Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
It seems like all anyone in Portland can talk about these past weeks is “normcore” – that is to say: the trend of donning baggy, worn-in/worn-out clothes that recommend themselves far more to comfort than fashion. Old, ugly grandpa shoes that look like they came from Rite-Aid. Stained fleece vests with obscure logos above the zippered breast pocket. Bad haircuts. Piebald T-shirts with unironic holes in the hems, and, yes, thick camping socks paired with any brand of sporty sandals.
Like most fashion trends, normcore incubated in NYC before cutting its stodgy track westward. And, also like most fashion trends, as soon as it reached our fair Pacific Northwestern city, all anyone could do was grouse and gripe about how people around here have already been dressing that way for, like, decades, man.
It’s true that polar fleece and pilly corduroys and unkempt toilettes have long been a mainstay in these soggy parts, but normcore takes the Pacific Northwest’s frumpish bent to a new level. Just think about it: a fashion movement that pays reverent credence to the tatty threads of your junior high math teacher (not the cute one; the other one, who was addicted to breath mints and blinked too much), and in which a person’s participation may well be inadvertent and even entirely unwilling.
I may be peptic and teetering on middle age, but I’m not immune to the persistent tug of the cultural undertow. And I kind of like the aesthetic pissiness behind normcore. I like the unsmiling counter to pretention it purports to purport. I can’t help it.
So this month, uncharacteristically on trend, I’ve been pondering some pretty big changes to my own appearance. I’ve decided to stop wearing makeup, mostly; to stop dyeing my hair, possibly; and to quit shaving my legs or painting my toenails, definitely. Maybe for awhile, or maybe for forever. I haven’t decided that part. And I’ve also been thinking about how I might incorporate more spandex and cotton and eliminate anything requiring buttons or laces or a non-elastic inseam into my everyday dress. Minimalism, writ small. Less is more. Etc.
To be fair, it’s not a very substantive philosophical leap. I’m already chronically underdressed, and I’m already a proven distruster of cute stuff.
It started a long ways back, this inability to abide over-cuteness. Elementary School: Yes, I had a thing for poofy headbands, and, yes, I consorted regularly with a rotating cast of herniated teddy bears and one-eyed Lilliput dolls. (Shoutout to J.J.! Sorry I’ve forced you to live in that ghastly wicker trunk these past few decades). But the color pink revolted me, and I recoiled instinctively at images of kittens batting fuzzy balls of yarn in requisitely enchanted meadows. When my mom said I could paint my childhood bedroom any color I wanted, I picked sea green. Pukey, disgusting sea green. It was awesomely hideous, like living inside of an unscrubbed fish tank.
Cut to junior high: a friend and I stole our younger sisters’ old, tatty Barbie dolls, and with the help of a few sharpie markers and a dull pair of liberated art room scissors, we re-imagined them into disembodied prostitute heads. We shoved key rings through their newly mohawked skulls and hung them from our backpacks. We even hatched a never-realized plan to sell the little bobbles to the Hot Topic goth-punk accessory store at the mall for $7 apiece. Our bent for the macabre placed us in good enough company. This was Portland, circa, 1993, after all. A few-hundred quick miles to the north in Seattle, a tidal wave of All Things Grungy was cresting, and whipping far older, far cooler kids than we into a frothy fervor of postmodern credulity as it broke. By the time those ripples washed up on the doorstep of my suburban junior high school, the Sea of Counterculture had grown shallow and slippy as a wading pool. I feasted on the scraps, nonetheless, idolizing dour-faced cartoon mascots and dead musicians and painting my fingernails black.
Cut to post-college: Come the dull days of the after-Millennium, the fervor had abated some. Certainly, nobody thought much about Kurt Cobain or his guitar pick anymore, myself included. I’d long-since abandoned Daria-inspired deadpan credulity and oversized flannel, deeming both ill-fitting, but I’d retained a bit of that Pacific Northwest-bred existential ire as well as an abiding suspicion of anything that seemed overly precious. Being unable to find a job suited to either my fuzzy liberal arts degree or to my vaguely artistic temperament and love of rising late, I decided to decamp for a stint teaching English in South Korea.
