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Kien Beard Stories

Kien Beard Stories

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Published by: Communication and Media Studies on Dec 20, 2012
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10.1177/1077800404269427QUALITATIVEINQUIRY/Month2004Kien/BEARDSTORIES
Beard Stories:Signification of Facial HairIn and Out of South Korea
Grant Kien
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Tosportabeard signifies something.Stories are notgenerallywrittenaboutbeing cleanshaven. Although perfectly natural, a beard is an add on, like an extra appendage. Abeardisastylechoice.Thisseriesofautoethnographicvignettesshowssomeoftheaddedeffectsofabeardfeltbyabodyaestheticthatalreadysignifies“foreigner”inthenationalimaginaryofSouthKorea.Whatbeginswithasimpleassumptionaboutamarkeroffor-eignnessanddifferencelaterservesasasignifierofnormativetropes,anethnicidentifier,asasexualandpoliticalmarker,andeventuallycomestounveiladeeperculturaldimen-sionwithinthecontextofitsinterpretation.Finally,throughtheprocessofreflectingonits erasure, the depth of personal significance of the beard in question is revealed.
 Keywords:
Western culture; autoethnography; South Korea; Seoul; performance
1. THE ENVIOUS SHOESHINE
It’smorning,about8:30a.m.I’mwalkingfrommyapartmentbyYeoksamStationtotheschoolwhereIwork,acoupleofblocksfromGangnamStation.I’mthinkingaboutwheretocrossthebusy,traffic-jammedSeochoroStreetsoI can get a coffee and bagel at the Starbucks along the way . . . maybe at thecrosswalk right after this shoeshine booth? As I pass the new office towerunderconstructionbesidetheStarTower,Ihearaman’svoiceshout“HEY!!”Istopandlookintotheshoeshineboothbesidethebusystreet.Iseeonemandiligentlyworkingonashoeandanothermoredisheveled-lookingmanstar-ing fiercely at me with a big smile on his face. He embarks on some kind of invective in Korean that I can’t understand a word of, gesticulating whileslowlyadvancingtowardme.“Hangulanio,(NoKorean)Ireplysleepilyinmy butchered approximation of his native language. He points to his chin,indicating what I now understand to be a reference to my short, box-cut beard.It’sraretoseeanyonewithfacialhairinSeoul,exceptfortheoddrebel-lious college student or musician. He puts up a hand and says what I take to
1
Qualitative Inquiry, Volume XX Number X, 2004 1-8DOI: 10.1177/1077800404269427© 2004 Sage Publications
 
mean “Wait,” turns back into his booth, and rummagesthrougha small box.Excited,heturnstowardmeagain,thistimearmedwithwhatIrecognizeasapink,woman’sBickrazor.Hemakessomeagitatedslashingmotionswiththerazor, yelling “Yar! Yar! Yar!! . . .” and laughing hysterically. I smile big as Iexamine his greasy, patchy stubble–covered face. He looks to me like he’s beendrinkingforatleast2daysandisbadlyinneedofashower.Istartlaugh-ing and pointing at him, saying in English, “YOU’RE the one who needs ashave man! Look at you!! I shave and trim my beard every morning dude!”We’renowbothlaughing,butIdecidetotakeitonestepfurther.Ipulloutmydictionary and find the Korean word for envy. “Sem!” I say, laughing. Thisrenewshishysteria,andheyellsjovially,“Ne,ne,ne!(Yes,yes,yes,I’mjeal-ous!). “Anyongi kyeseyo,” I say, bow slightly, and turn to cross the streettoward Starbucks at the crosswalk beside his booth. “Anyong . . . ,” he callsout.I see himalmost everyweekdaymorningafterthat,andwenodhello toeach other in recognition of our moment of fun.
2. THE PHOTO-OP
I’msittingwithmyprivateEnglishstudentNaJunginthedimlylitrestau-rantthatmyfriendSuYeontookmetoformyfirstmealinSeoul.It’sintrendyGangnamgu (Gangnam neighborhood), ironically right beside the schoolwhere I work (ironic because we didn’t know this that first day that I wasthere). NaJung is an undergrad psychology major from Yonsei Universitywho wants to build a career in translation after she graduates. I’ve just fin-ishedteachingfortheevening,andshe’sjustcomefromherEnglishclassataHagwon(privateschool) nearby.Sheis impressed bymyability toorderourfood,althoughthisis,inmyopinion,anembarrassinglybasiclinguisticenter-prise.Whilewaitingforourfood,Ibeginadiscussion abouttheoriesofcom-munication, language and power, explicating the fundamentals of Lyotardand postmodernism more generally. Suddenly, a young woman and youngmanarestandingbyourtable.TheysimultaneouslybegintalkingtoNaJung.I assume they are friends of hers, but after half a minute she turns to me andexplains that the woman wants to take my picture. “She collects pictures of  beards and posts them on her Web site,” she tells me, “she really likes your beard.” “Oh!” I say, surprised. I inquire through NaJung whether she willmakemoneyoffofthepictureandaskifsheisaffiliatedwithanycorporationor company. After her assurances that it is entirely her own artistic project, Iagree to let her take my picture. She takes two shots, then gives me her cardwiththeURLoftheWebsite wheretheywill beposted scrawled ontoit.Theyoung man she is with asks in tentative English, “Where are you from?” Ireply,“Canada.HetellsmehestudiedinVancouverfor1year.ItellhimI’mfromTorontoandthathespeaksEnglishverywell.Hesmiles,thanksme,andgivesmehisbusinesscardinturn.Ifindoutthathiscompaniondoesn’tspeak
2 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / Month 2004
 
