[Viewpoint] Being short in Asia has its benefitsA couple of years ago, Korean blogs were filled with comments about statements made by at least one university beauty queen during interviews on a television program. One Korean woman, for example, announced that the sight of short men makes her lose her appetite as they were so unappealing. I didn’t used to watch the show, since I knew normally the interviewees were Korean-speaking young foreign women who had rehearsed their “spontaneous” answers for that weekly program. But my laughing Korean wife brought the matter to my attention.
That controversy has reminded me how important height is for men in this part of the world. And allow me say up front that I’m a rather short American man. And while there have been some obvious disadvantages to being short, there have been some interesting advantages - particularly as a short Westerner in Asia.
My first positive experience in being a short man in Asia was as a university student in Tokyo. When asked why I had come to Japan, I normally could get a laugh by replying I had always wanted to play center position on a basketball team.
On a later visit to Asia, that time as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Korea, I noticed something peculiar about how Koreans reacted to tall men versus short men. Thirty years ago, particularly in large cities, foreigners would often be sworn by drunken Korean men who assumed the foreigners could not understand what was being said. This was a sort of pathetic bravado, never undertaken when alone but always in the company of other Korean men. In any case, I noticed that taller Peace Corps males were harassed much more than short ones like me.
In fact, my height has often worked out in a positive way such as when I was introduced to my Korean girlfriend’s conservative father. Since we both could speak Japanese, he and I hit it off almost immediately. Later on, I learned that he really liked me since I was not much taller than he was!
The most important dividend of my small stature came some months later when my girlfriend and I decided to marry. Getting her mother to agree was not too much of a challenge, but to our surprise, her father agreed, too - partially since he did not feel physically intimidated by me.
Now to be balanced, sometimes physical intimidation has not been all bad. For example, during the Park Chung Hee regime, the American Chamber of Commerce had many more difficulties with South Korean protectionism than they do today. Often, it took strong persuasion by the then-president of the U.S. organization to gain minor concessions from the Korean government. The president, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, was a large man, even by American standards. When asked by American businessmen just how he was able to get Korean government officials to consider the Americans’ position, he would smile and say, “Well, first I stand up.?.?.”
That being said, I have discovered on balance that being a “shorty” has been more of a positive in Korea than a negative. Generally when in a group of Westerners being introduced to a group of Koreans, I often seem to build a rapport with the Koreans a bit sooner than most Westerners.
Besides speaking some elementary Korean, I find my stature makes it easier to look Koreans in the eye. As a short American, I’m quite comfortable in this situation and often forget how much taller most Americans are compared to me.
But for most Koreans who have limited contact with Westerners, the experiences - having to speak English, risk having their hands crushed in strong handshakes and hold back their heads - must be particularly uncomfortable.
So, do I sometimes wish to be at least 180-centimeter tall? Do I wish to be different from the guys despised by the Korean beauty queens who think short men are losers?
Most times I don’t really think about it. Usually I appreciate my height as a competitive advantage when working with Asian men.
But, ultimately, do I really wish I were taller? Well, I still wonder what it would be like to play center position on a basketball team.