Friday, June 21, 2013

(a)Musings: On The Pressures of Korean Society

I haven't done one of these posts for quite some time, and when I've looked back on the others, I've been kind of embarrassed by them. It's basically going back and reading diary rantings from when you were younger and somehow knew less about the workings of the world, even though it's only been a few months since you were thinking those things. 

I've also been wanting to start a video blog to sort of document all the passing thoughts and impressions I have, but haven't gotten around to it. I've always had trouble focusing and completing projects or pursuing things to a satisfactory conclusion; it's one of my biggest defects. Hopefully I'll get started on it soon, because I also have quite a few videos of cool crap to edit and upload.

Ok, so (stating the obvious here), at first, living in an extremely different place is a novel if anxiety-inducing experience. But that's fine, I like being in high-alertness survival mode. Everything's new, you enjoy having people explain what stuff is and how to do it, and even simple daily things are a source of amusement and wonder. Squid cheese?! No. A room where you pay like $1 an hour to jump on trampolines? G t f o.

Coming here I tried to have zero preconceptions or expectations, which is of course not truly possible. I've found out that I had more experience with Korean this-and-that than most of other foreigners I've met, even though I thought I had none. I took a Korean film course in college and another about book history and print culture in East Asia, both with Korean professors, both of which were great. I'd had boba, patbingsu, bibimbap, flavourless Asian pears and been to a couple of Korean-owned cafe/doughnut shops on the left coast. There's actually an enormous Asian grocery store that's primarily Korean about a 5-minute walk from where I used to live. I also took the guy I was dating just before I left to a more traditional Korean restaurant because the reviews I read online made it seem like they had way more options for me (wheat-free, vegetarian) than they did. It was overpriced, uncomfortably (indeed, unreasonably) hot and stuffy, and the nice little old mother of the owner offered us some Korean grapes. We whispered to each other upon biting into them, "These aren't really grapes.." Of all the former, that last one is the one that gave me the most accurate impression, as it turns out.

So, okay, I had quite a bit of exposure comparatively speaking. There aren't exactly a lot of Koreans in Scotland or South Africa. The other think I did was sort of a linguistic experiment, as I've told everyone I know here. What I decided to do was not learn a single word of Korean before coming to see how immersion felt coupled with my first immigrant working experience. And when I say "not a single word", I mean it. I literally did not know how to say "hello" when I stepped off the plane and the pink and orange glow of a monolithic Dunkin' Donuts sign hovering in the empty black night sky was the first thing to greet me.

What the hell, let's hyper-sexualise the doughnuts, too.
Now, I knew at the time that that wasn't the smartest idea ever, and if you're thinking of coming to Korea, I advise you to do your best to learn some basic phrases and how to read hangul. You're going to have enough shit to deal with moving to a new place, starting a new job in a field with which you (possibly) have no experience, being surrounded by completely new people and social expectations, et cetera. 

Onto the "trying to have zero preconceptions" thing. I felt very positive about moving here. I knew it was going to be a completely new world, that much of it would be difficult and that this is a very homogeneous, conservative society far-removed from the West, but I didn't expect people to receive me with open arms and be totally accepting of the fact that I didn't bother learning their language, nor did I expect to be disproportionately ogled and hated. Not accommodating, not necessarily racist. It's exotic, fun, an adventure; keep an open mind. I think that's about the best you can do.

Here are the things that have stood out most prominently and recently started to distress me and wear me down:

(1) The Korean managerial style and workplace hierarchy coupled with incompetence, inadequate communication and zero transparency.

(2) The fact that you have to insert yourself into usually-forced social situations and accelerate the process of meeting people if you want to make friends because the turnover rate is so high.

(3) Hyper-objectified, super-skinny-with-legs-for-days Korean girls who put all their time, effort and money into becoming living, breathing Real Dolls and being bombarded by things constantly reminding you to be more self-conscious about your image.

(4) The bizarre way this society and its educational system simultaneously coddle kids and do everything for them but also make their lives completely miserable and give them no time to develop emotionally or as individuals.

(5) The realization that what I read on the Internet about Western men coming here, seeing what the women are like and staying forever and Western women coming here, seeing what the men are like and leaving as soon as possible is completely accurate.

(6) The horrible music scene, or rather, nearly complete lack of one.

(7) Wading through constant unnecessary layers of bullshit bureaucracy even in the simplest of things, like using online banking or signing up for an ID card in the building I already work in so I could start using the gym.

Now, all of these are pretty standard complaints and sources of general displeasure, but because this is how I'm venting to feel better, I'm going to go into detail now.

(1) My Korean manager is a nice guy. He's clumsy and kind of an airhead, a somewhat romantic oaf who loves books, theatre and opera. He almost never says anything to me and usually isn't in the office, but even if he did and even if he was, he's mostly just friendly and curious about the way things are done in our home countries and our point of view on minor details or topics of conversation. 

