*Han is a Korean word that every Korean person seems to define differently. It’s a collective feeling of “sorrow, regret, grief, resentment, a dull ache in the soul…Some Koreans believe it comes from the nation’s history of being invaded. Others say the strict class system in Korea’s past is responsible. Regardless of where han originated, it’s place in the Korean consciousness is now firm.”
As one theme of my blog is exploring how one can be Korean/Korean-American with a dearth of known Korean relatives and scant knowledge of Korean language and cultural traditions, I want to understand/feel han. For if I feel han, chances are I’m certifiably Korean! The above cartoon suggests that han means being born angry. Since I’m adopted and I can’t ask my birth parents about my delivery, I’m unsure If I emerged cross and colicky but Lord knows, as an adult I can rage!
As I write this post–moments away from hopefully hearing President Biden describe his plan to end Putin’s bloody quest for hegemony–I am indeed overcome by a “dull ache in the soul.” Inflation (i.e, gas prices and the $5 cost of one sumo orange made me gasp out loud recently), recent news of one man beating up seven Asian people in one day, heart-pounding stories of Ukrainians under siege, World War III memes/analogies and anxieties about the consequences of relaxed mask mandates, have me feeling passively agitated/resentful/mournful for things and people that have been lost. Positively han!
Nothing quells my current anxiety more than sending odd group emails to my patient friends. Knowing myself and my pinball-thoughts that only bear fruit on occasion, I should issue group emails with reserve and trepidation but my digits are unruly! I recently sent one of these beauties to roughly 30 friends and family. As I explained, I’d recently read some news articles, including this one that my friend Lisa forwarded me, that declared it was trendy for young South Korean women to leave their homes wearing large velcro self adhesive curlers in their hair. The article and its rash of more recent imitators, suggested that wearing these curlers outside was not only a practical way to ensure a desirable wavy bang for young Koreans but that it was a sign of protest—protest against strict Korean beauty norms and the belief one has to look flawless for strangers. Supposedly, older Koreans are distressed by the removal of this beauty tool from the privacy of home to the streets–highlighting a generational divide. One article, noted the plastic curler symbolizes defiance, confidence and living free from societal judgments.
In my group email, I challenged my friends to wear at least one big pink Velcro curler (that I would mail to them) in public–ascribing any desired meaning to it. Then, I asked them to take a photo of themselves wearing it. (My friends should be grateful that I did not ask them to wear more outlandish alternatives to plastic curlers). My husband, peering over my shoulder as I typed, compared me to a cult leader–his second time anointing me. (The first time was the time I threw a Squid Game party in the park). It delights me that sometimes I can get a small group of friends to do trivial new things with me.
It’s clear why I’m drawn to this Korean hair curler trend. I’ve found it interesting how women have enjoyed hiding during COVID —pushing aside form-fitting jeans for straight, looser styles, rolling around the house happily in knit sets, rejecting under wire bras and high heels and dismantling complex beauty regimens. (See the photo below of my favorite pairs of Korean-made COVID-era shoes that border on slippers. Can I wear these to my office now? You would be surprised how many people see these slipper shoes and enthusiastically want a pair. ) As Western journalists noted the Korean curler trend for the first time around November 2021, when Korea like the rest of the world was overwhelmed with COVID, perhaps the curler is as much of a protest symbol as a pair of straight, high waisted jeans is here.
But alas, we femmes can’t slink away any longer; masks-off, we’re left to once again hone our creepy-stranger avoidance skills on public transportation and wallow in society’s judgements about aging and physical imperfections. Remote work has been a glory for many women who perhaps for the first time, have been able to practice self-care (exercise, doctors’ appointments etc) and revel in family life without the confines of rigid office hours and commute time. As I return to the office and inevitably have to shed my second-skin slouch-wear for some more structured, constraining garb, I like the idea of donning one pink curler as a vestige of the strangely liberating (but of course tragic)Covid era.
