This spring, VICE partnered with Fotografiska New York to present New Visions, an exhibition showcasing 14 emerging photographers from around the world who are changing the way we see. To highlight the work beyond the museum, we asked 14 of our favorite, fresh voices in culture to respond to the photos in writing. Here, writer Summer Kim Lee personally reflects on the themes in the work of artist Eui-Jip Hwang.
Hwang's work aims to subvert and critique the role of imagery in contemporary consumer culture, particularly in his birthplace of South Korea. By re-photographing, screen capturing, scanning, manipulating, printing, and redistributing factual and fictional narratives, he draws attention to the absurdity in the pursuit of perfection prescribed by advertising, social media, and self care culture. Read more from the New Visions series here, and learn how to visit the show at Fotografiska New York here.
When I was younger, and my mom had a work trip that spilled over into the weekend, I stayed with my grandparents. They lived in Hacienda Heights, California, in the same house my mom, aunt, and uncle grew up in, about an hour drive from where my mom and I lived in West L.A. I looked forward to those weekends. I would eat Korean food while sitting on top of a phonebook my grandparents put down on a chair as a booster seat, a Korean news channel or soap opera playing in the background. Sometimes my grandparents had Pop Tarts or a Kirkland chocolate cake from Costco, both of which I craved and neither of which my mom let me eat at home. I rummaged through my mom’s old things, sorting through her photos, souvenirs, and jewelry, which I would sneak back home with me like stowaways. With these indulgences, going to their house felt like going on a small vacation as much as it felt like coming home.
In the evenings, I’d watch my grandma while she sat at her vanity and did her skincare routine. Looking in the mirror, she would apply an assortment of creams with her fingers, always with slow, deliberate, upward movements (this kept skin lifted and young). I say “grandma” here, but I actually call her “Hamii”—a shortening of halmoni, the Korean word for “grandmother,” in my own made-up spelling. When Hamii kissed me goodnight, I’d feel the bare imprint of her cheek and lips, how soft and sticky her moisturized skin was, against mine. Once the lights were off and she had left, I would lay there with the smell of her skin as it lingered on mine, carrying me into the night.
I remember once sleeping with Hamii and waking up during the night to find that my mom was in bed with us, too. She must have gotten back in town late and crept in beside us. I had woken up several times in the dark that night, heavy with sleep. But with each waking moment came an awareness of a different part of my mom’s body next to mine. First there was a foot touching mine, then a hand holding mine, and finally the warmth of her breath and her face next to mine. My mom and Hamii were on either side of me, snoring the exact same way, which they both firmly deny ever doing. I was in the middle, and once I knew it and felt it, I fell back asleep and didn’t wake up again until the morning, when my mom and Hamii had already gotten out of bed to start their day.
My mom and I had a nightly routine of our own when I was around five years old. Neither of us know how it started. Once I was in bed, I’d ask my mom to do my make-up. I would close my eyes, and my mom would start to narrate a make-up routine while touching different parts of my face, as if she were a make-up artist doing a tutorial. She would lightly stroke my face with foundation powder and tap my cheeks with blush using the tips of her fingers. She’d brush her fingers over my closed eyelids and eyelashes with eyeshadow and mascara, then she would run her fingers over my lips with lipstick, pinch each of my earlobes with earrings, and twirl strands of my hair around her fingers as if they were a curling iron. I always asked her to do this routine more than once, and sometimes, if I was lucky—and if she wasn’t too tired—she would. Even if I knew she would say no, I always asked a second time, always wanting more contact, more touch.
Intergenerationality, as we know from its frequent depictions in Asian American media, sows conflict and indebtedness as much as it offers care and support. For me, it’s a fraught combination of all of those things, distilled and felt most acutely in how my mom and Hamii touch their faces and mine. This is the way I came to know my facial features—their shape, size, textures, and contours. Their touch guided every part of me into its right place. Lying between them in bed, in the warm space that brought Hamii’s cheek to mine, in the lines my mom’s fingers traced, I felt grounded and held. I didn’t need to look in the mirror to see what I had, I only had to wait until the evening for Hamii and my mom to show me.
I often linger on these moments I’ve outgrown. Between them, I learned where I fit in the world, and how my face fit, alongside theirs. But somewhere along the way I forgot those lessons.
As a teenager, I was convinced that my right eye was smaller than my left eye. I thought the crease of my right eye fell in the wrong place. I would poke and prod the fold of my right eyelid all day to try and make it fold a different way, in a different crease, to make it the same shape and size as the other. I would walk around with my pointer finger tucked under my eyelid. I started to not even notice when I did it. I touched my right eye so often that, by the end of the day, the surrounding skin would be dry, raw, and red.
