Written by Irina Roibu, Inquiry coordinator
I love Korea for so many reasons: the food, the security, the gorgeous beaches and temples (especially the ones besides the sea), the hiking routes, the inexpensive and comfortable transportation, and fast internet speed. However, one thing I find hard to digest in South Korea is the obsession with looks, looking young and flawless forever, and the “fear” of getting older.
I come from a country in Europe where getting older is not a negative thing, as both women and men seem to accept their aging and are playful about it. They adapt their wardrobes and styles, their perfumes, their social interactions, and lifestyles to fit their changing needs. Also, as there is a high interest in Europe in aging gracefully, one can find extensive research and literature on the topic, which can guide them on how to approach the changes which come with aging.*
In France, especially, names such as Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve, Michele Mercier, Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Moreau, Laetitia Casta, Juliette Bincohe, and Sophie Marceau are representative of women who aged with grace, with elegance and class, while accepting their natural beauty. They had minimal surgical interventions. Their fashion, mystique, and romantic image make them an example to be taken by other European women and especially women in Romania, where I come from.
When I first arrived in South Korea, I was 26 years old. At that age, I was expected to study hard but also enjoy youth and life, travel, and enjoy the time with friends. Not many people of near my age discussed aging, marriage, and children.
Now, however, as I am in my mid-30s, people tend to give me advice about the perfect husband, about marriage and the importance of having children (for a woman), about how I shouldn’t have adopted a dog before having children and about the importance of skincare, plastic surgery, being skinny and looking young for a long time.
My family and friends from my country never bring up these topics in conversation, as they are mainly considered impolite in my culture. So I’m always shocked to hear people telling me to my face that my body is changing with age, that I should marry soon, and what type of man I should marry, without ever asking about my preferences and future plans. Their comments sometimes make me doubt myself and feel insecure about my own worth and beauty, as the years pass. However, I love getting older, how my body changes, all the knowledge that I’ve gathered and the experiences that I had, the people I’ve met, and how I’ve learned to love myself, so, I don’t want the doubt and preconceptions about aging to be affecting my life.
I usually try to reply to these kinds of comments with as much kindness as possible, with the understanding that in Korea, it is still difficult for many to see outside the old-fashioned measures of success and that life is not dictated by a pre-written script anymore. With each generation, lifestyles are changing and fewer people are adopting the traditional ways because they do not represent the present anymore. However, these changes in Korea are not as fast as in other countries, and as long as the focus is going to be on image, status, and titles, keeping traditions, and allowing family involvement in family members’ life and choices, those types of comments will continue to be heard.
As a foreigner, it can be difficult to deal with such a direct approach and direct feedback from the Korean counterparts, so, finding techniques to respond with can be of great benefit. I, myself, learned many approaches while I was doing therapy and continue to use them today.
Here are three:
1. Change from a defensive to a receptive state and being attuned to myself.
Don’t let others influence me and make me doubt myself and my choices. This one needs lots of work because we have to build ourselves and our self trust first, to work on understanding, accepting, and loving ourselves. In practice, this could be as simple as listening to somebody’s comment and only responding with a smile, without expressing in words that we agree or disagree.
The Japanese have several interesting expressions they use when they avoid agreeing or disagreeing. One is soudesune. Another one is naruhodo. (Used with a certain tone). In translation, they can mean either ‘hmmm..’, ‘I understand what you are trying to tell me’, ‘I will think about it..’, or even a polite ‘I don’t care about your opinion but I will kindly pretend I do’. Find your own expression and why not even enjoy trying different ones and observe the reactions.
2. Reject the filter of my own critical inner voice.
This means to stop judging those who address me / advise me, and consider their background and culture. Anything that I will tell them or explain to them will most likely not be understood and so it is better to keep the energy for opportunities which can promote mutual understanding.
3. Be vulnerable and express what I want.
This usually translates to telling people that what they just said is considered impolite in my culture or that I feel uncomfortable to talk about it, as they are very personal matters, and I would be grateful to change the topic. (This is my favorite approach!)
Whichever you choose, the most important is to not let yourself be the victim and don’t blame others but to be proactive and find the best approach for yourself. It needs to make you comfortable and bring you peace of mind.
* While researching for this article, I found several books on aging with grace. In case you are interested in the topic and want to read more, the following books are a good way to start:
– Aging Gracefully: Accomplish the Stages of Life with Dignity, by Kyle J. Benson
– The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, by Joan Chittister
** If you by any chance need support from a specialist in finding support in matters related to aging and cultural differences, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Our therapists will be happy to help you.