I Might Appear Korean, But . . .

by Kasey Buecheler

Just like any culture, there are positive and negative traits that make it what it is.  Growing up as an American, I am used to life in America.  Even with a Korean exterior, I consider myself a true American and I don’t think I have ever considered myself truly Korean.   During my time in Korea, I became more and more aware of how different my friends and I were from those around us.

Outer appearance is something that everyone is fixated on.  Korea has a very different idea of beauty from the typical Western ideal, and I could probably spend multiple blog posts on my opinions of this. They treasure pale skin, larger eyes, and having a small v-shaped face.  Korea has gained some negative publicity as a country with a high rate of plastic surgery in order to achieve this ideal look.  The clothing style is a lot more posh, and there is not much variation among the general population.  Walking around Seoul, anyone could pick us out of a crowd as Americans, with our tanned skin and Abercrombie and Fitch.

The Korean ideal is seen in most Korean commercials. They frequently choose celebrities or models to endorse their products, whereas in the United States comedy is often the main focus of commercials. Thus, the prettiest women and most attractive men get cast most often in Korean commercials.  Yoona is considered a “CF Queen.” The following video is a sample of Yoona’s work:

Korean social etiquette is another area in which there is a big difference.  Even for something as small as accepting a drink from an elder, there are particular ways in which Koreans do these things that we as Westerners are not accustomed to.  I remember being lightly scolded by a parent of a previous boyfriend for not properly greeting them before I even knew that I had done anything wrong.  Elders in Korea have a high expectation for respect from the younger generation, which is reasonable.  In another instance, I was riding a bus and accidentally bumped into an older lady who was sitting beside me as the bus went over a bump in the road.  She began to yell at me, in Korean, so loudly that everyone in the bus was staring because I did not immediately apologize.  Luckily, I was with my previous boyfriend at the time, who was a native Korean, and he was able to stick up for me and we promptly exited the bus.

For Korean Americans, these kinds of differences can be difficult to adjust to.  However, I do feel being raised by Korean parents, even in America, exposes non-adoptees to these kinds of cultural differences.  They might not be raised in an environment where these customs are practiced, but I feel that they are at least made aware.   I have Korean American friends who do not speak a word of Korean, but are familiar with Korean food, manners, and traditions.  They see certain Korean behavior as a “pain in the butt” and may not agree with it, but they still know how to behave themselves when around Korean elders.

Korean adoptees, like myself, are not raised with this sort of exposure.  Going to Korea, we are more similar to the foreign visitors from places like Europe on tour groups.  We go into it not knowing what to expect, exactly.  Koreans are typically understanding in regards to foreigners not being completely familiar with Korean customs.  They may offer help to a foreigner on the street that they see is struggling with a map, or some may simply walk by.  Regardless, they recognize that individual as a foreigner and recognize that they are not familiar with their surroundings.  Where it gets complicated is the fact that Korean adoptees appear Korean.  We have a Korean exterior, and while we may look Americanized, there is still that expectation from native Koreans that we are at least familiar with Korean customs and language as non-adopted Korean Americans are.  Even on the plane ride over, the Korean stewardesses would ask me about my beverage/meal choices in Korean, and I would repeatedly have to tell them “I don’t speak Korean” and receive a puzzled look before they switched over to using English.

Each year, I felt I went to Korea a bit more prepared than the year before.  Because of the amount of time I have spent there, I feel that I have gotten a good idea of what living there is like and what to expect.  As an adoptee, I can say that traveling to Korea was emotionally fulfilling, but there were many hard times as well.


  1. Kasey, I loved your blog post. You explained your situation well and also educated your readers about Korean ideals and etiquette.

    It’s too bad that people anywhere feel that a small divergence from a certain beauty standard must be corrected with surgery. You are a lovely young woman, by the way. All the best,


    • Thank you! It is a culture shock traveling and living anywhere abroad, and there are ways to read about the culture and etiquette beforehand. But with my experiences to Korea, there were so many aspects about the society that I was not prepared for. Definitely a growing experience!

  2. Barbara Crawley says:

    Kasey, I found your story fascinating! Particularly your description of traveling around Korea and having so many people you encountered assume you knew the Korean customs and you spoke the language, just because of your appearance! Kind of proves that old adage about why it’s dangerous to assume….

    • Yes! It’s a lot like some of the other entries in this blog, where Americans would make assumptions about the adoptees here in America which I has happened to me numerous times as well. It was just interesting that it didn’t stop when I left the US.

  3. I wanted to add to the idea of human pattern-making. Just read this interesting blog about false pattern making and thought it kind of fit, showing why people can easily make false assumptions (so I’m not saying I’m not doing that haha): http://scienceornot.net/2012/08/14/perceiving-phoney-patterns-apophenia/

  4. It’s funny you should mention this, my roommate at Ewha came back to our dorm once stunned and told me that there was a mirror on the subway that had the “ideal” body type outlined on it. It was there for girls to stand in and compare themselves to. Pretty unbelievable. And as far as the plastic surgery thing goes, double eyelid surgery and nose jobs are fairly common in Korea and Korea gets a lot of negative attention about this. However, I think it’s a little unfair to scrutinize Koreans when people don’t realize that it is like the Asian equivalent of breast implant surgeries and botox injections in Western countries.

  5. Marisha Castle says:

    Hey Kasey! I loved your story! I can only imagine how I would react being in Seoul. What a culture shock! It is amazing how different the cultures are. I imagine I would be yelled at for so many things as well if I was in your position. I hope I can go back there being an adult soon. I would love to see the things you did. Thanks for writing on our blog! 🙂 x

  6. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    This wonderful and thought-provoking essay reminded me of an experience I had with my China-born daughter in the months following her adoption. (She was six months old when we landed in the US. I was with Juliet in a shopping mall one afternoon when we were approached by a small group of about 5 Asian people. One of them, a woman, said “Where in Korea was she born?” I responded that she was born in China, and we had just adopted her and brought her over. The woman said “No, that’s not possible. She is very pretty and looks Korean. Are you sure she is not Korean?” I admitted that I didn’t know for sure the ethnicity or national origin of her birth parents, as she had been cared for in an orphanage, but that her birth certificate said she was Han Chinese. The woman frowned and they all turned heel and left.

    • That’s an enlightening and disturbing and saddening anecdote, Lisa. Stereotyping and ethnic and national intolerance seem to be such a part of humankind, unfortunately. On a (much) lighter note, Juliet is such a beauty I imagine the Irish would want to claim her, too ;).

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