I'm very lucky. Many Korean managers are horrible, awful, disgusting people. I mean, most people are disgusting, really; if you've ever worked at a call center, in a corporate office or in retail, you know this. Horror stories abound on the InterWebs, but the ones I've heard since being here that definitely happened and that I found most disturbing were about one hagwon where the Korean manager made a Korean guy who was vegetarian (which is exceptionally rare) eat meat with everyone else while working and at company functions just to remind him of who was boss, and another where the male members of the staff had the middle school girls come and massage them in the teachers' room.

It gets worse than that, and on so many other levels. The fact that many contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on and that people get fucked out of money is the daily reality. Government agencies set up to deal with it expect large bribes and, even then, probably won't help you. Hell, if you're foreign, don't expect the police to help you, either, especially if you're a woman who's been sexually harassed or assaulted or a man who's been involved in a fight in any way.

But anyway, back to what it's like in the office. The Korean teachers don't really talk to us. It's not that they're not nice or friendly, either, because they are, but the office is segregated and so is everything we do. Sometimes they'll come over to announce something to us, but we're usually given little to no notice of things that are often quite important. 

Even though I really enjoy chatting with one of them and am friendly with the other three, there's always this.. I don't know, this air of separation. They do all of their daily rituals together and we girls are never included in those. Why would we be? We tried to include them in a genuine way toward the beginning, inviting them out to drink or see or see a movie or whatever, but they only ever come if the entire office is doing something and it seems obligatory. We weren't even doing that fake being nice bit where you know the person's going to turn you down and you were just after the invisible points you get for having asked. So, at first, I found that pretty disappointing. It's not even like I expect everybody to be best friends or whatever, to me it just felt normal to try to be sociable and get to know them, you know?

In the U.S., people like myself would see an English-speaking foreigner as an interesting new addition to the group and go out of their way to welcome and accommodate them, so long as they weren't too annoying or pretentious or strange. Are you doing alright? Have you been here or tried this kind of food yet? You should come with us! Do you need help with figuring out a document or how to sign up for something? Do you have this in your country? What's it like there? What was it like when you were little? The differences between a country that includes nearly everyone in the world and one that is incredibly insular to the point of being referred to as "the Hermit Kingdom" are obviously pretty stark.

Now, if you think about how many people are going through the revolving door of the native English teachers' section of our office, it makes sense that no one, Korean or foreign, even looked up from what they were doing for more than a minute when I sat down on my first day. I'm not so naive, deluded and egocentric that I expected a welcoming committee with balloons, but it's so strange to have friendly people with whom you can carry on a perfectly lovely conversation be so cold. It's not overt or rude (well, actually, it was at one point), just this sort of constant unspoken undertone of,"you're not one of us" that abruptly puts up subtle barriers and cuts things off.

We often don't know what's going on, and things that would be beneficial for everyone to know are often kept from us for no reason, downplayed or lied about. It gets incredibly frustrating. For example, just recently, no one told us that we were being watched even more closely than usual on CCTV and that two teachers coming to watch parts of a camp we had going on with a middle school were on the board deciding whether or not our company's contract was being renewed. Uh. No one really liked the camp because it was poorly planned and morale was low, so we weren't exactly at the top of our game. But, like, why would you not tell people to be on their best behaviour, especially when you know they're frazzled? That's just common sense, it's in everyone's best interest. I mean, we all still want to have jobs in a month, right?

Even if you ask outright, "Is the company going under, is that why we haven't been paid?" you will never, ever get a straight answer. The way we made fun of situations like that by saying, "I think, maybe, don't come in on Monday" stopped being funny the first time we had to worry about it.

When I say "lied about" I'm not sure it's fair, because when no one is ever given all the information, it's hard to tell whether or not they're intentionally passing along something inaccurate. Often times I think they just kind of forget that we also need to know what's going on even though we're the ones doing nearly 100% of the actual implementation and teaching.

(2) This might be the one I've had the most trouble with since coming here. I'm the type of person who gets along just fine with one to three close friends and a few acquaintances. I don't often meet people with whom I have much in common or with whom I'd enjoy spending a lot of time. Lots of people are alright, not many of them are great matches. That's pretty much true for everybody. Here, if you're selective like that and don't have friends already, you're going to be lonely.

I thought I was fine with being lonely; I'm an only child and I've spent most of my time alone since I was little. There's nothing wrong with enjoying solitude, staying in and making jewelry while watching Buffy and having a cider or whatever instead of feeling obligated to go out, party hard and get trashed every few nights. But even I've been feeling isolated. I haven't talked much with people from back home. My best friends have been too busy to get back to me. Things like working long hours, getting M.A.'s and having kids don't make it easy to Skype with a 14-hour time difference to figure out on top of it all. 

Going out often and chatting up strangers, interjecting into conversations in what you'd normally think was kind of a rude and awkward way, being less selective and going to contrived things like parties you're not interested in, meetups and languages exchanges are facts of life if you want to have friends here.

