Banner design by Helena, portrait by Eva


Monday, July 23, 2007

Good Girl Vs. Bad Girl Behavior in Korea

A reader responds: "My school has 3 native teachers: myself from the US, and female teachers from China and Japan. We have been told that I can't walk around the school/eat a meal/or do something with only 1 of the female teachers; it has to be both female teachers at the same time. It looks "bad" to Koreans when a single male teacher and a single female teacher do something alone.
The male students, well some of them are terrorists in training, but IF they get punished it is very light. If the female students do the same thing, they receive more severe and longer lasting punishment, ie pulling weeds outside for 3 days, being forced to kneel for 8 hours, etc.. The punishment should be the same, but it's not."
- A foreign highschool teacher in Korea.
Remember when Kevin, another foreigner in Suwon, wrote of a Korean girl who refused to be seen in public with him for fear of being perceived as a "bad girl?" People stared and gave them dirty looks. One even pressed his nose up to the restaurant window where they ate.
I first got a glimpse into the good/bad girl phenomena when I was warned to dress appropriately. I upset a Korean friend's Grandmother when I failed to place a pillow over my bent knees, playing yut nori, on the floor in a skirt.
I was also sternly warned to never label a child a "bad boy" or "bad girl." That's obvious to me; comment on behavior, not character. You're acting bad, not you are bad.
But appearances are of utmost importance in Korea. On the bus ride back from the Folk Village, an adult student discussed the Korean focus on being exemplary. For women this means being beautiful and kind with a "good character." Smart? Talented? That's a plus.
I've heard that Korean women occasionally go through a procedure to repair their hymens and fake virginity on their wedding night. Purity is glorified, and it may be a root of the obsession with white skin. Whitening lotions are pushed at every cosmetics shop in Korea. I was even given samples of whitening toners, when I bought mascara-- and I'm as pale as they get.
Although Korea has a big drinking culture, women who drink more than a couple of beers are often judged. The average Korean guy is not impressed by a girl who can hold her liquor, let alone one who can't. I've mentioned women's bathroom stalls filled with smoke on sunny days. Smoking speaks of a woman's lack of discipline and generally poor character.
Some male University students told me they preferred, "a lady," someone feminine and easy to talk to. Tae Hun described a willowy Korean girl with hair done up in a bun. Even in a developed country where one night stands happen and there's a motel every 5 blocks, traditions prevail.
A male coworker disputed the whole tomboy thing by writing, "Eva is a lady," on the white board. He meant it as a major compliment. He later said he was repulsed by one of our coworkers, a broad-shouldered and opinionated woman with a husky voice. She can eat a lot, she can play poker and pocket ball. Her strong character would be admired in the West. In fact, I aspire to be more like her.


Jane Milton said...

Good entry Eva! I have to get on it. =) I will springboard off yours and add my perspective on my blog. As soon as I finish up some contracts. Ugh. Contracts. The "C" word. =)

Anonymous said...

(No shoulder bearing or low cut tops) ? Really ? Somehow it seems to me that, women in seoul seem to wear lesser than I thought. mmmm....

MUD said...

Great Post. Good insight. MUD

Helena said...

I puzzled people by running around in jeans and hiking boots most of the time. In fact once I was washing my hands in the girls' bathroom and a girl came in and asked me if I was a boy or a girl.

Kevin said...

I asked 3 different Koreans about the dirty looks when asian girls are with western guys. I got two different answers. A female Korean friend asked her dad, her dad said it had to do with the Korean war and American soldiers with prostitues. Two other friends both told me it had to do with the english spectrum incident in 2005. Some westerners wrote that Korean girls were bad girls etc, it was plastered all over the news and a movement developed trying to get rid of ALL english teachers. Link:

peter piper said...

how come the age of consent is 13? someone told me this and i thought they were joking at first. if they want virginal girls, why would that be?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I did agree Seoul women are much more modern than other parts of Korea..but they are definately not as conservative in dressing as I thought to be.
I seen seoul women wear hot mini shorts, mini tank-tops, singlets, mini-skirts, mini-dresses, clothes revealing shoulders and chest with push up bras to leviate their cliff chests. And their dressing is brightly coloured like light bulbs on the streets if you looking at it from skyview..
Mmmm.. I am stating trendy young women dresscode in Seoul.
And the celebrities..i seen in popseoul website..They are dressed lingerie? I mean some singers..So, Are they labelled as bad girls too?

