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1177/1077800404269427 Month 2004
Beard Stories: Signification of Facial Hair In and Out of South Korea
Grant Kien University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
To sport a beard signifies something. Stories are not generally written about being clean shaven. Although perfectly natural, a beard is an add on, like an extra appendage. A beard is a style choice. This series of autoethnographic vignettes shows some of the added effects of a beard felt by a body aesthetic that already signifies “foreigner” in the national imaginary of South Korea. What begins with a simple assumption about a marker of foreignness and difference later serves as a signifier of normative tropes, an ethnic identifier, as a sexual and political marker, and eventually comes to unveil a deeper cultural dimension within the context of its interpretation. Finally, through the process of reflecting on its 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’s morning, about 8:30 a.m. I’m walking from my apartment by Yeoksam Station to the school where I work, a couple of blocks from Gangnam Station. I’m thinking about where to cross the busy, traffic-jammed Seochoro Street so I can get a coffee and bagel at the Starbucks along the way . . . maybe at the crosswalk right after this shoeshine booth? As I pass the new office tower under construction beside the Star Tower, I hear a man’s voice shout “HEY!!” I stop and look into the shoeshine booth beside the busy street. I see one man diligently working on a shoe and another more disheveled-looking man staring 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 while slowly advancing toward me. “Hangul anio,” (No Korean) I reply sleepily in my 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’s rare to see anyone with facial hair in Seoul, except for the odd rebellious college student or musician. He puts up a hand and says what I take to
Qualitative Inquiry, Volume XX Number X, 2004 1-8 DOI: 10.1177/1077800404269427 © 2004 Sage Publications
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mean “Wait,” turns back into his booth, and rummages through a small box. Excited, he turns toward me again, this time armed with what I recognize as a pink, woman’s Bick razor. He makes some agitated slashing motions with the razor, yelling “Yar! Yar! Yar!! . . .” and laughing hysterically. I smile big as I examine his greasy, patchy stubble–covered face. He looks to me like he’s been drinking for at least 2 days and is badly in need of a shower. I start laughing and pointing at him, saying in English, “YOU’RE the one who needs a shave man! Look at you!! I shave and trim my beard every morning dude!” We’re now both laughing, but I decide to take it one step further. I pull out my dictionary and find the Korean word for envy. “Sem!” I say, laughing. This renews his hysteria, and he yells jovially, “Ne, ne, ne!” (Yes, yes, yes, I’m jealous!). “Anyongi kyeseyo,” I say, bow slightly, and turn to cross the street toward Starbucks at the crosswalk beside his booth. “Anyong . . . ,” he calls out. I see him almost every weekday morning after that, and we nod hello to each other in recognition of our moment of fun.
2. THE PHOTO-OP
I’m sitting with my private English student NaJung in the dimly lit restaurant that my friend Su Yeon took me to for my first meal in Seoul. It’s in trendy Gangnamgu (Gangnam neighborhood), ironically right beside the school where I work (ironic because we didn’t know this that first day that I was there). NaJung is an undergrad psychology major from Yonsei University who wants to build a career in translation after she graduates. I’ve just finished teaching for the evening, and she’s just come from her English class at a Hagwon (private school) nearby. She is impressed by my ability to order our food, although this is, in my opinion, an embarrassingly basic linguistic enterprise. While waiting for our food, I begin a discussion about theories of communication, language and power, explicating the fundamentals of Lyotard and postmodernism more generally. Suddenly, a young woman and young man are standing by our table. They simultaneously begin talking to NaJung. I assume they are friends of hers, but after half a minute she turns to me and explains 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 will make money off of the picture and ask if she is affiliated with any corporation or company. After her assurances that it is entirely her own artistic project, I agree to let her take my picture. She takes two shots, then gives me her card with the URL of the Web site where they will be posted scrawled onto it. The young man she is with asks in tentative English, “Where are you from?” I reply, “Canada.” He tells me he studied in Vancouver for 1 year. I tell him I’m from Toronto and that he speaks English very well. He smiles, thanks me, and gives me his business card in turn. I find out that his companion doesn’t speak
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any English at all. I tell them I hope her project is successful and that I’ll check the picture online soon. They thank me, bow slightly, and return to their table behind ours. Our food arrives shortly after, and NaJung and I pick up our conversation where we had left off. Later when I check the Web site, I find no pictures of beards whatsoever.