I alternate between trying to do this more often and avoiding it like the plague. I've never been big on trying to make friends for the sake of it; socializing with foreigners here doesn't suit me and I don't speak Korean, so I'm kind of stuck. When I do meet someone nice I can have a chat with they usually end up saying something like, "I'm leaving tomorrow", or "My contract's up at the end of the month".

(3) and (5) Ok, the way and extent to which so many Korean women choose to objectify themselves is nothing short of sick and insane. You think all the plastic surgery, dieting, working out, eating disorders, tanning, hair dyeing and emulating celebrities is bad in your country? Well, unless you come from certain zip codes in California or established old money areas on the East Coast, for example, you will not be able to relate to the level they take it to here.

I didn't know about the plastic surgery before coming, actually; I knew that Korean and Japanese women got minor double eyelid surgery sometimes or used tape to give their eyes that appearance, but that was about it. There are all kinds of statistics floating around out there, and one I read claims that almost 3/4 of the women in Seoul will have some kind of cosmetic surgery by the time they're in their mid-20's. The eyelid one is probably the most common, but nose jobs, surgery to widen the eyes and make them look bigger (which is incredibly common and creepy), boob jobs, jaw reshaping and more are pretty rampant. The ads plastered all over every train and subway station are infamous, as they should be. One depicts a woman's body covered in price tags for each area that can be fixed. It's no wonder that, even though this society is so incredibly conservative and judgemental, prostitution is so incredibly common and women have no problem treating themselves like a product in order to acquire more name-brand products. The capitalist hypocrisy, it burns.

Looking at it from their perspective, though, it can't really be helped. Seoul is a tough city to compete in and you're going to have a hard time getting a job if you're not attractive. It's very common for the passport-type photos Koreans use to apply for jobs to be so Shopped to shit that you can't even tell who it is.

At first I couldn't really tell, but it doesn't take long before you acquire an eye for the post-scalpel look and start thinking things like, "I wonder how much she spent on those boobs? Guess it must have been cheaper than doing the whole face" (speaking of burns).

Several weeks ago every waygook in the country was crowded around an office computer looking at the eerily similar Miss Korea contestants. Which one won? Beats me. Even Koreans find it startling and unsettling how difficult they are to tell apart. One animated .gif of several of them literally looks like the same woman with just the hair style and dress changing. It's like the fast-paced Stepford of the 21st century. 

I've seen plenty of girls and young women who literally spend more time looking in mirrors than they do looking at the world. How many times a day do you need to reapply? If you need a razor to scrape off the layers at the end of the day, it's definitely not more than 4 or 5. Pancaked cheap whore look is not in this season or any other season.

It's also very easy for Western men to get an attractive girlfriend in Korea, and I think that's a big reason many of them come. Many are here to travel and make money, but a lot of those who come here are either socially awkward and don't fit in back home, are running away from something, or both. When you're not part of a culture and don't speak its language fluently, it's difficult to detect nuances like that. It's also easy to ignore those kinds of details when you're set on dating a foreign man because he will probably treat you better and spend more money on you than a Korean man. 

The look on Martina's face says it all. Read
these conversations with drunk Korean men,
they're so accurate.
I don't claim to know a whole lot about this, but the impression I've gotten is that the main tactic Korean men employ is to harass women until they eventually give up. If that's the culture, fair enough, but it's not hard to see why a lot of people aren't too keen on it. In my case, the only Korean men I've met outside the office who were willing to say anything to me were drunk university students, so I don't exactly have any good examples on which I can base my impressions.

I thought one guy was going to cry if I didn't give him my number, even though my friend told him to his face that it was "pathetic" for him to keep asking me like 15 times after I'd already said "no". I couldn't give him a fake one when I finally relented to shut him up because he tried calling it then and there to test it. He called me ten times that night after I'd finally awkwardly left the bar, and I resorted to pretending to be my own big black boyfriend to get him to stop. And that's just one example. These guys can be incredibly immature, rude, disrespectful, forceful and pushy. I don't imagine many nice Korean guys would have the balls to approach a foreign girl while she was with a group of friends and try to chat her up in a language that wasn't their own. You don't meet the highest quality people in bars and clubs no matter where you are.

Also, just as an aside: Korean men easily spend as much time on their hair as the women do on their makeup. Multiple times I've seen a man spend a few minutes adjusting every strand of hair just before putting on a hat, or adjusting the little bits of hair that could be seen from under a hat until they were perfect. I've also seen teenage boys flip or fix their hair after every other move of a K-pop dance they were practicing. It's a bit excessive.

Additionally, both guys and girls of all ages are even ruder than you would expect in Seoul, especially when it comes to shoving, pushing, walking in front of you and walking directly into you.