It’s not the first time curlers have made news. In 2017 a Korean judge, the only female on the Korean Constitutional Court, was photographed wearing curlers in her hair as she oversaw the ouster of the South Korean President; her image went viral and lead many journalists to declare the curler was a symbol of a busy modern working woman who was too busy to notice her hair.
If I was a journalist, I’d want to interview more South Koreans to see if these mostly Western journalists are guilty of a grab-at-straws, over-interpretation of a simple accessory. As my teen son and his young math tutor Lizzie both chimed in at the moment I gifted LIzzie a large pink curler and told her it was possibly a Korean symbol of protest, “sometimes the curtains are just blue.” (I had to look up this reference to a meme about literary interpretation). Sometimes curlers are just curlers!
Whether wearing curlers publicly is just a practical means to get a wavy hair style, a symbol of protest, or a mark of a busy modern woman, it is a lovable trend. Of course, pink curlers are very I love-Lucy. A woman wearing them warrants a laugh/side-eye. In the U.S., we sometimes spot celebrities prancing around town in a crown of rollers (e.g. model Gigi Hadid and actor Bradley Cooper below)– a choice that reads “I am so untouchable, I can do anything and look good.” An online search reveals that actor/rapper Ice T wore rollers in high school as a sign of toughness. “See, there’s a level of gangster where you can do things that you’re really saying: ‘Don’t say nothin’ about it,’” he says. “It’s like the biker who might put a ribbon in his hair, like: ‘What? I’m waiting on you.’ So you have to have a certain level of credibility, but a lot of the cats were wearing perms and had rollers in their hair and we would get away with it.”
But so far, I have not noticed too many non celebrities wearing them outside.
As someone who likes to be inconspicuous, I’ve always been fascinated by those who buck social norms/do things that turn heads. I fondly remember a friend’s Social Psychology class at Carleton College where students had to conceive of a project involving breaking social norms, actually do the deed and then write about any reactions. One friend wore a bike helmet to all her meals in our dining hall and another entered one of our library’s intimate glass study rooms where a couple was studying, wordlessly spread out all her work on the tiny shared table and watched the couple exchange furtive, OMG-looks as she pretended to work.
For my friends who participated in my wee social experiment, consider it some Continuing Adult Education as surely you are like me and lament your failure to fully take advantage of your college education. (But this goofy professor will not be doling out grades, just barks of encouragement!)
In response to my mass email, my friend Lisa helpfully attached the relevant NY Times article I had forgotten to send and wrote: “I remember randomly coming across an article in the Times about this and sending it to you! I love that you’ve decided to write about it and that you have such a fun idea for exploring this Korean trend here in the United States…with Gen X women! Count me in for a couple of pink curlers!” (In Seoul, women sporting curlers are more Gen Z). Note: some people photographed below are not Gen X but younger!
Another friend Rosario (photographed below) added her unique perspective. She emailed that she was not familiar with this Korean trend and wanted to know more about it in the context of Korean culture– because “seeing women and girls wearing rollers in their hair in public and wearing rollers in my own hair isn’t taboo to me as a Hispano-Caribbean person – and I’m talking a head full of rollers! This is a cultural norm, and even a source of pride to an extent because you can tell how long someone’s hair is by the color of the rollers they have to use (ex. grey means your hair is very long), and the longer hair, the deeper your claim to femininity/beauty.” In her thoughtful and tactful way, Rosario’s response reminded me that sending late night group emails that seek adventure and newness without much forethought can lead to insensitive gaffes/cultural narcissism. I am lucky I have a friend like her who sees my strengths and helps me when I’m being a dunderhead.
To understand the curler as a protest symbol, I did a little rooting around to learn about Korean culture; are Koreans uniquely obsessed with plastic surgery and outer appearance as Western journalists love to suggest (and if so, is it due to sheer vanity or more complex reasons) and relatedly, how is feminism expressed and viewed in South Korea?
It is seemingly undisputed that plastic surgery is widely accepted and a part of Korean culture. Although South Korea at least in 2020, did not make the top ten countries for total number of plastic surgery procedures–one measure of obsession– the country supposedly has the most plastic surgeons per capita. Supposedly, one in five South Korean women has had some form of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the U.S., according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. (Comparing Seoul and another assumed high density plastic surgery city like L.A. might be informative as well but I couldn’t find that information).
