How Tall Are You? (on being a tall woman in South Korea)

She pushed her way onto the bus and fought for a spot near the exit door, grabbing a handle just before it pulled away from the stop. She felt a pair of eyes on her and glanced down to see a four-foot-ten ahjumma (old woman) craning her neck to get a good look. She looked back up, unperturbed, but after looking around the bus she noticed that everyone on board today seemed to be particularly short. Even all of the men were under 5’6″. On all forms of public transportation she enjoyed being tall. She could grab handles and poles easier, reach over other passengers, and easily push her way through crowds. Her height, however, in crowded places like this was always a reminder that she didn’t belong.

Carly’s struggled with insecurities about her height since puberty, when she became tall…”for a girl”. As a middle schooler she hated being the tallest among her friends, especially the boys that hadn’t caught up yet (read: all of them). By mid-high school she’d become relatively comfortable with it and by college, even though she still had the occasional toxic thought, she had more or less come to embrace it. Most of the time she enjoyed being different.

(–> I guess this is where I tell you that Carly is ~5’10”, or 176cm)

Unfortunately, moving to Korea erased a lot of the progress that Carly had made in regards to confidence about her height. Many of the men that she sees here are her height or taller, but most of the women seem to hover around 5’5″, and she can’t help but notice that this is the height that the men seem to desire. Of course there’s a little variance among female height, but only VERY RARELY (as in, once) has Carly seen a Korean female that met her 5’10”, and only a handful of times has seen women above 5’8″. (Since having an obsession/complex about height from a very young age, Carly is very good at judging it).

So, of course, because it’s so rare to see a tall woman here, she understands why people stare at her. When Carly witnessed the aforementioned 5’10” Korean woman on the metro she stared like hell! It’s just unfortunate that there is now so much attention given to the insecurity that she has (just recently) learned to accept and, at times, embrace.

The worst part is when people ask. Sometimes people in the United States would ask how tall she was. Carly doesn’t by any means consider it a rude question, it’s just something that people don’t seem to care as much about back home. People can see with their eyeballs that she’s tall and don’t need factual confirmation. In South Korea, however, it’s one of the first questions that people (especially men) ask her. Here’s a little example:

*standing up from a meal, the man realizes Carly is tall*

Man: Wow, how tall are you?

Carly: 176cm

Man: Oh, wow, good! I’m 178. Good.

So maybe you can see here that it’s not as much the question itself that bothers Carly (again, it’s not a rude question), but rather the follow-up exclamations. “Oh, good! I’m 178.” Oh, good! Are you able to continue this friendship now that you feel like enough of a man? She’s also had several disappointed remarks. “Oh, I’m only 172.”. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. You can tell she’s taller than you, did you think that asking her was going to make her shrink 6 centimeters so you could properly take care of her? Like wgaf?! You have more of a complex about your height than she does!

Clothing shopping is also particularly frustrating. Dresses turn into shirts. Pants turn into (awkward as HELL) capris. Sleeves are too short, shoulders too narrow. Even in stores that carry actual sizes (not just one-size-fits-all like many of the stores here) she has yet to find a pair of pants that fits. So she’s been embracing a measuring tape and online shopping.

With her foreign friends she feels (relatively) normal. Everyone is a different height and body type. Nobody cares. Around her Korean friends, especially coworkers, however, she feels out of place. Like a giant. And the comments are never-ending. Even her students gasp when she reaches to turn on the projector without a step-stool and muttered “와, 키가 진짜 크다!…wow, she’s so tall!”‘s can be heard throughout the room.

What bothers her the most is the idea (not unique to Korea) that a woman should be short and small to be feminine. That she should be shorter than a man. That being cute is better than being strong. A large percentage of Carly’s friends (she knows…she’s asked) have said that they’d “NEVER date a guy shorter than me! Ew.” Why EW?! WHY?! omg Why do people care so much? About a genetic quality that no one can control? Is a height difference between a couple really so important for both parties? Just because (read: THE ONLY REASON) it’s the norm? Much of the time Carly has spent in Korea has, unfortunately, become a regression to middle school, a struggle to once again overcome the insecurity about her height, about the constant reminder that she is different.



