Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea and Me
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On a recent aimless walk around Seoul, I was approached by a young Korean gentleman.
‘Are you a foreigner?’
‘Yeah. How did you know?’
‘Do you like drinking?’
‘We should hang out.’
Despite the fact I share a surname with 30% of Korea, I am not Korean. I’m pretty bloody white. White as a kite.
96.5% of South Korea is South Korean. It’s homogeneous as heck.
So anyway, my new friend and I went to find a pub. Although that’s not as easy as it sounds. Drinking just about anywhere you like is fine in South Korea but they’re a bit ashamed about it for some reason. They like to hide it. Whilst watching a K-Drama (Korean Drama) one evening, I noticed they crudely blurred out everything from cigarettes to pints. Everyone knows what they’re blurring out, but they still do it anyway. At least, I think I know.
If anything, that pixelating has just made the scene look a lot more inappropriate than it really is. Now it could be anything. Sausages? Twiglets? Pamphlets? Medallions? It really makes it hard to keep up with the plot.
So we finally got to the pub. It took me a good forty minutes to work out if my new friend was coming onto me but in the end, he mentioned his penchant for female genitalia enough that I worked out that he was not.
Travelling alone can get a little boring after a while and he seemed like a good bloke so we decided to spend the rest of the day together. Overall, I enjoyed my new friend. Also we had a couple of things in common, like speaking English and drinking.
We decided we’d go have a walk around. We watched a protest, had a drink, went for a walk around Insadong, which is a little traditional Korean town, then had a drink. Then we headed up to the Namsan Seoul Tower to have a look out on the city (whilst having a drink).
I was starting to notice that there was something not right with my new friend. He was a fairly confident man but really bloody insecure about a certain part of his body. Everything was ‘I wish I could talk to those girls but my nose is so horrible they’d just laugh’ or ‘I bet they’re talking about how I should get a nose job’. In all seriousness, his nose was fine. Lovely, if anything. For a while I thought he was just fishing for nose compliments but in the end, he went on about it so much that I couldn’t do anything besides just stare at his nose with bewilderment. Which I think may have made it worse.
South Korea is the cosmetic surgery capital of the world. It is estimated that one third of women in Seoul have undergone some kind of cosmetic surgery (!). Men make up about 15% of surgical patients and one of the more common procedures is a Belpharoplasty, also known as ‘double eyelid surgery’ - a procedure designed to make whoever’s getting it look Western. It’s so common that one of their former presidents got it.
That’s not him.
It's not uncommon to stroll about the upmarket area of Gangnam and see a handful of young men and women sporting facial bandages. There’s one particular square mile of Gangnam which contains over 500 clinics and hospitals!
Besides the fact he went on about his nose for five hours - which is usually one of my biggest personal indicators to not carry on a friendship - I decided to meet my new friend again the next day. He wasn’t that bad, and anyway, I wanted to make a video and needed someone to film it.
So the next day came along and we met at a coffee shop called Caface: a place where you go into a booth, take a selfie, and they then print that selfie into the foam of your coffee.
Anyway here’s how my one ended up.
Also here’s the video if you’re interested in that...
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So we filmed that thing and had a generally nice time. We wrapped it all up at about 2pm and then went for a few drinks. But something was troubling him. He was troubled. When someone is troubled, I usually like to ask why. But when it’s someone who talked about their nose for five hours the day before, I try not to.
Eventually he dropped the bomb.
‘I hate my nose. I have for a long time. I should’ve decided this earlier so I could have had as many years as possible with my new nose.’
‘Your new nose?’
‘Ok. I have news. I’m going to get a rhinoplasty. And as I did the filming for you, would you mind accompanying me whilst I get it done?’
‘I’d be honoured!’
So off we went to Gangnam.
‘So where are we going exactly?’ I asked, weakly attempting to make conversation because the name of some clinic in Gangnam wasn’t exactly going to resonate, whatever it was.
‘I don’t know. I just thought I’d try a few places and see if there were any available slots’
‘Ok. So you haven’t booked one yet? Are you sure? Is that alright? Can you definitely just turn up and get a nose job on the day?’
‘Oh, ok then.’
So who’d have thought it, but the first clinic we turned up at had a free slot immediately. Which I think means it's a really good clinic. He asked me if I’d wait in the waiting room for him. I said ‘yeah, why not!’. I asked him if you’re allowed to drink beers in Rhinoplasty clinic waiting rooms. He said ‘yeah, why not!’. So ten minutes later, he was in there getting his nose sorted, and I was walking into the waiting room, 7/11 bag full of Korean Carlsbergs, ready for the afternoon.
I’ll admit that I was probably the only person in the waiting room drinking lagers, but what was I supposed to? Not drink lagers?
I flicked through a couple of Korean Bellas and Korean Take a Breaks but I didn’t take a lot of notice. People were staring at me, but I suppose that might have been because I was Western and/or drinking lagers at 3pm in a clinic. I imagine they just thought that I was in there about to get surgery but needed to build up the courage. ‘Surgery tourists’ make up about a third (33%) of the surgical patients in South Korea. That’s because it’s generally less than half the price of a typical procedure in the U.S. Although it’s about 100% more than it is in the U.K thanks to the NHS. Unless the Tories have sold it all off by the time this is published.
The majority of the ‘surgery tourists’ in South Korea are Chinese. Apparently, a lot of the time the surgery is so efficient that when it’s time to head home, they have to get special passes from the doctors to assure the border control agents that they are, in fact, the same person in their passport pictures.
Towards the end of the two hours, I started realising how unusual the situation I’d got myself into really was. Spontaneity whilst out with friends is hardly a foreign concept for non-Koreans. Tattoos, piercings, getting branded with an iron, going down the Thames on your new dinghy, renting a luxury wheelbarrow, buying ten alsatians on eBay, commandeering a float at Mardi Gras, impromptu trips to Pontins Camber Sands, taking your slacks off at a wedding, convincing a paramedic to let you facepaint him, buying 7,000,000 barrels of oil at work, hoovering at a restaurant, and organising raves in Huddersfield ASDA have all been decided and then executed whilst out for a drink.
But maybe out of the blue surgical procedures are a step too far, even for those ASDA pioneers.
My friend soon triumphantly exited the operating theatre. He had a smile on his wider than the Cheonggyecheon (Korea reference). I didn’t get to see his new nose as it was all wrapped up but the doctor said it was one of the best ones he’d ever seen. He felt like a new man. He immediately wanted to take the new nose out for a test run and talk to lots of women. We went to do that but then he got self-conscious about his bandages and we had to call it a day.
Things are a little odd here when it comes to personal appearance. The men here spend a combined $900 million a year on make-up, which is more than the rest of the world’s men combined. Also, they seem to have quite nice skin as it is so that’s a bit of a bloody waste.
It’s often said that in Korea, what you think about yourself is unimportant, and other people’s evaluations of you are much more important. In conclusion, South Korea is weird.