Western journalists certainly spend a lot of time emphasizing that Koreans are uniquely obsessed with beauty, makeup and the exterior, which I and some other Koreans, find suspect and exoticizing. Perhaps, those in the U.S. are just as concerned with the exterior but Koreans are more blunt about the importance of being physically attractive. Another theory is that Americans are not less shallow than Koreans but are simply obsessed with natural beauty and feigning natural beauty when they are covertly using filters, cosmetics and procedures. Little sneaks!
It’s good to know that it’s more than sheer vanity that makes South Koreans interested in outer appearance; as I learned, in South Korea many job applications still require a photo and include questions about height and weight (which thank goodness is not common practice in the United States). One western journalist in search of why South Koreans are such “lookists,” interviewed Professor Suh, a Korean psychology professor; as Professor Suh explained: “One factor is that, in contrast to Western cultures, the external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearance) versus the inner aspects (thoughts and feelings) matter more here.” This mentality is partially explained by Confucianism, which teaches that one’s treatment of others is most important. “In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more.”
As Koreans are not typically embarrassed about their plastic surgery and plastic surgery is quite common, my friend Rosario wondered why wearing a curler outside would be frowned upon by anyone in Korea. After all, it is a country where it’s not entirely uncommon (due to low cost for procedures relative to the U.S. and belief that plastic surgery is practical in a competitive society) for a woman to steal away from her familial responsibilities for weeks/months to get plastic surgery and return completely transformed, head to toe.
Perhaps wearing a pink curler is the perfect covert feminist symbol in Korea, a country that is currently in the midst of an anti-feminism wave. I have always had a vague notion that Korea is a patriarchal, conservative country with Confucian ideas about the role of women. From my brief research, it seems Korea has made advances re feminism though at a slower pace and on a different timeline than the United States.
Some say modern mainstream Korean feminism originated at the 2016 Gangnam, Korea post-it-note demonstration where Koreans gathered to protest a criminal court verdict for a defendant who said he killed a woman in a public bathroom because he had been been disregarded by women his whole life. Because I am who I am, I’m naturally drawn to the absurd in this story: In the midst of the protest, a man dressed up like a pink elephant told protestors (in Korean) that carnivores are not bad but the person who commits the crime is bad (his way of saying men are not bad but the particular person who committed the murder was bad). He championed a Zootopia society where predator (men) and prey(women) walked hand in hand–a statement that offended some female protestors who attacked him physically. A harbinger of the current culture war!
I learned that Korea did experience the MeToo movement around 2018, long after ours began and had a Korea-specific Escape the Corset radical feminist movement in which women posted images of themselves on social media without makeup/destroying their makeup with short hair alongside a Korean hashtag.
But in 2022, feminism is clearly under siege in Korea. Many Korean news stories I have read lately seem like headlines we might have seen in the U.S. a while ago; for example, fairly recently, a Korean female newscaster wrote about steeling herself to wear glasses for the first time on tv and being surprised when she received supportive comments afterwards. When Korean Olympic archer An San won her third gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, thousands of men online decried her short hair and labeled her a feminist, which they interpreted to mean man-hater. (Short hair is probably not the rallying cry of U.S. Right Populist groups today, though they can be anti-feminist).
I read many articles about a mens group called Man On Solidarity, which is lead by a man named Bae In-kyu who typically wears all black and encourages his followers to protest by making pig noises; women are pigs! He is fond of making statements like “feminists are a social evil” and “feminism is a mental illness.” Name-calling is par for the course; at some point, some anti-feminists referred to Korean women as “Kimchi bitches” and angrily discussed online their belief that Korean women are all gold diggers waiting to marry rich. Apparently, its not just the fringe-y, wacko Korean men who are listening to this anti-feminist rhetoric. Among South Korean men in their 20s, nearly 79 percent said they were victims of serious gender discrimination, according to a poll in May 2021. The anti-feminist sentiments have infiltrated mainstream Korean politics to the degree that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has said: “Just as women should never be discriminated against because of their gender, nor should men suffer discrimination because they are men.” (Whereas, back in 2017, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate ran on an openly feminist platform).
