How I Learned to Be Confident in Korea

I learned how to be confident in Korea,

holding my head high, high heels

announcing my presence,

steps echoing in a still-quiet subway station.

 

I learned how to be confident in Korea

starting with lip tint – for the moisturizer,

             then lipstick – it was a gift,

                          now BB cushions,

                                       oil cleanser,

                                       concealer,

                                       and double lash mascara.

 

I learned how to be confident in Korea

hearing unearned affirmations

praise for physical traits

previously disregarded

an anthem now follows in my wake:

             Small face

                          Small face

                                       Small face

                                                                  Your face is SO small!       

 

I learned when confidence fails me in Korea,

when despite heat and oil, my hair stretches her frizz high and wide

rebelling at the worst time,

on a morning missing mascara.

When the office is quiet, save for a hello or two,

             critical eyes pass over my hair, face, body

                          and say

                                       nothing.

 

Yet in crucial moments, a warrior emerges

             sword lifted high against

                          stereotypes,

                          gender roles

                          and fat-shaming rhetoric – relics of my code of honor.

 

False confidence shed and armor donned,

             I catch battles at every turn,

             from bus to lunchroom,

             in sight-seeing and church-going

                          but I in my righteous fight am far outnumbered.

The warrior retreats.

 

So I slip back into my new confidence,

and on a day when I’m dressed up nice,

             I slide open the office door and announce my presence,

             counting down the seconds until the first compliment

                          confirming

                                       that I am indeed

                                                    Beautiful.

Monica Heilman is a 2014-2016 ETA at Yeongdo Girls’ High School in Busan. She previously taught at Gimhae Jeil High School in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.