Now, I certainly don't claim that every Korean guy or girl is like this, even though I've been accused of condemning an entire race of men or (especially) women while making sweeping generalizations out of annoyance. I'm not small-minded, ignorant or racist; these things exist to some degree or another everywhere, and it's just that some of it's really prominent here. 

Women who always look fresh and flawless, don't sweat, wear 6-inch fuck me heels and micro-mini skirts every day and get plastic surgery to look like dolls are hard to compete with physically to say the least. It should go without saying that the type of person who makes all of that their main focus in life has little or no substance or intellect, but it still wears you down a bit when you're surrounded by them every day and shopkeepers jeer at you and say things like, "Hey, we have big size here!" or "No, no.. no fit (makes 'too small' gesture)" to something you've just tried on and found flattering. It's like, fuck you. If you don't want my money, just say so, but you probably need it a lot more than I do. Around 40 kilos is fairly average here, but that isn't a real weight for us; that's a child's weight. It's just a completely different set of standards, which would be fine if the culture wasn't so elitist and judgemental.

It takes a very strong and confident person to ignore said prominent aspects of daily life for an extended period of time, and it's hard to be that person 24/7. Even when you fully accept that you're different, that you'll never be a part of this society and aren't held to the same standards or are even expected to attempt to fit in, you're going to compare yourself to another woman at some point. And it's probably going to make you a little bit sad inside. For weeks I kept thinking the ones who stand outside the makeup shops announcing specials and whatnot were animatronic at first glance; they're just like the clone women in Cloud Atlas. They look like the mannequins at Forever 21.

(4) Maybe you've heard that it's common for Koreans to live at home until they're around 30 or even older. Well, that's because they're not generally expected to move out and get a job until they're married and/or completely done with their schooling and all set up to start a career. It's not uncommon for Korean mothers to breastfeed until an age that people in most of the West would find quite unacceptable or even shocking, and believe me, they have a hard time cutting the cord. If mom is still cooking dinner for you every night and you've never had any expenses or experience outside of going to school at 33, you're gonna have a bad time.

Many parents are like overbearing helicopters, constantly standing over their kid and dictating every second of their life. Nothing annoys us more than mothers who glue themselves to our windows while we're teaching classes. It always happens during the 2-minute window when the little bastards have descended into complete chaos, too. Look, lady, this is the 40 minutes you get to yourself today. I've got it under control. I hold in my hand the ineffable power of The Stickers, and none of them want to find out what happens when I reach zero after I start counting down from five. Read a goddamn magazine or something.

The worst thing is that we're basically selling English as a product, so that makes the customer right even when they're so wrong. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an English academy, so you might think that they could afford to be selective and bad kids would be rotated out. And you'd be wrong. Korea seems incredibly efficient from the outside, but when you get into the workings of it, it's like, what the fuck are these people doing? None of this makes sense. Our school has a waiting list, but the kids who get in if someone drops out or moves on are literally chosen at random. That's how we get horrible little brats who never do any work, punch us, throw stuff at us and shriek like pterodactyls all lesson. 

When you're ready to dangle a kid by his ankles off the edge of the roof or jump yourself, Helicopter Mom calls. Yes, hello, my little angel says he's been having a hard time in class and that the teacher is mean to him. Is this teacher experienced? Wait, he punched the teacher in the balls and told him "fuck you" before throwing his book down and storming out? You're lying! My little shnookums would never pull a stunt like that! Rabblerabblerabble!

Last week we had a mother standing in our office for two or three days in a row yelling for an unreasonable number of minutes at two of our Korean teachers (one of whom had just started and had the most pitiable blank look on her face) and blaming one of our American teachers for the fact that her kid had lost his bag after accidentally picking up someone else's when they were playing outside. Uh, okay, what are we supposed to do about that? It wasn't even during class time. Your kid's not even a good kid, and do you ever wonder why? Maybe because he never has to accept responsibility or admit that he done fucked up.

The Lateness of the Hagwon Hour
At the same time as so many of these kids (where we work is quite a well-off area, btw) are being spoiled and turned into obnoxious little jerks, you start to feel sorry for them because you realise they have no lives. Some of them do, but if you ask them, it's all too common for them to say something like, "I go to two more hagwons after this". That's school plus three more schools. When do you do your homework, child? When do you sleep?

During a speaking test once I asked a little 7 year-old boy what he does before school. In an exasperated tone, he spat out, "Tae kwon do". Then what? "Piano". ..Before school, I explain more clearly? "Yes".

During that same test we asked the kids who could understand enough where and when they would go if they could travel in time. A significant portion if not most of them said something along the lines of, "I would go to when I was 5 years old/a baby, because I didn't have to study so much, it was easy and I could play". It's like, you're talking about what you did when you were a kid and how you wish you could go back, but you're nine. That's not right. Where do you draw the line between pushing your kid to reach their full potential and offering them every chance of success and actually letting them be happy?

