3.3 Fall 2021

November 7, 번데기

If you’re wondering what I did today, I got my haircut, met the local potato lady, and ate silkworm larvae in the back kitchen of the salon.

This is living.

My hair had started to take on an anachronistic mullet shape so I scheduled an appointment with a foreigner friendly salon in Haeundae that I’ve visited once before.

Traffic had other ideas, however, and I frantically called the salon number to blurt out in Korean that I would be pretty late. On the flipside, at least I’m less afraid to talk on the phone?

When I finally pulled up, the stylist and another woman acting as her assistant helped me park, somewhat illegally, and then attended to my hair. They finished in an astonishing thirty minutes which left ample time to drink their coffee and chat with the ladies like a salon out of the 60s. The vegetable vendor ducked in and handed over a basket of fried sweet potatoes which the ladies encouraged me to share. It was not unlike the time I ate dumplings in the women’s locker room at the gym in Seoul, only that time I was nude.

In between customers, the older stylist with short purple hair invited me for lunch. I didn’t quite know what that meant but said yes anyway, because we all know by now that I will accept just about any situation if there is free food involved. They ushered me through a door and into an attached kitchen, the salon must have been a house in its previous life, where they had set out rice and some side dishes.

“Eating together is important in Korea,” the older stylist told me.

“I hate eating alone,” I agreed.

The three of us sat crowded around a small table shoved in the corner and I very nearly met my end on a large piece of kimchi because I am a disaster. Once I returned to life, I took a piece of food from tupperware I hadn’t tried yet.

“I often see ladies selling these and ice cream on the same street food cart,” I told them, gesturing with the pupae between my chopsticks. I was excited to finally try one, homemade no less.

There was a small pop, a little chewiness, and a pleasant nutty flavor. I liked it much more than I expected. If I knew how to cook them, I might even try buying a bag and doing it myself.

Though I want to know– are bugs vegetarian?

All throughout the afternoon, from my late arrival to my praised chopsticks skills, the ladies were so complimentary. It helps that my Korean has improved since the last time I saw them and we could gossip much more easily. The bar for (non-Asian) foreigners learning Korean is so low that minimal knowledge is praised and median effort is exalted.

When I took off my mask to eat a fried potato, the stylist peered down and all around my face, assessing.

“Very pretty.” She concluded, to which I honestly felt some relief. Sometimes I feel like I’m a 마기꾼*. On occasion, when I take off my mask I look at my face and feel disappointed, and I’m afraid others will be too. And it’s not an uncommon phenomenon in the COVID age. I don’t match my own imagined face– like I am failing my own quiz. Was I better looking before COVID?

I don’t know the science but my personal hypothesis is that in our mind, we always imagine the best and most beautiful of things. We are dreamers! Therefore every person we see on the street could have the face of an angel; why would our brains fill in the rest of someone’s face with average features?

So when the mask finally comes off and the person underneath is revealed to have normal features or a different face than the eyes suggest, we feel a keen distance between expectation and reality. We find the disconnect disappointing. At least, that’s my guess.

My point is, I relish compliments, require them, bathe in them like a baby elephant in a pond, smoke them like D.A.R.E. told me not to, cherish them in these strange times. You speak Korean well, you are so tall like a model, you look young, you work hard. My insides were lit up like a Christmas tree. I’m lucky to live in a culture that is prone to constant commentary on appearance– well, at least when it’s what I want to hear!

(Trust me, when the masks come off and my students don’t like what they see, they WILL tell me.)

From time to time Korea allows heartwarming little moments like these, in between a range of other surprises and trials. I did not wake up this morning expecting to eat larvae at a hair salon and yet here I am. Just say yes and the opportunities will come.

마기꾼: portmanteau of “mask” and “fraud”; a person who seems good looking with a mask on but is not once the mask is removed

마기꾼 얼굴 특징이라는데 너무 찔린다... - 인스티즈(instiz) 익명잡담

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