Every country gets the foreigners it deserves.
Newly upwardly mobile, only recently hermetically unsealed, and prone to gobbling and recorrelating Western Culture with the voracity of an atom smasher, Korea circa 2005, as it turns out, was the veritable nerve center of the Cute Aesthetic in the Post-Millennial era: frilly bows, teddy bears and reams of pink ribbon everywhere. And I mean every-where.
I landed there by something of an accident, and I blame the misstep on a pure, unadulterated cultural ignorance-ignominy. That, and a complete failure to do any kind of research whatsoever before boarding a plane and adopting a brand-new country of residence. To my mind, Seoul was a strange-days metropolis tucked blinkingly into a fantastical, faraway land filthy with fried noodles and futurism. When my yearlong teaching contract for Seoul came through, visions of anime and raw fish and Brilliantly Cast Mad Goth Youth with tri-color hair had danced enticingly inside my head. Sadly, I was imprinting the cultural symbology of Japan onto South Korea, which turned out, as it turns out, to be an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT COUNTRY.
And as it also turns out, my assumptions were pretty wrong. Pretty, ugly wrong. There was no platinum hair bleach to be had in South Korea. (I searched for it.) There were no six-inch platform black buckle boots, no vending machines hawking used panties and canned coffee 86 ways. There had certainly never been a Kurt Cobain. South Korea was buttoned up to its pretty, perfect collarbone, its people proper, obnoxiously Christian, and bedazzled to within an inch of their life with lace and polka dots and cheap cameo buttons.
I rolled into town a frumpy foreigner with scratched glasses, cut-‘em-yourself bangs and an arsenal of back hoodies. My appearance, nay, my very existence, elicited enormous confusion, pity and horror in almost every Korean I encountered pretty much from the get-go, from the first real, live Korean I laid eyes on: Hannah, my one-time supervisor.
Oh, Hannah … doe-eyed, modest and fond of virginal, polyester ankle-length skirts. She was a born-again Christian pushing 30, and she would eventually be sacked by our boss, Mr. Khang, for being too mousey even for Korean sensibilities. (Months later, Mr. Kang explained his decision to fire her this way: “Hannah’s personality … Very bad.”)
I’m not sure what Hannah had imagined when she was told she would be acculturating a Real Live Westerner to Korean customs and culture, but I definitely left her wanting. Hannah was astonished when I told her I preferred to cut my own hair, and horrified when I told her, in front of all her Christian friends, that I believed in Jesus not one whit. When Hannah discovered that I didn’t own a pair of high heels, she forced me to accompany her to a local arcade to shop for new shoes, an errand to which I very grumpily consented. I can still see her there in one of a dozen shoe stores we visited that day, surrounded by raven-haired, Kewpie doll women, all of them squatting around me and trying to stuff my long, skinny feet into one pair after another of hideous $5 Chinese-issue heels. To my relief and glee, we were unable to find a pair of high heels in my size (an eight) anywhere.
“I think you must be a monster,” Hannah said, waving a patent leather peek-toe at me scoldingly as the Kewpie army giggled behind their hands. Cutely. Sweetly, while I burned and bubbled inside with the fire of a thousand flaming drip-candles at the indignity of it all.
I hated that I couldn’t just wear my Converse to school. (The boss had nixed this endeavor on day two of school.) I hated that the hairdresser refused to cut or dye my hair in the style I liked because “It not look good.” I hated the fact that my C-cup boobs spilled out of even extra-large sweaters and bras and that I was regularly called, to my face, “Big-Sized,” although at 5’3 and 135 pounds, I could hardly be considered obese.
Once, I joined friends on a weekend river rafting trip in the countryside. I showed up on the riverbank attired in board shorts and sports sandals. A few Korean women preparing to embark their own raft nearby gave my footwear a pitying stare as they gingerly and shriekingly conducted themselves into their inflatable boat. Their unease was warranted: both women were wearing stiletto high heels.