Little moments of conformity


Startled, Carly stopped mid-step and ripped out her headphones before almost running into one of her favorite students, standing in front of her and looking up with her precious 14-year-old face. Carly realized she must’ve walked at least two minutes behind Sooyeon* without realizing it was her. Feeling guilty, Carly patted Sooyeon on the head, turned her around, and marched with her the rest of the way to school. She didn’t have trouble telling faces apart. Sure, it was more difficult to recognize specific students among the crowd of Korean faces, a race that was not her own, as compared to recognizing Caucasian students among a crowd of Caucasian faces. But this ultimately was not an issue with her and was not the reason that she had failed to recognize Sooyeon.

You see, from behind, Sooyeon appeared almost identical to her female Korean peers of the same height (~5.2). Black hair, cropped just above the collarbone, black skirt, sky blue button-down, and navy blue vest. The appearances of her students are strictly controlled. All are required to sport the same hair-cut and uniform. No makeup, jewelry, nail polish, hair dye, or other hair embellishments allowed. (The boys also have restrictions regarding hair, jewelry, etc.,) This lack of diversity in style and details is what made it difficult to recognize Sooyeon that morning and become another addition to her reservoir of “Korean conformity” moments she was collecting.

So let’s backtrack a couple of weeks to share another with you, dear reader.

Her second week at school, whilst enjoying her lunch with her new coworkers, one of her co-teachers leaned over to her and said, in a whispery tone one would use when gently breaking the news that there was spinach in one’s teeth,

“In Korea, we put the bowl on the right.”

Looking down, Carly noticed that she had put her soup bowl in the left pocket of her tray, instead of the right. She did not know if she had been doing this from the beginning or she had switched up her bowl placement each lunch, but either way it made no difference. The placement of the bowl did not affect the taste or the quality of the food, and she was completely indifferent to its position. But, looking around the table, she saw that, yes, every single teacher, and student, around her placed their soup bowl in the right pocket of their metal trays. Her co-teacher laughed softly and murmured,

“Easier to eat the soup, I think.”

Carly gave a laugh and a friendly “Oh, I didn’t even realize”, but didn’t really understand what the big deal was.

Later, while talking with Sooyeon, as she did almost every day after lunch, she inquired about the incident.

“Huh,” Sooyeon said, crossing her arms, pursing her lips, and looking up in contemplation. “I guess I didn’t realize.”

“Is that something you learned when you were younger?” Carly asked, wanting to know the origin of the custom.

“No,” Sooyeon replied, shaking her head and letting her bangs fall into her eyes. “We didn’t learn it. It’s just what most people do. But it doesn’t really matter.”

Carly nodded. If it “didn’t really matter”, then why did her co-teacher tell her so secretly about her mistake, as if she were afraid to embarrass her? Carly was tempted to put the bowl on whichever side of her tray pleased her most that day, but was too desperate to fit in and to appear open to Korean customs. So, since then, Carly has put her bowl on the right (and correct) side of her little tray every single day. Because that’s what most people do.

Fast forward to today, and the incident that inspired this post.

Several minutes into lunch today, as Carly was slurping her soup from the bowl on the RIGHT side of her tray, her co-teacher (a different one from the last incident) leaned across the table, pointed to her tray, and informed her that she had placed the sauce on the wrong food item. Provided for the tofu, Carly had placed the brown sesame sauce on her fish. Her co-teacher shook her head lightly and laughed a “this silly foreigner!” laugh. Carly gave an “oops!” and laughed in such a way that implied that she also found herself silly and couldn’t believe she had made such a faux pas. She looked around the table and saw that, yes, everyone had placed the sauce on their tofu. Thinking about it, that seemed to make more sense, but Carly did not want sauce on her delicious, egg-covered tofu. So what if she put it on her fish? What if she had wanted it on her rice? Would that have been strange? What if she hadn’t gotten sauce at all? (This did happen one time and the lunch lady followed her to her table to inquire about the lack of sauce on her sausage.) Of course there were no bad intentions behind her co-teacher’s recognition of her mistake, and Carly didn’t (and doesn’t) resent the curiosity, it’s just interesting the way that conformity and sameness here affect matters that, to Carly, seem trivial. Perhaps she’s just used to the myriad of strange eating behaviors she observed during her school life, like putting strawberry milk on pizza and dipping chicken nuggets in butter, and how these behaviors were, in the individualistic society of the United States, seen as compliments to a child’s personality rather than characteristics that made them an outsider, as they may in an Eastern, collectivist society.

*name has been changed

–> Please take this post with a grain of salt. I’m not making assumptions about the entirety of the Korean population. This post is merely based on observations I’ve had during my life in Korea so far.