[Viewpoint] Blunt cruelty goeth before the cureI am 32 years old - but only in Korea. In the rest of the world, I am actually only 30.
Age is a funny thing in Korea. A baby born in December is already two years old at the Lunar New Year. My friend, born in the Year of the Rabbit, could never really be considered my “friend” because I was born in the Year of the Goat.
Age determines who will pay the bill at the restaurant, who will get promoted at the office .?.?. and who has to stay late to clean up after the party. I even have to use special vocabulary and grammar to talk to older people! But the biggest shock for me was the realization that age in Korea is both so highly respected and yet, at the same time, so deeply feared.
In the West, although we respect our parents and might let an old lady have our seat on the train, we do not have the same deep-rooted respect for age that Koreans do. Old people get all the perks in Korea, so you would think Koreans would be excited about getting old! But, despite the high value placed on age and the cultural compensations that come along with it, it seems that aging in Korea is a fate worse than death.
So, as I was saying, I’m 30. Or 32 (depending on whom you ask). Either way, I am getting old. And getting old is depressing, no matter who you ask. Especially in Korea.
Since I turned 30, I’ve become more aware that the signs of aging have begun to affect me. Since you all know the signs of “ajumossis” (ajumma + metamorphosis), I will try not to be too graphic, as I am still single and hope not to remain this way forever. But just in case, I would like to request that all of my rich, handsome, single readers please stop reading now.
One of the signs that really caught me off guard was noticing my first wrinkle. I have an especially conspicuous one that stretches across the entire span of my forehead. This particular wrinkle used to appear only when I raised my eyebrows, while captivating my audience with animated narratives or dynamic retellings of my adventures and anecdotes.
It is like the sweet, little, precious stray kitten that you shared your leftover sandwich with one day but, before you knew it, was big, fat and smelly. When did this happen? Like that cunning little kitten, my sweet, little laugh line has now become the equivalent of an old smelly cat sitting on my face. I think you know what I mean.
Now I might never have become so obsessed with this wrinkle. But I live in Korea, among Koreans - and aging is simply not tolerated.
Each week, I meet up with a group of my girlfriends for a girls’ night out. Ours is a relationship based on cheap red wine, gossip and beauty tips. To some, this may seem like a shallow basis for a relationship, but believe me, I share a unique and unbreakable bond with any girl who will eat half of my ice cream to help me with my diet. That’s love.
I have noticed that my Korean girlfriends have a harsh, yet kindhearted way of pointing out the painfully obvious, painfully true realities - the ones that we in the West usually prefer to leave unsaid. As you throw out your arms to embrace the Korean friend you have not seen in six months, you hear: “Michelle! I like your shirt. It’s the same one you were wearing last time we met!” As you rush to join the meeting 10 minutes late: “Michelle! Good to see you. Your face is so red!”
And the absolute worst one is as you lean down to grab something from your bag: “Michelle! Let me help you! (Pluck.) Look, you had a gray hair!” A little laugh line is one thing. But gray hair? It’s the beginning of the end.
The same Korean girlfriend who so evilly pulled out my gray hair was now generously offering me a solution to the problem. “It’s easy to get rid of gray hair,” she said. I held my breath. “Just eat black beans!” I exhaled my disappointment.
“Black beans? Just because the beans are black doesn’t mean they are going to turn my hair black. If I wanted red hair, would I eat strawberries?!”
But hmm ... maybe Koreans do seem to know how to ward off the signs of age.
And guess what? I have been drinking black bean tea everyday for three months and have not found another gray hair. Now, who’s got a remedy for wrinkles? Preferably one that requires eating large amounts of chocolate.
*The writer is the foreign client relationship manager at Shinhan Bank.
By Michelle Farnsworth