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Last year, South Korea broke through the tough barrier of American mainstream pop culture when Korean rapper Psy galloped his way into everyone’s music library.  “Gangnam Style” still stands as the most watched Youtube video with well over 1 billion views.  Nothing says a country has “made it” like its pop culture being accepted by Americans, right?

If anyone was unconvinced, they certainly took notice when Samsung announced that it shipped 27.8 million smartphones and surpassed Apple — maker of the almighty iPhone — as the leading smartphone seller.  Just last week, LG, another huge Korean company, kicked Apple down another notch to take second place. LG is also the world’s second-leading maker of televisions, just after … Samsung.
Other major exports of South Korea include cars (Hyundai and Kia), steel, industrial ships and containers, hybrid batteries and memory chips.

In just 50 years, this small country went from a dirt-poor agrarian economy to being one of the richest in the world. Its products have become household names,  even though most people are unaware of their origin.  Economists are still unable to decide whether South Korea is a middle or a major regional power, but they all acknowledge it is a fascinating rise.

While these achievements are certainly a source of pride for many Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, they also came with a byproduct that is chipping away the very essence of Korean culture.

You may have heard by now the story of Julie Lurie, American English teacher at an all-girls high school in South Korea who noticed that there were a full-length mirror and a scale in the main hall on every floor of the building. The girls would routinely weigh themselves and check their appearance.  When asked about this practice, Lurie’s students said that the principal put the mirrors and scales there to make sure the girls were skinny.  It may sound like a crude plan to keep obesity in check, but upon further inquiry, Lurie discovered that being skinny is just one of the many physical traits that women and girls in South Korea strive for.  Among the others traits are light skin, big eyes, double eyelids, V-shaped face, high nose and B or C-cup breasts.

In other words, they want to look more like white women.

This idea is so widely accepted in South Korea that getting cosmetic surgery has become a normal, and even expected, part of life. To be on track for success means having to look more Western, and although procedures are increasingly affordable, they still run at least several hundreds to thousands of dollars.  Instead of saving up for a car, some might save for a chin lift (starting at $5,000), and instead of saving for a house, some might take an “anti-aging beauty package” vacation to one of the top clinics in the country ($88,000 including hotel stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Seoul).

Parents often encourage their daughters to go under the knife, and some even offer it as a gift.  How about getting your jawbone chiseled down with an oscillating saw after you graduate? Or taking fat from your thigh and injecting it into your forehead?

South Korea now ranks highest in cosmetic surgery per capita with 20 percent of the population having done some form of “enhancements.” The actual number is generally thought to be significantly higher since women from other countries like China and Japan come to South Korea specifically for these procedures. It would be naïve to think Asian-American women in the U.S. are immune to this trend.
Ironically, Psy’s lyrics — (“Gangam Style” actually has lyrics) — is specifically ridiculing those in Korea who are the most likely to look and behave like Westerners to portray an image of success. Sadly, that part was filtered out, and what was left of “Gangnam Style” is a pudgy Asian man doing a comical horse dance who will soon join the list of long-gone American foreign crazes (remember the Macarena?).
Other factors surely contribute to this troubling practice, but is it also part of the price to pay for economic development?  Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan can sell their products worldwide.

But one thing they still cannot sell is the Asian image. If anything, these countries are probably the top consumer of American representation.

When one of Lurie’s students heard the statistics on cosmetic surgery in South Korea, she said it was shameful.

Indeed, shame may also be driving a counter-movement and groups have formed in South Korea to condemn cosmetic surgery and, at the same time, hope to praise the natural beauty of Asian men and women. YG Entertainment, one of the top music producers, announced that it is assembling a K-pop girl group whose members will commit to staying “natural.” Even the government is concerned enough that the Education Ministry issued informational guides warning students about “plastic surgery syndrome” and highlighting Michael Jackson as an example of how things can go wrong.

They ask young people to write down something they love about their body and sign a contract not to have any procedure done. Lately, there has been outcry and protest over Korean celebrities who get enhancements, especially K-pop singers, who often deny any alterations when old photos clearly show otherwise. It culminated with the revelation that Miss Korea 2012 has had extensive plastic surgery in order to win the title.  Many have called to repeal her crown.

Let’s hope this trend  —  like Psy  — goes viral.”

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