In 2008, a woman named Hang Mioku appeared on a popular television program and instantly became one of Korea’s most infamous pseudo-celebrities. At the age of 28, Mioku underwent her first plastic surgery operation. Twenty years later, Mioku had gone through so many facial reconstruction surgeries that she was left scarred and disfigured. Doctors refused to treat her anymore. But she stayed persistent enough to find one doctor who was willing to give her a home injection kit that she could use to give herself silicon shots. Believe it or not, giving Hang Mioku a syringe turned out to be a bad idea. She ran out of silicon and, still wanting to make herself beautiful, began injecting cooking oil into her face. By the time she appeared on television, her face was swollen and enormous, making her look something like a cross between a troll and a sumo wrestler. The television show raised enough money to get Mioku help, and she would eventually undergo a procedure where over 200 grams of cooking oil was taken out of her face and neck.
Plastic surgery is generally accepted in South Korea and doesn’t carry with it the kind of negative connotation it has in the States. An article on Seoulstyle.com states that over 50 percent of women in their 20s have had some sort of operation done. Of them, a good number had their work done while they were in high school. The most common procedures are getting a nose job where the bridge of the nose is heightened, or having a “double eyelid” operation to make the eyes look more Western. The motivation for going through these procedures is simple: Koreans just want to look good and attract a mate.
My motivation for visiting the plastic surgery wing of Gil Hospital was far different. After slamming my face into a beer glass, I had twelve stitches put in around my left eyebrow, a process that I missed in favor of a nice drunken nap. You can imagine how odd it felt when I was told I had to have the plastic surgery unit examine me later in the week. “But I already have double eyelids,” I thought, taking my appointment card from the receptionist. As much as I was disturbed at having hurt myself while drunk, I was a bit more upset by the idea that a doctor might have to take a scalpel and reconstruct part of my face.
On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I had my Korean friend text me the words “plastic surgery” in Hangul. My phone out and ready, I showed the words to the front desk, and later to a bunch of nurses I passed by when I was lost in the hospital hallways. None of them spoke English. And since I can’t speak Korean, I would just say “hello” and show them the screen of my phone, which said “plastic surgery.” The nurses would nod enthusiastically, perhaps thinking that I had gone in for a nose reduction.
Finally I found the Plastic Surgery Unit. The nurses were all rather attractive, with pale skin and lovely makeup. I looked around, hoping to see people bandaged up like the heroine of the Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode. There was nothing. The Plastic Surgery Unit was empty. Eventually I would spend portions of two days there, having my head looked at. On the second trip, the surgeon – a young fellow who spoke some English – yanked the stitches out of my head. He did so in silence, and in that blank space of time I concentrated on the pain and tried to picture what my scar might look like. Like most people who came to this place, I imagined, I would be leaving looking at least a little differently than I had coming in.
Good old Hang Mioku, with all that cooking oil in her mug, wanted to be attractive. I just wanted things to go back to normal. I guess the difference between us is that she believed that she could, if she put in enough money and effort, really be beautiful. I’d given up on that notion a long time ago. Plastic surgery is for people who only trust aesthetics, and who don’t doubt the idea that beauty is possible. That acceptance is possible, and that beauty and acceptance go hand-in-hand. When Hang Mioku went on that television show, the loudest thought in her head must’ve been, “Please, please look at me.”
Walking out of the Korean hospital, where I didn’t speak the language and stuck out like a broken thumb, I didn’t particularly care to be accepted by anyone around me. I’d walk home by myself and that would be fine. I could even run my fingertip across the ridge of the small scar that ran through the hair of my eyebrow. Right over the jagged crack in my skin that will stay there forever.