I wanted to shake! I wanted to shout: “I am dressed appropriately for this occasion! I AM NOT the one who looks weird!”
But I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. Instead, I dumped a good share of that pique onto Hannah. Technically, she was my boss, but I disobeyed her whenever I pleased. When my Mr. Khang and Mr. Kim attempted to rejigger my contract so as to add in 14 extra unpaid teaching days, I crossed my arms and made unbending counter-demands. I knew Hannah would have to bring them to my bosses, and I knew that they’d scream at her because they couldn’t scream at me. And I wasn’t even sorry. In a way, she embodied everything that I hated about my new life but was powerless to alter. If she was so into Western ideas, why couldn’t she stop haranguing me for my disbeliever status, for my (not even that) big boobs, for my refusal to wear red lipstick and cheap, shitty high heels? The whole thing was maddening. Just maddening.
During my 13 months in Not-Japan, I came to detest Cuteness with a fervor that would have given even my 13-year-old, Barbie-mutilating self pause. As a fully grown, sexually-liberated Western woman, though, my vexations extended well beyond a mere aesthetic discord. I was consistently flummoxed by Korean women of my same age who claimed to know nothing about sex. One woman I knew even swore she had no idea what sex was until she’d been married at 28. I’d heard enough salacious, beer-fueled after-hours confessionals from my male Western counterparts to infer that this posturing was, most of the time, only posturing.
Once, a group of Western friends and I decided to lay out a blanket at a recurring neighborhood yard sale to offload some of the junk that was piling up in our shoebox apartments. One American friend brought a box of tampons to sell. The tampons baffled and fascinated the curious parade of Korean women who came to look over our goods. Nobody seemed to have any idea what purpose the little cotton rockets served, and, really, how do you explain it in pantomime? One trail-blazing Korean woman with whom we taught ended up tucking the box discreetly into her purse before the day was out. I wanted to high-five her.
Was all of this gimlet-eyed innocence merely a ruse to curry the amusement and approval of us White Folk? Were these women just following deep cultural protocol by play-acting it cute and coy, or had these women – many of them college educated – really never encountered a penis or a tampon before? I never figured it out for certain.
What I did know for certain was that my mad Asian sojourn wasn’t panning out in a very global sense. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere on my way to Tokyo and had slipped through an open manhole straight into some fresh confabulation of Hell, only with better air-conditioning and cooler electronics.
Lucky for me, a quick and timeless coping mechanism was at my flummoxed disposal: heavy drinking. Lots and lots of heaving drinking – something of a national pastime in South Korea. I shocked even myself, that year, with my behavior, and the memory of these wicked indiscretions remains scissor-sharp a half-decade out: me, causing a near riot one Friday night outside of a convenience store—the way the chairs and bottles flew—or the time I dumped water all over the crotch of a stranger’s pants and then stole a pair of underwear from a department store. The time I punched a Korean guy in the face for trying to kiss me and then ran down the alley crying hysterically. I rejected, wholesale, the upside-down pyramid of Confucian tradition, except when I needed to cut to the front of the line at the Family Mart or the bank. Then I gleefully pulled rank.
Based on what I observed, I wasn’t the only foreigner reacting poorly to life in a cute-obsessed, socially repressive Confucian-Christian society, nor was I alone in using strong drink to help me abide the shifting cultural coordinates. In comparison with the bad acting of some of my fellow expats, my sins hardly even qualified me for the Expat Dishonor Roll.
When I lived in South Korea, the Weiguks were a non-distinct herd of American military personnel and fly-by-night ESL teachers, and they embodied a predictably rotating cast of types: over-sexed GIs and the Russian whores who serviced them, baldish, lurking men in their forties who smelled like mothballs and hadn’t bought a new pair of slacks since the Reagan administration (very normcore before it was normcore, yes?), pimply post-grad geeks thrilled to no end to find themselves recast as highly eligible bachelors, and then the ones like me: women who were young, single, a little curious, a little rebellious, and none too fancy themselves.