3. THE TAXI RIDE IN MOKDONG
“MokDongYok juseyo,” (to MokDong station please) I say to the taxi driver. I’m rushing from my American friend Sean’s apartment to catch the subway back to my neighborhood, Yeoksamgu, before it quits running at 11 p.m. “MokDongYok?” the driver verifies. “Ye, MokDongYok juseyo,” I reiterate. He tries a couple of phrases with me and quickly realizes I have no conversational knowledge of Korean. We proceed, listening to the barely audible radio, until he suddenly begins an interrogation. Out of his numerous sentences, 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. “Canada saram imnida,” I say. “Canada,” I repeat. “Hmmm . . . ,” he replies, continuing to look at me in the mirror and now animatedly but unconsciously rubbing his clean-shaven chin as if he is rubbing a beard. Suddenly he pulls the car over to the curb. “MokDongYok . . . ,” he tells me, pointing to the subway entrance. I pay him and thanking him, rush out of the taxi to catch my train.
4. BACKWARD-STARING GIRLS IN BUSAN
Sean and I are on a weekend trip to Busan. It is Sunday. We are on the easternmost tip of the Korean peninsula, having just visited the eastern beach on the shore of Taejongdae. As we begin to descend along the road toward the park exit, we approach a group of about five young women walking up in the opposite direction. As we get nearer, their conversation drops in volume, and I feel their eyes on my face. I smile and say, “Anyong haseyo” (Hello). They collectively giggle, and we continue past each other. I look over at Sean who, head turned back over his shoulder, exclaims, “Shiiiiit . . . damn . . . how come no 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 like ours as they proceed up the incline. Their conversation has resumed its previous pitch, and a couple smile, giggle, and avert their eyes when they notice I’m looking back at them. “It’s the beard,” I reply in a serious, quiet voice to Sean, “you gotta grow a beard if you want that kind of attention in this country.” “Shit! I can’t grow a beard like yours!” he exclaims. “Mine is always too
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thin and patchy. . . .” We continue down the mountainside, discussing facial hair and beard types.
5. THE CRAZY BUSAN TAXI DRIVER
We’re late. Sean’s watch stopped at 12:20 p.m. during our exploration of Taejongdae. We’ve ascertained that it’s now 3:15, and we realize we might not make it to the bus station in time to catch our 4:30 ride back to Seoul. We frantically search for a taxi and finally flag one just outside the park entrance. We slide into the back seat, and Sean explains as best he can that we need to get to the closest subway station on the mainland as quickly as possible. The car begins forward, and a couple of minutes into the ride, I notice the driver carefully studying my face in his rearview mirror. “Saddam Hussein!” he suddenly exclaims, demonstrating a mustache by animated wiping of his upper lip with his finger. “What??” Sean and I look at each other questioningly. “Saddam Hussein!” he vigorously repeats. I pause. “Saddam anio,” (Saddam no) I reply. “Canada saram imnida,” (I’m Canadian) I emphasize. “Ha ha . . . Saddam Hussein Number 1!” the driver exclaims. “George Bush Number 10!” he continues. An uneasy amusement grips me, and I look at Sean for support again. He has a funny grin on his face. I can see he’s rather enjoying the direction of this conversation. “George Bush Number 10! . . . Saddam Hussein Number 1!” the driver repeats for effect. “Saddam anio, Bush anio . . . Canada saram imnida,” (Saddam no, Bush no, I’m Canadian) I try to explain. It’s no use . . . he repeats his mantra two or three more times, chuckling all the while. Finally, in a diversionary tactic, I point to the Buddhist prayer beads dangling from a knob on his dashboard. “Buddha?” I cryptically inquire. He takes the beads in his hand and begins chanting, demonstrating the proper use of the beads for us. “Ye? Ye?” he asks to see if we understand. “Om . . . sagana wawadoo, sagana punektu . . . ,” I begin, chanting a Hindu prayer I know to show him I understand. “OH! Hindu saram iyeo!” he exclaims, seeming to believe he has come to some understanding of my ethnic identity. I look again at Sean’s bemused grin. “I don’t think we’re going to get to the station on time,” he tells me. And we don’t.
6. MY STUDENT’S ADVICE
“Any advice for me before we part company?” I ask my two remaining students, HyunSuk and SiWook—middle school students headed back to Toronto in the fall to continue their “Western” education. “We might never see each other again, so if you have any advice for me you better tell me now,” I warn them. “Cut your beard before you meet her parents,” states HyunSuk. Minutes earlier I had explained the predicament of my age, and we had dis-
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cussed how it might be a problem for my girlfriend’s parents. I had told them that I had given it much thought before concluding we should lie about my age. They had agreed, saying that 28 was the right number to choose—the very number I had suggested in our conversation only the day before. This struck them as a reasonable split that her parents should be able to comprehend. They said I would look even younger without my beard, a reference to an earlier class discussion:
“Why do you have a beard?” The question comes along with the usual barrage of requests for personal information that accompany the start of a new class (other favorites being How old are you? How tall are you? How much do you get paid? How much do you weigh? What do you eat? Where do you live? Do you have a girlfriend? Are you getting married? Do you play soccer?). In reply, I fabricate a Rodney Dangerfieldesque story that I think might appeal to their Korean values and put the issue to rest. “My family is blessed with young looks,” I explain. “My parents look younger than they are, and so do I,” I continue. I smile as I tell them, “I grew my beard to try to get some respect, because people think I’m much younger than I am even with the beard. Without it, my students in college might not even believe I’m a teacher!” My exaggeration seems to satisfy them, and I direct their attention to the title of the books sitting on their desks, To Kill a Mockingbird.