anyEnglishatall.ItellthemIhopeherprojectissuccessfulandthatI’llcheckthepictureonlinesoon.Theythankme,bowslightly,andreturntotheirtable behindours.Ourfoodarrivesshortlyafter,andNaJungandIpickupourcon-versation where we had left off. Later when I check the Web site, I find nopictures of beards whatsoever.
3. THE TAXI RIDE IN MOKDONG
“MokDongYok juseyo,” (to MokDong station please) I say to the taxidriver. I’m rushing from my American friend Sean’s apartment to catch thesubway back to my neighborhood, Yeoksamgu, before it quits running at 11p.m.“MokDongYok?”thedriververifies.“Ye,MokDongYokjuseyo,”Ireiter-ate. He tries a couple of phrases with me and quickly realizes I have no con-versationalknowledgeofKorean.Weproceed,listeningtothebarelyaudibleradio, until he suddenly begins an interrogation. Out of his numerous sen-tences, I understand him to ask “Hindu saram imnikka?” (You’re Indian?), but still I don’t totally understand at first. “Hindu . . . Hindu . . . ,” he says,pointing at me questioningly in the rearview mirror. I smile, amused. “Can-adasaramimnida,”Isay.“Canada,Irepeat.“Hmmm...,”hereplies,contin-uingtolookatmeinthemirrorandnowanimatedlybutunconsciously rub- bing his clean-shaven chin as if he is rubbing a beard. Suddenly he pulls thecarovertothecurb.“MokDongYok...,”hetells me,pointingtothesubwayentrance.Ipayhimandthankinghim,rushoutofthetaxitocatchmytrain.
4. BACKWARD-STARING GIRLS IN BUSAN
SeanandIareonaweekendtriptoBusan.ItisSunday.Weareontheeast-ernmosttipoftheKoreanpeninsula,havingjustvisited theeasternbeachonthe shore of Taejongdae. As we begin to descend along the road toward theparkexit,weapproachagroupofaboutfiveyoungwomenwalkingupintheoppositedirection.Aswegetnearer,theirconversationdropsinvolume,andI feel their eyes on my face. I smile and say, “Anyong haseyo” (Hello). Theycollectively giggle,andwecontinuepasteachother.IlookoveratSeanwho,headturnedbackoverhisshoulder,exclaims,“Shiiiiit...damn...howcomeno girls ever look at ME that way?!!” I follow his gaze back to the group of women and see they are all still staring at me, necks craning backward likeoursastheyproceeduptheincline.Theirconversationhasresumeditsprevi-ous pitch, and a couple smile, giggle, and avert their eyes when they noticeI’m looking back at them. “It’s the beard,” I reply in a serious, quiet voice toSean,“yougottagrowabeardifyouwantthatkindofattentioninthiscoun-try.”“Shit! Ican’tgrowabeardlikeyours!heexclaims.“Mineis alwaystoo
Kien / BEARD STORIES 3

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