When my mom saw this, she would reach out to my face with concern, but I’d belligerently, self-consciously duck and step back. I’d get angry with her, taking every gesture of hers as criticism and judgment, while she received mine as hurtful withdrawals. During that time, her touch was not something I welcomed, and nor were the features her touch used to trace. In turn, she always told me to stop touching my face: to stop picking, itching, and scratching. I used to think it was controlling, but now I realize it was said out of sadness and concern.
Hamii had a subscription to a Korean beauty and fashion magazine, the title of which I can’t remember. I would flip through the magazine’s pages with close attention to every model and celebrity’s face in monolid make-up editorials. I thought they could show me how to do what other magazines like Seventeen, Cosmo Girl, Allure, and Teen People couldn’t, which was learn how to beautify faces like mine. But I never saw myself there. The women in these magazines had skin that was much lighter. Their eyes were slightly different than mine, but in ways I couldn’t quite describe. Their noses and chins were smaller, more delicate. They had defined profiles, some with nose bridges, while kids in elementary school told me I had a flat face with no profile at all.
Once I noticed what I saw as discrepancies, I started practicing different ways of smiling that didn’t make my nose spread wider and flatter across my face. I’d glare into the mirror tugging and pulling at my face to see if I could force muscles, tissue, bone, and skin to learn new, flattering expressions that would make it appear smaller.
I’m not sure if it was my mom or Hamii who told me that many of the women in these magazines most likely had plastic surgery. Whoever it was, they were trying their best to dispel the insecurities I had. But finding out about Korean plastic surgery mostly confused me. At that point, in the late 1990s, the only plastic surgery I had heard of was breast augmentation, and I had always thought it was for white women (mainly because all the celebrities I knew of were white in the first place). I didn’t know about Julie Chen, the Chinese American CBS news anchor and TV personality from the 90s, who in 2015 disclosed that she had plastic surgery after her boss and an agent told her that her eyes made her look “disinterested and bored.”
I’m not going to rehash any moralizing debates around plastic surgery with simplistic notions of agency, authenticity, and choice. I recognize the severity of the racist, sexist pressures Chen faced to look a certain way for her job; I know what that feels like, as countless others do. Chen has since said that although she recognizes that her decision came out of racism in the workplace, she doesn’t regret it. I get it. She doesn’t want to let her past decisions weigh on her as some kind of proof that she’s a bad, self-hating Asian American woman. I don’t want what I write here to offer that same kind of proof about me.
Shortly after learning about Korean plastic surgery, I first heard the word sangapul from my mom’s aunts and uncles, who I see every Christmas Eve. Hamii told me it’s the Korean word for a double eyelid, as opposed to a hooded, monolid. Sangapul is seen as a desirable feature; it’s what all the women in Hamii’s magazines had. Some are born with it, while others might tape their eyelids or undergo a blepharoplasty—more commonly referred to as “double eyelid surgery”—the most popular cosmetic surgical procedure in South Korea.
The procedure was invented after the Korean War in 1953 by David Ralph Millard, a U.S. marine surgeon, who practiced the surgery on Korean sex workers at the same time that he was doing reconstructive surgeries on U.S. soldiers and war victims. The Korean plastic surgery industry is inextricably tied to the U.S. and its image of itself as a benevolent power in South Korea, rather than what it is: a menacing military presence. At the same time, the industry has grown, creating its own set of beauty standards that don’t revolve around whiteness. I pored over these standards in Hamii’s magazines, and they were just as unattainable to me, and all the more frustratingly so, because it was as if I was almost there—there being that place where I felt like I knew where my face fit, where my features should go.
In May of 2018, my mom and I went to South Korea for 10 days. We stayed in Seoul and spent a couple days on Jeju Island, where my mom’s cousin lives with his wife. We had always planned on going with Hamii, except by the time we finally got around to scheduling the trip, all three of us were concerned about the impact the travel might have on her health, given her age.
Hamii has not been back to South Korea since 1982, when she attended the funeral of one of her brothers. South Korea is technically not where her family is from. Born in 1935, she grew up in Kangsŏ, a city next to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. With her mother, father, sister, and two brothers, she fled North Korea in 1946. This was one year after the 38th parallel line was drawn by the U.S., which split the country into the North and South, and four years prior to the Korean War, which left no winner, but has kept the country and its families, like my Hamii’s, divided ever since.
Hamii and Papa came to Los Angeles after the war in 1959. When my mom, aunt, and uncle were born, Hamii and Papa didn’t speak Korean to them. They didn’t want my mom, aunt, and uncle to start school with accented English. Korean is a language that my mom and I associate with secrets: my grandparents only speak Korean in front of us when they want to discuss something that’s not our business. While Hamii’s Korean soaps had English subtitles to let us in on the drama, my grandparents didn’t offer such translation.