I thank HyunSuk and SiWook for their advice and tell them seriously that I’m sure it will be helpful for me. We talk about where they will live in Toronto, discuss how well they get along in Canadian society, what problems they’ve encountered there previously, and what they like about being there. I give them my e-mail address, telling them that they can contact me if they ever have any problems there, knowing they never will. I shake their hands, tell them, “Catch you later dudes . . . ,” and walk out of the classroom. In what I understand as a truly Korean performance, they nervously smile and chuckle a little bit as I disappear from their sight.
7. A SAILOR ON THE SUBWAY
“Hello!” he calls, walking slowly toward me along the edge of the subway platform. He has the look of an outside worker—tanned and lean and fearless. It’s almost 11 p.m., and the subway will shut down soon. It’s my second to last night in Seoul, and I’ve just left my girlfriend at the station in her neighborhood of Sindangdong after having a dinner of famous Sindangdong tukboki. I’m transferring to the green subway line, which will take me directly back to Yeoksam. I’m feeling quite emotional about the inevitability of having to leave my beloved in a day and a half and would prefer to be left alone just now. “Hello!” he calls out a second time. “I wonder if he’s drunk?” I muse, feel the perturbance in myself as he inserts himself into my already volatile emotional mix, then smile coolly and reply, “Whassup?” There is a pause. “My job?” he puzzles aloud. “Hello!” he repeats, bold but confused.
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“Whassup?” I again reply with a big smile. He looks at me afresh, and again muses, “My job?” “No, no, no, . . . Whassup? . . . What’s up . . . like hello,” I tell him. “Whajob,” he tries to parrot. “Hello . . . whajob . . . same same?” For some reason it seems to me like all Koreans have learned the phrase same same. “Same same,” I affirm, then continue, “Anyong hasimnika, formal . . . anyong haseyo, informal. . . . Hello, formal. . . . What’s up, informal. . . .” I repeat this illustration for him, and he repeats it back to me to make sure that he’s understood. He’s happy with this explanation of his new vocabulary, and as we board the subway together we begin a conversation. In broken English sparingly peppered with the sporadic Korean vocabulary I’ve learned and manage to recognize, I find out he is from Busan where he used to work as a hotel doorman for 12 years before becoming a ship crane operator so that he could travel, which he’s been doing for the last 18 years. I establish that he must be in his 50s. His ship makes a circuit from Busan to Japan to China to Seoul and back to Busan. He draws out from me that I’m Canadian, a university student in the United States, and working as a teacher in Seoul for the summer. Suddenly, he touches my arm and in a serious, quiet voice tells me, “See those people?” “Oh boy!” I think to myself. “Here it comes!” Who could he be talking about? “You see . . . him, him, him, him . . . ,” he points to various men seated throughout the subway car. “Uh huh . . . ,” I cautiously reply. “Look . . . no hair . . . ,” he says, then points to my face. “You . . . hair . . . me . . . hair . . . ,” he says to me. “OH! You mean the beard!” I happily exclaim and notice that he’s right. . . . He’s probably the first Korean I’ve seen wearing a beard apart from the youthful hip-hoppers I’ve occasionally seen in the streets, who for some reason, I always suspected were Japanese anyway. His is a long box-cut style, similar to mine but extending down underneath his chin. I’m overtaken with curiosity. “Beard . . . ,” he tries out the word, pointing around the car, “no beard, no beard, no beard, no beard, you beard, me beard . . . same same,” he says. “How come?” I almost trip over the two words, I’m so excited. “Why don’t men have beards in Korea?” I ask him. “Oh, only haraboji (grandfathers) have beards in Korea,” he informs me. “OH!!” I’m struck by this epiphantic moment of revelation. “OOOHHH!” I say with glee. “Haraboji imnikka?” (You are a grandfather?) I ask him. “No, not haraboji,” he replies. I ask him, “How come you have a beard then?” “Because I don’t care!” he tells me. “I like it,” he smiles and looks at me happily. “Same same,” he says again. “Ye (yes), I like it too,” I say. We continue contentedly, friends riding a few more minutes together, until he gets off two stops before my station. We shake hands and bow slightly to each other as he makes toward the subway car door. I feel a little bit sad that I’ll never see this new friend again. Seated as the train rattles out of the station, I think to myself, “Finally . . . I think I understand something!”