Apparently curlers are not the only controversial symbol in Korea today. The pinching hand gesture that is ubiquitously used to indicate something small in size has been causing mayhem. In 2015, Megalia, a controversial radical feminist group in Korea used the pinching hand symbol as its logo to indicate small penis size. Though Megalia is defunct, the hand gesture and its revised, very specific meaning continues to cause controversy in Korea.
When the above ad for Korea’s largest convenience store ran in early 2021, men’s groups protested it arguing it demeaned men. Although the company denied this, the ad was pulled. (It seems the mini sausage, supposedly innocently placed to sell sausage, made the ad suspect).
How does one keep up with the changing meanings of age-old gestures? Let us not forget how the o.k. hand gesture morphed from congenial, happy camper symbol to a white supremacy sign seemingly overnight. It’s particularly hard for those who are easily distracted like me to keep up with the meaning of gestures. Relatedly, the list of everyday expressions that turn out to be offensive is exhausting to track. My son and I recently looked up the expression “comments from the peanut gallery” online to find out it’s probably no good. Another useful site that basically has me in a tail-spin–resigned to only communicate in blinks–is https://www.adl.org/hate-symbols.
Before writing this post, I could very well have been the ignorant tourist in Korea asking a group of men wearing black to be a little quieter while using the pinching hand gesture. See me running through the streets of Seoul-chased by a throng of angry, oinking men. (Another day, I may have to draw this image).
On a very highbrow note, I can’t help but laugh at the similarity between the o.k. symbol that now means white supremacy and the pinching gesture that now means small penis size in Korea. Do the white supremacists know how similar their gesture is to the one for a small penis?
I end this long ode to the curler with notes from my own curler excursion to jury duty at the New York Supreme Court courthouse in Manhattan. (The earlier photo of a Korean judge in her curler may have inspired me). Heading outside that morning, I felt timid about drawing attention to myself as an Asian-American woman on the streets of NYC; as many of the subjects of this experiment confirmed, wearing curlers in one’s hair does elicit some stares/attention. My cab driver seemed unfazed by my lone pink accessory, which energized me. But once I arrived in the courthouse lobby’s security line, I ripped my curler out of my hair. (Security guards sort of scare me. They can be so brusque!) I twirled it back into my locks as i entered the crowded jury duty reception room and felt the weight of some stares–mostly friendly ones. There were one or two double takes by befuddled older men.
I wore it during my walk around Chinatown at lunch and found myself trying to reaffix it as I stared into the window of a car parked next to the Asian Community mural tribute to Christina Yuna Lee and other victims. At some point, a woman around my age stood behind me, impatient. Characteristically oblivious to my surroundings, I half turned towards her, still twirling my hair. “Sorry, do you want to take a photo of the mural?”
“No, you’re blocking my car.”
When I turned to fully face her, she saw my pink curler bobbing in place and cracked a smile. (I swear the accessory somehow make you likeable!) When i returned to the courthouse and got corralled into a courtroom for voir dire, I tucked my curler into my laptop bag. It seemed a little too subversive/disrespectful like wearing a hat in the courtroom, which is still a no-no. The experience showed me what i already knew: I’ve got no stomach for bucking social norms, no matter how minor. (Though I got excused from jury duty without even wearing a curler, I think wearing a head of these curlers might be a sure fire way to get excused from this obligation).
Overall, participants in this social experiment reported that reactions to curlers were mild and generally polite. As my friend Susan commented, “I wonder how the fact that we’ve all had such an odd experience of being quarantined along with the whole world and wearing masks for 2 years changes the reaction that strangers have to something like wearing curlers. I just can’t imagine that people think anything is that strange after seeing people in masks for 2 years and after experiencing what we have all been through!” Well said Susan.
Give a curler a spin! (Please see more photos and comments of participants below)