Written by Allison Bautista
“How do you describe yourself?”
Her big eyes widening behind her glasses, she began to rub her palms on her skirt as her breath quickened. Finally, she cracked a smile as she remembered the answer she had written and memorized for the speaking test.
“I describe myself as ugly.”
For many nonnative speakers, the language barrier in Korea feels most obvious and impeding when interacting with the occasional cantankerous taxi driver or a determinedly gracious 아줌마[1. An elderly, married woman] waiting at a bus stop. The frustration I feel with my weak Korean skills always surfaces with the subject of beauty. When my 14-year-old host sister, a top student at my school, came home to recuperate after a series of cosmetic surgeries, I struggled to express sincerity in telling her she was beautiful, just as she was before. “Wow. 이쁘다[2. Pretty],” I offered. She gave me a weak smile, now accentuated by a new dimple in her right cheek, and blinked her heavy, more-defined eyelids at me, clearly unconvinced.
Each floor of my all-girls’ middle school showcases tall, wide mirrors each student must pass by to access any of the classrooms. It’s impossible to not catch a glimpse of yourself. My girls flock to the mirrors in between classes to fluff their bangs, sneak lip tint and pick at their double eyelid tape. “Teacher, so beautiful!” they croon as I pass by, and I throw the compliment right back. It is always followed by a sharp rebuttal: “Teacher, no. Very ugly.” “Teacher, she face so big.” “Teacher, she very fat.” In a culture of deference and reservation, I sometimes wonder how such humility shapes self-consciousness.
When I look out into my classroom, I see 536 younger versions of myself. I vividly remember the pain of neon-colored braces pulling at my crooked teeth. I can feel the itchy starch from my ill-fitting uniform. I remember my cheeks blushing from embarrassment the first time I wore the glasses my mom had picked out for me. These feelings of burning self-consciousness transcend cultural lines and affect children of all ages everywhere in the world. As a girl who has sat on their side of the desk, I feel responsible for telling my students that they’re all beautiful, but there’s so much more to life than having thin calves or enhanced irises. Every day, I want to pull their heads out of their mirrors and into the world of things that genuinely matter. More often than not, I fail at this. My Korean is unsophisticated and I can never know if they truly hear my words. But if their teacher, 언니[3. Older sister, used by a female speaker to refer to someone at least one year older than herself], and friend does not try to tell them their worth is more than skin-deep, who will?
“I describe myself as ugly.”
I gaped at her and responded, “No! That’s not at all true.”
“Teacher, yes! I am ugly,” she stammered back.
Digging for a more genuine answer, I pressed, “No, you are not. I do not like that answer. How do you describe yourself?”
She squirmed in her seat, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of both a response she hadn’t memorized and going against her desire to stay humble.
“I describe myself… as…” she hesitated. “Pretty.”
I was satisfied with her positive answer, but I also hoped there might be something deeper and more important she truly felt about herself that she would share. “And…?”
Without hesitation, in a soft voice, she added, “…and smart.”
Allison Bautista was a 2013-2014 ETA at Seogwipo Girls’ Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju-do.