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8. EPILOGUE: THE SHAVE
Part I—An Indirect Suggestion
“How long have you had it?” Su Yeon asks me one midsummer afternoon from where she’s waiting for me, seated on top of my bed. “About 5 years or probably more,” I answer from where I’m standing beside the kitchen sink, which is barely more than arms length away in my tiny apartment. “Oh, that’s a long time . . . I know you’ll never cut it off . . . it’s too much part of you . . . ,” she tells me. I chuckle a little bit, amused at the importance others seem to place on my facial hair. “It’s really not that important to me,” I assert lightly. “Actually, I’ll tell you something funny . . . the only reason I’ve really kept it all this time is because when I shave it, there will be a white tan line on my skin for a couple of days, and I just never wanted to have that on my face,” I smile lightheartedly, finally telling someone the truth about the retention of my beard. “Really?” she queries with a thoughtful laugh. “Oh . . . I guess don’t shave it then. . . .” A cheerful smile dismisses the topic. I finish washing my dishes, and we descend from my teeny one-room sixth-floor penthouse into the bright sun to find a coffee shop that makes an iced-mocha worthy of our patronage.
Part II—A Saturday Suggestion
It’s Saturday morning in Champaign, Illinois. My friend Li Wei is driving me to go shopping. It’s been a summer of change for her. She had told me in the spring before I left for Korea that she was going to learn how to drive and then buy a car, and that when she did, she would take me shopping. We are now fulfilling her vision. It is obvious from her performance that she is a new driver. I’m sitting in the passenger seat terrified, concentrating on maintaining my composure while she shows off her newly acquired skill. I compliment her new hairstyle, which she also changed during the summer, going from straight long hair to a shorter, layered style. “Thank you . . . it’s good to change sometimes . . . you can change too if you want to!” she coyly tells me. “You can shave your beard if you want to . . . ,” she dangles the words in front of me. I smile, feeling amused inside. “Oh, you think I should shave?” I ask craftily. “Oh, only if you want to,” she replies cheerfully. “It’s not important,” I tell her. “I only keep it out of habit, but it really isn’t important to me.” “I see,” she responds, then affirms, “It doesn’t matter.” She takes me from store to store, and we shop together while she counsels me on how to maintain a longdistance relationship. I am grateful for her understanding friendship.
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Part III—The Melodrama of the Blade
It’s an unceremonious morning. Saturday. I look at myself in the mirror. “Yep, I’d better do it,” I see the bearded man in front of me state. “I said it was no big deal, so let’s prove it . . . my identity isn’t based on my facial hair.” I smile at myself, chuckling like I do whenever I realize I’m talking or muttering to myself. I take my electric hair clippers and cut my whiskers down as close to my face as they’ll take it, then lather up my face and draw the razor across. Now . . . how long do I leave the sideburns? I decide halfway down my ears should be OK. I rinse my face off and notice, sure enough, a white stripe of skin where my beard used to be. I notice the whiskers above my lip are so thick it is still kind of dark there. I finish my morning routine, snap a couple of pictures of my new face and e-mail them to Su Yeon, then head out into the sunny day to try to tan my face before Monday comes.
Part IV—Reactions and Denial
“Thanks for the pictures of your sweet face,” the e-mail reads. “You look nice.” “Good,” I think, “She likes it.” The reactions have been mostly favorable to my new aesthetic. Some people don’t even notice at first, though I myself have a bit of an issue getting used to wearing my wedge hats without the facial hair. It was a carefully constructed image after all . . . the Marxist rebel look? . . . modeling solidarity with Latin American revolutionaries . . . Cuba, the Zapatistas, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Brazil, Columbia, Nicaragua, Chile. . . . In some ways, perhaps a reminder to myself that every revolution is only just begun, that for many, the struggle continues on a daily basis, and maybe even a fulfillment of my own fantasy of solidarity with Louis Riel, leader of the Métis people, founding father of my home province of Manitoba, executed by the Canadian government in 1885. But I must change. The world must change, and I must always prove that I can change myself, and it is, in the end, just a beard. Grant Kien is a doctoral student and fellow in the Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. The keywords time, space, speed, and society represent his main research interests, studying the uses of portable wireless digital technology apart from the content they convey. In addition, he works in the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign College of Education on the Inter/Intra-Cultural and Cross Cultural Teaching Portal, an online teacher education tool (http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/icctp).
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