(6) This one was kind of unexpected for me. I'd read a few articles about Korea's emerging hardcore scene that included interviews with at least two different singers who spoke English and felt pretty hopeful, but you mostly just hear the same 12 or 14 K-pop songs everywhere you go. All day. All night. I'm just glad Gangnam Style is mostly over. 

I've been shown a couple of middle-of-the-road rock bands' videos and been meaning to check out a Korean metal show but haven't yet. My theory about why music here sucks so much is, first, that these people don't have anything to be pissed off about. Everything is highly structured and safe. The second part is (imho, and as a continuation of the former) that kids don't have any time to cultivate interests or develop emotionally. As you probably know, in the West, we hold individuality in high esteem while in the East, a harmonious society trumps the needs and importance of the individual. Most kids' lives are very similar. You can choose between the following hobbies. Actually, not really. You will go to no fewer than three after-school academies, dance, play soccer and learn to play the cello. You will do homework until you die. You will like this. Everyone likes this. You don't have time to like anything else. You will dance to it. Beeeeep.

(7) Ah, good old Asian bureaucracy. Actually, we needed this in triplicate. It's one millimeter off. You need to go downstairs and come back up for that. It used to be up here, but we moved it and hired an extra person. I'm not sure why. You need to download an application to use this and it only works with Internet Explorer. You need to go to a different office for that stamp even though we could just put one on this desk.

About signing up for an ID card at the building I already work in so I could use the gym: it took 6 people. We had a half dozen people working on it and trying to figure it out, and four of them were Korean. You would type something in and it'd be like, "Error, fool, use letters and words", and you're like, wat. Just for no reason. Important entities like immigration can change their very detailed requirements for things like renewing your visa depending on who you talk to. 

Well, this 2-day long vent has served its purpose and made me feel quite a lot better. I hope a few people read it and are more prepared to deal with working here as a result. Personally, if I can't get a better, higher-paying job as a real professional working with adults, I won't stay another year.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fun Facts About Jellyfish

For some reason certain classes of sea beasties are much more lovable and aesthetically pleasing than others, even if they aren't very useful or friendly and lack traditionally cute features like faces or easily-defined central nervous systems.

The giant Nomura's jellyfish, common (a little too common) off
the coasts of Japan, China and Korea. It may be the world's 
largest jelly, growing to over 300 pounds.
Source: Captain Custo

I know I'm not the only person with an inexplicable soft (and squishy) spot for cephalopods, crustaceans and many members of the slightly more bizarre phylum cnidaria, which includes not only jellies but also corals and anemones. 

These pretty, brightly-coloured stinging things have given many a human pause over what, exactly, the difference is between a plant, and something that looks like a plant for part or all of its life but recoils more quickly when poked.

Well, even if venomous seafaring blobs aren't your cup of tea, they're pretty interesting and deserve at least a moment of consideration.

Jellyfish have been around for over 700,000,000 years, and are definitively proven to have been around for at least 500,000,000. That makes them the oldest multi-organ animal on Earth, three times the age of the first dinosaurs.

Box jellies have eyes like ours and are capable of learning. Actually, they have two eyes like ours and 22 others, but the pair in question is thought to be able to process images (as opposed to other jellyfish eyes that only process changes in light), via four parallel brains that comprise the most complex and unique nervous system of all the jellies. The combined powers of all two dozen eyes - which are situated on all sides of the jelly - may even give it a 360-degree view of the world. 

Image: National Geographic
Article: Science News For Kids
Much simpler jellies also aren't just hunks of blindly drifting sea snot: they have demonstrated at least the basic ability to react to salinity levels and consciously change direction and speed.

Though box jellies are notorious for their stings, their nematocyst harpoons are so small that a pair of pantyhose should provide adequate protection from them.

Because most people aren't uncomfortable, unattractive and/or self-conscious enough in their swimsuits already..

One species of jelly, turritopsis nutricula, can revert to youth at will and may effectively be immortal. 

It sounds like something out of an anime or Sci Fi Channel movie, but this jelly can really re-absorb its tentacles and umbrella bell by altering the state of its cells and transforming them into new ones. It can then revert back to its polyp stage, even after having reached sexual maturity. Jellies traditionally hatch from eggs as itty bitty larvae, settle onto the sea floor or other surfaces and grow into colonies of polyps (kind of like corals) that bud off still-itty bitty planktonic jellies that float around and eat for a few weeks before growing to their adult size. These jellies live for mere hours, weeks, months, or a few years max. 

Even though turritopsis can do the impossible, its transformations have never been witnessed in the wild and the many hazards of being a one-millimeter floating snack after it's re-budded from a polyp probably render its death-cheating ability null, but it's still pretty damn cool, right?

Freshwater jellies have been found in at least 44 U.S. states and almost everywhere else, from Argentina to Thailand. 