I am the major change in modern and unmodern areas in korea. in rual areas seem more conservative in thoughts as you mention.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a Korean-American male, I tend to view these "rules of culture" in Korea with a downward negative eye. I feel no reason to respect or search for rationalizations for such rules, attitudes, or observations as they're likely to be irrational anyway. If I were a foreigner in Korea I'd be a rejectionist overbrimming with criticism.

So, to be a little more specific here... Hmm. Tanktops are not ok, yet short shorts are? Right. Let's just drop these pretensions to decorum or at least drop the indignation when someone doesn't observe propriety as you (ie clueless ahjusshi or ahjumma) do.

Anonymous said...

ps: Well, I can understand the negative looks a Korean girl gets from hanging out with American GI's, though I think there ought to be discrimination for the general foreigner/slash ESL teacher in Korea. The history of Korea's women with Americans doesn't a lovely love story make. One rather associates a horny, brutish Western guy, brothel culture, a prostitute girl getting knocked up and later giving birth to children out of wedlock and the rest of the nine. What kind of tolerance should a society develop toward this sort of filth? And I'm not entirely sure if the next breed of male American/Western expat/esl teacher in Korea do much to overcome the negative stereotypes established by their US military uncles.

Anonymous said...

pps: by "discrimination for the general foreigner in Korea" above, I mean "discriminating" in the sense of discerning/understanding.

supersoulfly said...

Nice hot topic. Seeing as I will be joining the ESL teacher ranks in Korea next month this is very interesting. I have no desire to change or judge the Korean culture while I am there. I would just like to come to a better understanding of the culture. Discussions like this enlighten that culture for me.
How does this good/bad girl label extend to you Eva? Are you viewed as a bad girl when you are out in public with a male Korean? Are your male Korean friends viewed in a different way for associating with a foriegn female?

Eva Karrin McKinnon said...

I love Korea. I was afraid to do this post because of reactions like yours. I KNOW I'm giving generalizations, but it opens the floor for discussion and people love this sort of thing!
Korea is more traditional than the West and it's fun to try to analyze the differences. I'm not taking my own "article" with a grain of seriousness.
ALL of my friends are Korean, I only eat Korean food, I'm even trying to learn some of the language. I don't mean any harm.

Aaron said...

I'm a male, but for some reason I just hate the word "lady." It brings to mind Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, and women who don't sass their man. Whenever I hear the word, I think of a hairy-chested man, collar-unbuttoned, saying, "oh yeah, I know about...the ladies."

Anonymous said...

iv heard that a lot if not the majority of esl teachers have few, if any close korean friends, why is that? how did you meet most of your korean friends?

Eva Karrin McKinnon said...

I've met most of my Korean friends through OTHER Korean friends (friends of friends...) In Canada my University roommates included a Korean guy, so he was able to introduce me to some people when he got back to Korea.

hahahha Aaron, you made me laugh. PS- fantastic blog! want me to add it to my link list?

Supersoulfly- Am I considered a good or bad girl. Hah! I'll reply tonight.

Peter Piper- for legal reasons, obviously. I'm just saying purity is idealized. BTW, I happen to know a LOT of Koreans in their 20's who are virgins.

Aaron said...

By all means, link away. I'll even reciprocate, though you shouldn't be expecting much of an increase in hits.


Eva Karrin McKinnon said...

Done, Aaron.

Q: How does this good/bad girl label extend to you Eva? Are you viewed as a bad girl when you are out in public with a male Korean? Are your male Korean friends viewed in a different way for associating with a foriegn female?

A: Well, my female coworkers joked that when a Korean guy is seen with me, people assume he has something like a lot of money. It's a common misconception that caucasian girls are not interested in Korean guys. S-T-E-R-E-O-T-Y-P-E.

Thanks to shows like 'Girls Gone Wild' I think caucasian girls ARE seen as more promiscuous than Asian girls, but I don't think anyone automatically assumes I'm "bad." I usually cover up and I'm gentle mannered.

People are very CURIOUS to see me walking down the street with a Korean guy, but you get used to the stares, it isn't a big deal. As I've said, even I stare when I spot a foreigner! No matter who she or he is with.

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Edward said...

I'm a korean-american. I just moved to Korea a week ago.. I lived in the US all my life.. it's definitely a difficult adjustment even thought i have korean roots.. i am american.. i do know some of the korean language because of my parents back in the states.. everyday i am learning more and more of the korean language.. i would like to know what there is to do in suwon??!! i feel like seoul is where i should be.. but if u have any suggestions let me know.. i am bored as fuck in here.. lol ok get back to me.. thanks!

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Anonymous said...

"women who drink more than a couple of beers are often judged."

It seems it is still the same...

I'm probably your friends' parents generation.

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