Written by Grace Gair ETA’08-09
In middle school I had the startling realization that I could no longer read anything on the board. I was mortified when I had to get glasses and to this day I only wear them in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Korea, however, is a different story. Here the larger, the brighter, the thicker the glasses, the better. In the last year one of the biggest pop culture trends has been the advent of the “mega glasses,” a term I’ve coined for the extra large, two-inch plus in height and width glasses that have become so popular here. In a world full of gray and khaki plaid-pleated jumpers, navy ties and crisp, white oxford cloth, the jaunty plastic frames add a hint of humor and humility to an otherwise staunch uniformity.
As an English teacher always looking for an excuse to strike up conversation, and as an anthropologist with a bizarre fascination for cultural artifacts, I love asking kids about their glasses. “How many pairs of glasses do you have?” In America, this wouldn’t be hard, but in Korea, sometimes fingers are involved: “Umm… black… blue… brown,” they mumble, as their eyes look toward the ceiling, trying to imagine the shelf at home where their precious frames rest on their off days.
“Mega glasses,” an outgrowth of ganji style, a Japanese term referring to a particular Korean street style, have become a cornerstone of Korean pop culture. Korean celebrities are often seen sporting giant Nixon-era black rimmed frames in a seemingly ironic effort to look more chic, more 섹시 (sexy). A recent ad campaign for the LG cell phone “Lollipop” features one of Korea’s top boy bands, Big Bang, and debut girl band, 2NE1, in a duet sporting the phone’s namesake while clad in candy-colored garb and 80’s throw-back accessories. Despite all the bright colors, lollipop props and sparkly make-up, one can’t help but notice that TOP, one of the favorite Big Bang members, sports gigantic black, plastic glasses.
So what does this say about Korean society, and particularly school culture? Glasses in Korea are far more than just seeing geometry on the board from the back of the classroom. Ironically, kids who don’t even need glasses do, in fact, “need” glasses. It is not uncommon to see a kid playing with their glasses in class, twirling them in their hands and poking their fingers through where the lenses should be — as lenses are not always essential in Korean optical fashion. When you ask students why they like their gigantic frames, you are bound to discover that they are either a “fashion trend” or “good style” or “famous style” and for the most part, this is true. However, some students will also reveal to you that the large size of the frames and the wide lenses are believed to make small eyes look larger and large heads look smaller — creating the illusion of the cultural preference for “small faces.”
Pop culture is quite a force to be reckoned with in the lives of Korean students. Arguably more so than in the West, pop culture in Korea tends to forcibly govern music preferences, brand preferences and of course, fashion. A long history of geographic isolation and colonization, as well as an overwhelming ethnic homogeneity intensify the strength of cultural forces in Korea. For most Americans, having grown up with Sesame Street and at the very least some sense of the value of multiculturalism and pluralism, it is very difficult to appreciate the pressure of a monoculture.
“Mega glasses” are curious in that they seek to be unique, yet given the sheer number of students wearing them, they have come to add to the overall homogeneity of the student persona. This phenomenon of the unique becoming pedestrian is commonplace in youth culture everywhere but has a particular potency in Korea. As seen with “mega glasses,” conformity is not only desirous but in many ways required. Unlike most pop culture trends in the West, pressure to follow a trend in Korea comes not only horizontally from friends and classmates but also vertically, from parents, teachers and greater society. It isn’t that parents tell children that they must follow every pop culture whim, but they do expect their children to adhere to societal conceptions of what it means to be a Korean student. If pop culture dictates that Korean students wear big plastic glasses and Korean students love pop culture, then Korean students should wear big plastic glasses.
So what do plastic glasses have to do with teaching English in Korea? In the case of the English teacher, recognizing and understanding the struggle between individuality and group acceptance is crucial in balancing many issues inside the classroom. English is a subject that everyone needs to be good at (the nationalized test administered at the end of high school demands high proficiency in English grammar), but being “too good” or “too bad” can be socially costly. As we teach, we must seek to grasp that while societal expectations are an overwhelming narrative we must not lose sight of the individual and the individual experience of learning English. Just as students do not always need “mega glasses,” they do not necessarily need to lack confidence in their English speaking, even though lacking confidence is something that has come to be expected — it’s almost part of what it means to be a Korean student. But when an English teacher has the opportunity to speak to a student alone, more often than not students are able to communicate not only efficiently but also creatively. Getting students to work around that expectation and to feel comfortable in their own right takes both time and a keen understanding of the dynamics of a monoculture environment.
In Korean society, glasses serve a number of latent and manifest functions important to both school culture and to the individual students who wear them. The unique relationships that exist between glasses and student, student and society, are ones that are deeply reflected in pop culture and its trends. For the foreign teacher, pop culture and the towering place it has in our students’ lives can be key, not only in connecting with students but also in understanding the intricacies and power of cultural forces in Korea. In the end, we must not forget that the same forces that gave birth to and successfully perpetuate the “mega glasses” phenomenon do not sit outside the classroom door; in fact, they often sit and stare at you.