Jellies are clear biological indicators of temperature shifts, and the fact that they were recently spotted in Canada and Russia is fairly alarming, as is the better-known ocean proliferation of these weird animals: jellies thrive in warm, oxygen-poor waters and in chemical and nutrient-rich agricultural runoff spots. 

But hey, thinking about a post-apocalyptic Waterworld-type scenario in which shallow polluted seas teeming with jellies wash over the areas where Florida and New York used to be isn't fun. What is fun is that the cute little freshwater suckers are the size of the band pins on your denim jacket and have about 400 little tentacles. D'aww. 

Japanese high school students started dealing with Nomura overpopulation by making the jellies into caramel candy. 

Leave it to the enterprising and resourceful Japanese to turn horrible fishing net bycatch into something sweet. If it comes from the ocean, they eat it. And if they don't, they'll figure out a way to process and eat it eventually. 

So, there you have it. Watching jellies is hypnotic, painting them is fun, and thinking about how they function is fairly mind-boggling. Even if your heart is filled with seething hatred for jellies because you've been unjustifiably attacked by one or several in the past, take solace in the fact that you can get your revenge by going to Japan and eating them as caramels. 
Or as an appetizer in Korea, if you prefer spicy to sweet. 

If you dig jellies, I reommend this article:
Much More to Jellyfish Than Plasma and Poison - NYT

and this really cool, bizarre Japanese movie:
Bright Future - IMDb

(Originally published 3.14.12)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Pale Dude's All-Season Guide to Looking Good

Back in June of last year (happy anniversary insanely backlogged post) a friend of mine asked me to go shopping and basically do some image consulting with him in preparation for the first job he'd had that required business attire: teaching English via JET in Kochi, Japan.

I definitely don't consider myself a fashion maven or anything (as I sit here dressed in second-hand clothes I bought in high school), especially now that I'm relegated to a tiny Korean pseudo-closet, but I try keep up with what's going on, and I'm pretty good with colour, shapes, textures and predicting trends. But then, that's the whole point: not everyone is, and not everyone finds it interesting. A lot of guys don't even like to think about clothes or shopping for more than the three seconds it takes to grab a new pack of briefs. Black shirt, jeans, don't have a different shoe on each foot, pits don't stink, done.

While this was originally going to be a basic fashion guide specifically for pale dudes, I ended up deciding to make a more universal, all-emcompassing guide based on just a few simple rules.

First of all - and this sounds painfully obvious - buy clothes that fit. Lots of women don't even wear the right size bra, how can you be expected to understand what sort of cut best flatters your silhouette?

Figure out what sort of body shape you have and start looking for clothes accordingly, instead of just looking at everything and hoping it'll work on you. Soon it'll be intuitive and require little effort. So, just use the image below and read the conveniently short corresponding blip about your body shape! I've basically stolen and reworded the following from Style Makeover HQ, but they had already taken it from another site so it's OK:

A - Triangle Shape.

If the bottom half of your body is heavier and wider than the upper half, you have a narrow chest and shoulders and wide hips, you have a triangular body.

What you want to do is emphasise your shoulders more while drawing attention away from or adding a slimming effect to your hips, butt and legs.

B - Inverted Triangle Shape.

If you have a broad, muscular top half and slim, narrow bottom half, you've got an inverted triangular body. Try not to skip leg day at the gym, bro.

What you want to do is balance yourself out by wearing straight or wide-legged pants and fitted shirts. If your shirt hangs off your shoulders, you'll appear wide and disproportionate.

C - Rectangle Shape.

If your torso is straight and your shoulders, chest, waist and hips are all about the same width, you've got a rectangular body.

What you want to do is emphasise your shoulders and bring in your waist if possible, to give the illusion of a more trapezoidal figure.

D - Trapezoid Shape.

If you are well-proportioned with a medium or narrow waist and hips and a broad chest and shoulders, then congratulations, you probably already know that you've got a nice body! Not saying that A - C and E don't, but this is the type you usually see on models and whatnot.

What you want to do is hit the back button and keep shopping, because you'll probably look good in most things.

E - Oval Shape.

If you've got a large stomach and an overall round shape, possibly with thinner arms and legs, then you've got an oval body.

What you want to do is elongate and slim your torso as much as possible.

Now that you know your body type and what works best for it, you'll want to go to a nice department store and get measured. This will be really useful now, in the future, on weekends, holidays, any time you need to rent a suit or otherwise dress up, etc. I made my friend do it and write them all down. Keeping them on hand and converting them to centimetres (in this case, since 'Murica don't need no damn socialist metric system) will save you time and headaches and ensure that you always get a perfect fit. Don't underestimate the power of the tape. Oh, and don't worry; the shop guy probably won't cop a feel when taking your inseam. Probably.

Now, on to the actual types of clothes that will flatter your body shape. It's one thing to tell somebody how they should dress and another entirely to unleash them on the world with only a few loose parameters, a dream, and a song in their heart.