If Robertson Davies’ claim about countries deserving their expats is true, then judging by the make of Westerners – called, by the Koreans, “Weiguks,” – who poured into central Seoul to “unwind” each Saturday night circa 2006, South Korea had some serious explaining to do.
One spot popular among the local expatriate population in those days was a restaurant called Carne Station – a rowdy dinner-and-drink buffet that offered all-you-can-stuff-down-your-gullet meat and liquor spreads for about 20 American dollars.
The buffet catered to the crudely mammalian sensibilities of your average big eating and big drinking foreigner, and by 8 p.m. on any given weekend night, that place would transmogrify into a demented kind of ad-hoc United Nations comprised of short-tempered, deep-pocketed Weiguks of varying provenance, all desperate to let off a little ethnological steam.
One might catch sight of a select few Koreans clustered in small groups about the dining area, daintily piloting single-bite hunks of beef to their mouths with silver chopsticks, but visits to this buffet were, by and large, a foreign affair. One might see some tow-headed South African guy shoving a fistful of soggy lettuce down his girlfriend’s pants. She mightn’t be wearing any panties, either, and she might retaliate by smearing a half-cooked slab of beef into his hair. At the ice cream machine, a thin Canadian girl might scream and jump backward as brown liquid streams out of the broken soft-serv dispenser, quickly overpowering the catch tray and snaking a long, chocolately turd across the floor. Another resourceful Canadian might drag a chair over to the self-service liquor center and attach his mouth to the pour spout. Several Australians will no doubt be standing on chairs and belting out their national anthem, to the whooping delight of tablemates. The air might buzz with a thoughtless, chemical exuberance, the Korean wait-staff hovering tremulously around the edges of the dining room, looking fearful and exhausted.
By the end of any such night, nasty gobs of chili sauce and quail-egg salad would be dripping slowly down the walls. Chairs would be left upturned and the air would ring with the high, delicate sound of soju bottles hitting the floor. I think, too, that somewhere inside of each one of us poorly behaved Weiguks, something deeper was also shattering.
For many Weiguks, South Korea seemed to be a temporary portal back to junior high. But I had HATED junior high! And I certainly hadn’t intended to revisit that Chamber of Horrors in adulthood. What did our collective reprobation indicate about us in the end, after all the walls had been scrubbed free of raw meat and booze, the floors bleached, the ice cream machine put to rights? Perhaps that we were hypocrites, clean and simple.
My adopted home, too, it seemed, defined itself by an irreconcilable set of contradictions. Every Korean I met over the age of about 50 could harken back to a time of great destitution, when food and electricity were scant luxuries. Cut to 2006, and a good 75 percent of the grade school students I taught each day carried cell phones. Generation gap? Try generation chasm. The old and young seemed to baffle each other, and they were united in their bafflement at the growing number of hairy, light-eyed creatures moving among them, drinking copiously, demanding odd foods and monstrous shoe sizes and talking always just a bit too loud.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.”
That winter, my long-distance boyfriend, a sailor I’d met in a cantina in Mexico the year before, came for an extended visit. He was burly, handsome, tattooed, and the Koreas treated him like a movie star. My bosses were constantly inviting him to join them and the elementary school principals they worked for on whiskey-fueled-gambling-hooker-karaoke-binges, offers which he demurely declined.
Over Christmas weekend, I fell ill with stomach flu. The sailor plied me with strange, bland foods as I lay convalescing in my sardine can apartment. On Christmas Day, he went out to pick us up a sweet-potato pizza. Upon his return to the apartment, he bashfully described his encounter with the teenaged Korean girl behind the pizza parlor counter.
She’d smiled slyly at him and asked him, to the glee of her co-workers, “You think I bea-u-ti-ful?”
I didn’t solicit further detail. I didn’t need to. I could see her plain as day: cute, petite, giggling coyly behind her hand while I lay there in the apartment in my ill-fitting Korean pajamas, my hair a mess, my gut rumbling. I felt ugly and annoyed and diminished.