Being in South Korea felt, similarly, like not being in on a secret, especially when I was in Seoul. The city seemed like an encapsulation of the country’s rapid economic growth in the 1990s as an “industrial tiger,” alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. I found myself intimidated by all the attractive, well-dressed people; upscale, fashionable stores, restaurants, and food carts; and sleek, modern buildings mixed with traditional architecture from the Joseon dynasty.
During my trip, I didn’t want to experience Seoul as a tourist, or some clueless Asian American, even though that’s exactly who I was. At the time, the associations I had with Seoul didn’t come from anyone in my family, but rather from U.S. news coverage and popular culture. Like any other American, I associated Seoul with K-pop, plastic surgery, and what’s perceived as the country’s unabashed consumerism.
Yet I foolishly thought I could gain access to the city anyway, as if my Korean heritage was enough. I didn’t want to take pictures of myself wearing a hanbok on the grounds of Geyeongbok Palace. Instead, I entertained the idea that maybe I could blend in, becoming like any other Korean woman, if I wore my hair, make-up, and clothes the right way. I walked through the Lotte and Shinsegae department stores, pumping bottles of serums, squeezing tubes of moisturizers and creams, spraying essences and toners on my face, arms, and hands. I rubbed swatches of BB creams, foundations, lipsticks, and cream blushes on any remaining bodily surface I could find. I tracked down all the minimalist Korean shops I’d found on Instagram, ready to try on clothes.
While walking down the street, I scrutinized every beauty and fashion ad I passed. These ads, like those in Hamii’s magazines I had read years ago, didn’t show products on white women, but on Korean models and K-pop stars. Registering this, I felt excluded. I assumed that other Korean women saw themselves in these images, and I felt envious of them. I desired what to me was the luxury of having a likeness—of getting to look like everyone else in the most conventional, unassuming way. I’m not talking about looking the same. I’m talking about something shared in common with another, like a secret, a language, a routine, a bed, a home. I imagined that commonness was something these women got to share; it was something they had that couldn’t be shared with me.
Of course, my desire was ignorant and short-sighted, no different from any other Western consumer of the products I sampled excessively. I was guilty of overlooking, for instance, the sexism embedded in contemporary Korean culture that made women see plastic surgery as a professional, economic necessity. And I had naively presumed that Korean women had the privilege of recognizing themselves in the media that surrounded them.
I could recognize my desire for what it was, and place it within the right kinds of historical contexts, critical frameworks, and narratives of the “diasporic experience.” But that didn’t mean I could make it feel less personal. I couldn’t explain my way out of my want to fit in.
Like all professors, I’m currently conducting class online with students spread out across the U.S. and elsewhere. The class is called “Narratives of Unbelonging,” and in it, students consider how a sense of belonging is crucial to care, kinship, and solidarity, but how it can also be wielded to exclude subjects through dispossession, poverty, incarceration, and the violent production and maintenance of nations and borders.
It feels strange to teach a class on this topic at this particular moment, during a global health pandemic. On a global scale, not everyone is staying in places considered home, in places where they feel like they belong. Some have no place to go, some are confined involuntarily, incarcerated and detained in unlivable conditions. Some are tethered to spaces where they don’t feel safe, protected, or cared for.
As for me, I’ve been alone with my cat. When my mom and I use FaceTime, I tease her for holding her phone at a bad angle ( Never with an upward angle from below! Always with a downward angle from above!). Whenever I do this, she rolls her eyes, crinkles her eyebrows in a mock frown, sticks out her chin in mock defiance, and begins to pat her neck, chin, and cheeks with upward hand motions, miming the same gestures I watched Hamii do in her nightly routine, as if to smooth out her skin for the camera. When she’s done, and I’ve stopped rolling my eyes, she always asks if I want to come home to L.A. She is worried about me being alone, and shares this with Hamii, who then asks me the same question.
They and I both know that I can’t travel. They know that me being in Vermont is safer than being in California, especially L.A. But they ask me anyway. It’s a gesture, an open invitation, and a way of telling me they want me closer. And when I feel like my capacity to be alone is calcifying into an alienating, lonely self-sufficiency, I think about my mom and Hamii. On FaceTime, when I start to absentmindedly pick or scratch, she still tells me in a stern yet pleading tone: “Don’t touch your face.” (Of course, such a directive carries a different kind of urgency and weight these days.) Whereas before I used to irritably snap back, now, it makes me miss the familiarity of those nightly routines.