A - Triangle Shape.

Even if you're not actually fat, it can be tricky to look sleek with this body type. It's difficult to achieve an impressive, hunky look when you've got narrow, slightly downward-sloping shoulders and even a more feminine, pear-shaped bottom half. 

Firstly, you'll want to try to emphasise your shoulders and balance out your smaller top half. Don't wear anything too tight. Do wear jackets with shoulder pads, and don't be afraid to layer tops. Wearing horizontal stripes and other busy patterns and/or a light colour (such as white) on top and dark, loose-fitting (but not baggy) pants will balance you out. If your pants are too tight your already-larger bottom half will look even more so, and looseness at the lower leg and pleats will do the same.

B - Inverted Triangle Shape.

While you have a nice, slim, athletic physique, you want to avoid looking top-heavy. Guys who wear super tight shirts that are intentionally too small look kind of ridiculous. Maybe it'll reel in a couple of chicks who want to feel your arms, but at the end of the day, it's an immature way to dress.

At the same time, though, don't be afraid to show off your shoulders, chest and arms in a more subtle way. For example, tank tops in the summer are a plus, while deep V-neck tees year-round are not. Light colours and loud patterns on top will also make you look out of proportion, as will jackets with shoulder pads and big lapels. Go for dark colours, slimming vertical stripes and button-down collared shirts. Go for boot-cut or flared pants to balance our your figure. Details at the hips will make them look wider, and cuffs draw attention downward and create flattering, balanced lines in your outfit.

C - Rectangle Shape.

A rectangular shaped is supposedly not ideal, but if you're more or less fit, it can be very attractive and well-balanced. All you want to learn how to do is give said shape a bit more definition by emphasising/broadening your shoulders and wearing semi-fitted clothes to look slimmer in the waist area.

If your hips and medium to slim, don't be afraid to layer tops or wear jackets with shoulder pads to create some bulk up top. Tops with slightly exaggerated shoulder seams, chest pockets and wide necklines or collars can help you achieve this look, as can horizontal stripes and light colours. Avoid baggy pants and try to find comfortable ones that are more closely fitted at the waist and looser at the lower leg. Pockets that have a slanted rather than straight cut will also help break up your rectangular shape.

My friend, for example, is rectangular. What he wants to do is wear fitted, slim shirts and jackets and emphasise his strong shoulders while bringing his waist in. If these things have structure and diagonal lines that point in at the waist, even better.

D - Trapezoid Shape.

Congratulations! As mentioned earlier, you are quite an attractive man. Don't hide it, flaunt it! 

You want to avoid wearing baggy clothes that hide and distort your figure, instead wearing more fitted pieces to flatter it. Now, that doesn't mean that everything has to be skin-tight; that's actually kind of tacky. Snug but not strangling, structured but not boxy. 


Ok, let's move on to colour. First of all, you can't go wrong with neutrals like black, white, grey and navy. I mean, like, maybe you can if you try hard enough, but probably not. Follow this basic formula:
^ If you have dark skin...
^ If you have medium brown skin...
^ And if you have pale skin.
(Source: Bold Jack)
The first thing to remember is to avoid wearing your skin tone. You don't want to look all washed-out and freaky if you're pale or like a shadow if you're dark, do you? 'Course not. If you're super pale like my friend it's also imperative that you don't wear hot or even warm colours, because they bring out the pinks, reds and yellows in your skin tone (and probably hair) way too much, and it's just bad. In his case, I told him to stick with white, dark neutrals, a few pastels and most shades of blue. When he was first asking me about coordinating an outfit last summer, I browsed the sale section of for 15 minutes or so and came up with this (glad I still had it):

You can see that the pants and jacket aren't the same colour, but they are close. The pants are matte and a soft grey while the jacket is slightly shiny and seems to reflect reddish-blueish-purple tones. The shoes aren't exactly the same colour, either, but could easily go with almost any grey or brown outfit for spring or summer. Also, the belt pictured is reversible; it's black on the other side. Do not wear a white belt unless it's very temperate spring or summer. If you're going to get a bright colour like white, it'll save you money to do it this way so it doesn't stay shoved in the back of your drawer for 8 1/2 months of the year.

Trying to match colours exactly is often a waste of time and energy. Hold things that are similar up next to each other and see if they're complimentary, pleasing to the eye. I intentionally had my friend get a jacket that was a different colour from his pants and, as I remember, at least two guys in the store did a double-take, stopped, and complimented it.

The other reason you don't want things to match exactly is so that you can mix and match them, like the shoes above, for example. A number of publications have a chart depicting the percentage of each colour group a man should have in his wardrobe:

Source: Real Men Real Style

Having a good, solid base of those neutrals I keep talking about plus blue will keep you looking stylish most of the time. This is especially true f you put a little more effort into buying nice, soft T-shirts with flattering lengths and necklines in interesting neutrals.