To his eternal credit: The Sailor (whom I’d always secretly considered to be just a bit out of my league, looks-wise), dismissed the Kewpie Girl wholesale, then wrapped his arms around my sickly body and told me I was beautiful just as I was.
I’ve kept a photo of us taken on that chilly, strange weekend so far from our respective homes, snuggled on my bed with a plate of sandwiches, me looking wan, my hair akimbo, and him nuzzling me adoringly. It’s funny I’ve hung onto it, because I hate the way I look in this photo. I do, however, love the way he looks in this photo: Adoring, thrilled.
Alas. Not long after the pizza-parlor incident, The Sailor kissed me goodbye and hopped a plane west. That spring, he headed off to Panama, where he cheated on me.
We broke up. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl in the pizza parlor. I wondered about my plainness. I wondered how much it had mattered, in the end. I wondered how my life might have been different if I’d been better at abiding girly things. Would it have made him love me more, or for longer?
I fell into a deep depression. And the only thing that made me feel better, aside from the requisite heavy drinking, which continued with gusto, was spending money. I hoarded plastic tubs of little two-dollar eye shadows and one-dollar nail polishes. I bought expensive dresses and cheap, patent leather shoes that squashed my toes and I squirted on perfume every time I left the house. I was a woman drowning, and this cute kit was my existential life raft, impervious to stilettoed jabs of any kind. I dyed my hair a sweet, virginal strawberry blonde and survived on milk tea and rice triangles filled with tuna or kimchi. I bided my time. I lost weight. My contract came up. I left in a huff.
Back home in Portland, I relaxed a bit. I gave myself a blue mohawk and started wearing a pair of green knockoff Converse shoes I’d bought from the men’s section of a shoe store in Seoul. My brand new Korean wardrobe fell promptly apart, piece by piece. I bought underwear that actually fit. I started getting dates again. I forgave The Sailor for his peccadillo. I forgave myself for not caring about all the things I didn’t care about, and I tried to figure out how to love myself again, immodestly, without provisions or fancy soaps or costume jewelry to aid in the endeavor. It was not easy.
Korea was years ago by now, but my compunction to spritz and tweeze and accouter myself has hung stubbornly on. It’s probably fatally unhip to cop to this, but the emergence of the normcore movement – if it’s really even a legitimate “thing” at all – feels for me like its own strange brand of long-awaited permission. Permission to rethink my relationship to the world’s cute things, and to its plain things, as well, whichever side of the tally I rightfully belong on.
And Old Confucius, for all his schizophrenic overwankings on filial piety and the foolishness of the female sex, was right at least about that one thing: beauty is all around us, but sometimes, it’s mighty hard to spot.
Korea, with its insistence that everything good must also be cute and vice versa, rearranged me. Permanently. I suppose there is a very real danger in finding yourself in a place where you are held to few, if any, of the social standards of beauty and conduct you’ve come to see as static. Implicit. So you throw the rulebook back at its issuers. You start to push mousy women named Hannah around. You cut your own bangs. You buy cheap, shitty clothes to plug the holes in your own weary heart. You throw slabs of meat at people. And then you slink home in disgrace and wonder what any of it meant at all.
In the fullness of time, though, I’ve become somehow grateful for the intercultural skirmishes I endured there, even the ones that left me a bit cratered and disfigured. I’ve come to suspect that maybe, like Confucius opined, the most important kind of wisdom is the hard-fought kind. The kind that rankles bitter on the tongue and sometimes even temporarily unhinges you. The kind that makes you rage and weep and stumble along into your too-small shoes until you’ve lost the path completely and are wandering through mean, technicolor wilderness.
And you cry and you cry and you cry until you find that you have finally finished with all of that old nonsense. And then you unbuckle the shoes. And you tend to your agonies and your losses: you wiggle your too-long toes, and you bandage your feet and you put on fuzzy wool socks and a pair of sports sandals and you nod at the missteps dotting away into infinity at your back, and you turn and you amble forth with an ease you once believed had been lost to you forever.
And you get the hell on with things. You walk.