Ever since I arrived in Korea six months ago, I have heard the same thing over and over and over again: "You have a small face." It was funny at first, then I grew concerned that everyone was pointing it out to me. During my first week of school in the fall, I allowed students to ask me questions so they could learn more about me and hopefully get more comfortable in my class. By far, the strangest question I was asked was: "So, what do you think of your face?"
"Well, I mean, it's my face," I stammered. "But I know what you think of my face. You think my face is small."
The whole class erupted in laughter. "Yes! You have a small face! Small face!" they yelled.
After class, my co-teacher reassured me that it was a compliment, that small faces are beautiful here in Korea. Certainly, it's nice to hear cries of "Teacher, your face is sooo small! Beautiful!" in the hallways, but it's also awkward when I hear it from complete strangers.
I remember one taxi driver who just kept circling his face with one hand as he drove, and repeated some Korean word I didn't understand. "Small?" I asked with accompanying hand gestures around my own face. "My face is small?" He nodded yes and laughed.
I was standing in the middle of a train on the subway one night, watching a small child admire his own reflection in the window. Suddenly, he turned and pointed a finger at me. He must have seen me in the reflection, I thought, and wants to check out a foreigner. He gestured with his hands, like someone showing off the size of a fish they caught. Then he slowly moved his palms closer together, from about a foot apart to just a few inches. That's when I realized the gestures were about my face. Even this toddler could see my face is small.
Investigating a neighbourhood map of Apgujeong in the subway station one day, I noticed there were several cosmetic surgery offices in the area. That's not so surprising, knowing that the area is one of the wealthiest in Seoul, famous for celebrity-sightings and high fashion. But one office in particular leapt off the map at me: Small Face Cosmetic Surgery. I could be their spokesperson! I thought, until I was horrified at myself for accepting this notion that small faces are more beautiful than a round Asian face.
I finally had enough of all this attention on my small face and decided to do something about it. I noticed a lot of Korean girls around the city had bangs; so many girls, in fact, it that I actually started referring to it as "The Korean Haircut". I thought maybe it would make my face look a little bit wider, and after the toddler-on-the-subway incident, I went to one of my neighbourhood hair salons for the dramatic cut.
It didn't work.
I discovered the reason that many girls have this particular hairstyle is because bangs actually make the face look smaller. So instead of making my face look wider, I turned my small face into an even smaller face. Whoops.
Now that the school year's begun again, students I've taught for months are again shouting down the halls, "Teacher, you're face is very small!" as if they hadn't told me a hundred times already.
Over the past few months, I've learned to accept my face the way it is. I've learned no hairstyle can disguise the fact that I have a small face. But now I'm comfortable enough that I've decided to keep my Korean Haircut for a while. These days, when a Korean girlfriend, taxi driver, student, co-worker, small child, or complete stranger tells me I have a small face, I just smile and say thank you.