If you're thinking about dressing up, realise that having a lot of grey in your outfit allows you to draw focus somewhere specific if you're wearing it, such as to a bright blue tie, new pair of glasses or cool belt. 

Avoid wearing coloured pants. This is good advice for most people in most circumstances.

So now you're like, OK, I think I can figure out monochrome, but what about everything else? Well, there are four basic types of colour harmony (from left to right): complementary, split-complementary, analogous and triadic.

Source: Tiger Color

Complementary colours are directly across from each other on the wheel, like purple and yellow. Split-complementary schemes are my personal favourite; you use two similar hues plus an opposite one. So you could do, like, a light and dark blue with a pop of orange. Analogous colours are pretty self-explanatory, but a triadic scheme is perhaps the most advanced of the bunch. Maybe don't attempt it, grasshopper, until you've got the first three down.

Once you've got this part down, conquer your fear of looking like an idiot and start mixing textures and patterns. Remember those "matte" grey pants and that "shiny" jacket? That's what I'm talking about. 

It's obvious enough that you should have light fabrics for spring and summer and heavier ones for autumn and winter, but as far as I've seen, men don't usually notice or use them much. Once you get comfortable with what's flattering on you, you might even be able to pull off a corduroy jacket with different-coloured elbow patches. Don't be afraid of thick knits, scarves and hats in winter; they can still look rugged and manly. No one knows you're thinking about the colour wheel, especially if you look like a romanticised fashion-magazine version of a Norseman battling North Sea waves for cod or crab. See, doesn't that make you think of sharp, clear blues and wool fibers? Varying textures keep your outfits interesting, and might give flirty women an excuse to touch you (wink, nudge).

As far as mixing patterns goes, well, the simplest thing to do is be bold and go solid from head to toe. The pocket square is a powerful tool, but for an extra-sleek, confident look when going out to dinner or an event, you don't necessarily need one, or it could also be black. I was so proud of my friend when he figured this one out by himself! 

Mixing ties and shirts is actually pretty easy. Personally, I really hate swirly, flashy or tribal patterns - except for maybe a classic, subtle paisley - and advised my friend to lean heavily on geometry. Just don't go too far overboard. Even if you're a famous musician or something, you'll still look like a douchey clown wearing a loud-ass tie with a bright patterned shirt and crazy jacket.

For example, here are two different ways to wear a white and lavender shirt. I hate the one on the left. I hate everything about it. There's nothing subtle about that paisley, sir, and you can't put a thick, heavy, shiny tie like that with a crisp summer shirt. The tie on the right, though, looks fantastic with the shirt and would work not only with grey and navy blue jackets and pants, but can you see that subtle hint of brown? Now there's a tie that will go with a ton of different things.

Also, this guy continues to make my point not only about the patterns, but about loudness and coloured pants. I don't care how hot he is if his name is Douchemaster Masterdouche. Stahp.

Some of your best, most basic bets are white or very light shirts with thin, not-too-obtrusive plaid, striped or checkered patterns in blues with hints of red, plus a patterned blue tie that shares one of the colours. Doing a bright red striped tie would also match well, even if you can barely see the hints of red in the shirt. If the pattern on your shirt is small and subtle like this, you'll want the tie to either be bigger and bolder or the exact same pattern in a different colour scheme.

And in case you ever wanted to know:


This last section is just about the basics every man should own.

There are things you could add or remove from this list, sure; everyone's opinion on what's important is a little different, but it's hard to mess up if you've got all the following down:

A grey suit

A navy blazer that's light enough to wear in any season

One long and one short-sleeved white button-up

At least one nice neutral sweater (e.g., a plain light grey one)

Nice, neutral tees in black, white and navy

A good leather belt, preferably a reversible one (e.g., black and brown)

Slim black dress shoes

Professional-looking messenger bag/briefcase

Some other basic items every man should have are nice black and khaki trousers, a pair of plain, fitted dark blue jeans, a couple of versatile skinny ties, and a pair of boat shoes and/or nice, sleek sneakers. If you have dirty old shoes, a dingy white shirt or khakis that don't fit right, it's like you just took the wrong brick out of Fashion Jenga and lost the game.

I'm not saying that everyone should constantly play up to the image society expects of them all the time and become vain and superficial, but if you want to look like a stylish professional, then believe me when I say that women and image-conscious men (often superiors) will notice what you're wearing. It's a fact that people react better to those who are attractive. You don't have to be the best-looking person in the world to be successful, but if you're confident, eager and a sharp dresser, you've just improved your chances exponentially.

If you're willing to spend a little time finding quality basics you really like, you also don't have to spend a fortune on them. Even though we had a very productive afternoon of shopping, my friend couldn't exactly overhaul everything he owned in one day, so we had to put back a couple of cardigans and a belt and didn't look at shoes or bags, but here are some of the phone pics he took for me wearing his swag afterward:

Not bad, right? I'd hire him.