference, it was the first trip that stayed imprinted in my mind. I had been to Japan just before I went to Korea and some of the similarities between the two countries struck me as interesting. with appearance. No Japanese person you see on the streets of Tokyo will ever be badly dressed. The Koreans are like that but they take it to extremes that I did not notice in Japan.
To begin with, there’s the obsession with skincare. Such Japanese cosmetic giants as Shiseido have taken Japan’s makeup and beauty techniques around the world. But they have nothing on Korean brands. Korea’s beauty tradition is now so worldfamous that cosmetic shops in Seoul are thronged with foreign customers. There’s even a name: K-Beauty – just as K-Pop refers to Korean pop music.
Over a decade ago, a Korean company invented Cushion Foundation, in which the compact consists of a cushion of sponge soaked with foundation. That product has now been copied all over the world, because Korean woman have – or appear to have – flawless skin.
But it’s not just the women. There’s a whole subculture in Korea of so-called “Grooming Men” who are make-up obsessed metrosexuals (i.e. straight men who like girlie things). They trim their eyebrows, wear eyeshadow and contour their noses. There are make-up lines directed at men and it is not considered unusual for guys to wax their legs if they want to wear shorts in summer.
W hile “Grooming Men” tend to be relatively young, their beauty regimen is treated as essential for all job-seekers. W hen men go to employment interviews, they usually wear make-up. According to my hostess in Korea, Choi Jung Hwa, “base makeup is essential for a good first impression at job interviews”.
If you have a blemish or a spot on your face, you may not get the job. So men wear foundation, eyeliner and a lip balm with a matte texture so that their lips do not seem chapped.
Yup. It’s all true. I kid you not.
It’s not just the face. The body is as important. There are few paunchy guys in Korea. They all work out to get ‘chocolate abs’, their term for abdominal muscles that are as flat as a chocolate bar. The women diet and work out to keep their weight below 45 kg and dream of being Korean size 44 – which is US size 2, or a UK size XS. W omen who are a size S believe that they are too fat.
You can guess what comes next: Korea is number one in the world for people who undergo plastic surgery. In the trendy Gangnam district, made famous by the song, cosmetic surgery clinics are everywhere. There is no discretion needed: they put up huge neon signs.
Then, there’s the food. For the Japanese, food is like a religion and the search for nirvana is never-ending. The Koreans are slightly less obsessive than the Japanese but the food is terrific. Tony took me to Poom, one of Seoul’s best modern Korean