One summer in college, me and a friend won an opportunity to go to Seoul for a week. It was the award for a university-wide challenge that our school had posed: write an essay on the importance of global citizenship in a world that is rapidly changing. The top five essays chosen would be entered to win a trip to South Korea to attend a conference on global citizenship. What our school didn’t tell us was that all five winners would get to go.
Yay Seoul! I had always wanted to visit South Korea. My mom is from Vietnam, and she would tell me stories about the times when she would accompany her great aunt to South Korea when she was younger. Aside from her stories, which all made the country sound like a mystical wonderland, I really wanted to go check out their skin care. At the time, I had pretty decent skin, so I was mostly interested in finding cute products that would be fun to have on my vanity.
In between the conference panels, my friend and I snuck outside, across the streets where there was an outdoor shopping center with dozens of “Korean Sephoras,” as my (Korean) friend called them. Basically, they were stores with tons of skin and beauty goodies. One of the store clerks, who spoke English, was helping me by showing me all of the brighteners and exfoliators. Products that said, “ooo white!” and “no no dark!” were practically placed in my basket for me. I tried to explain that I liked being tan, and that I didn’t want a face brightener, which was met with very confused faces. How could I want to have a tan? What a thought.
In the end, I bought some face masks and a few stick perfumes, totally overwhelmed by everything else. There were shelves and shelves of Asian beauty products, all that marketed toward lighter skin. I have to admit, most of the women I met in South Korea did have fabulous skin. But I was put off by the fact that I was being told that the color of my skin was bad, and therefore so was my skin’s condition. There I was thinking I had relatively good skin. It was like a slap in the face.
Back in the states, I told my mom this story. She laughed and said in Vietnamese, “Honey, you are so American. I wish you had brought me back that ‘ooo white!’ Your aunty uses that.” I guess, in different cultures, there are varying opinions of what “good skin” is. I couldn’t help but think, after my trip, what shock Koreans must have when they come to the states and see products that read things like “no mess tan” and “sun kissed skin.” It makes me think twice about the labels on my skin care products.
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