Thursday, September 29, 2011


A small, bundled-in-scarves boy runs to his mom in the supermarket, huddles close to her and stares at me from behind her legs. Confusion is written all over his face, his nose scrunched and head tilted to the side. “What is this foreigner?” I imagine his brain pondering. Not WHO, but WHAT. He looks up at his mom and speaks softly in Korean, and I pick up enough to know he’s asking her if I’m a boy or a girl.

I’ve got short hair. I’ve had it a few inches off my scalp for the majority of my adult life and never really had an issue. I’m not particularly boyish, and I think it’s fairly obvious, even in the changing times of Caster Semenya and Chaz Bono, that I’m a woman. Unless you’re Korean, in which case brains seem to short circuit when confronted with my chopped locks.

The Lovely Gen and my short-haired self
When I first arrived here I taught at a small-town elementary school, and I was the first foreign teacher they’d had in a while. As a result, I was a huge novelty and on top of it I had short spiky hair. Well, did this only throw their universe off kilter. For the first week all anyone, adult or child, asked me was why I had short hair if I was a girl. I had 6-year-olds tell me I looked like a boy. Even now, teaching at a High School, I get kids who tell me I look ‘handsome’ when I get my hair trimmed.

The irony is that Korean men are so metrosexual that I’ve often done a double take to see if the really beautiful boy on the subway is in fact a cute butch girl. But foreigners who do not look like characters from English textbooks are not held to the same standard, and I’ve been stared at and scrutinized for ages on buses, subways, trains and even in bathrooms.

I’ve become used to walking into a public bathroom and being checked out by everyone in there. This is especially common in winter, when my black ski jacket conceals my rather obvious female assets. They turn around, look me up and down, stare at my face for a few seconds and then turn around again slowly, not quite sure but willing to accept that I know where I am. All those women with their identical straight haircuts and identical outfits.

The most memorable occasion was when I was in a hurry to catch a bus in another city. I needed the bathroom really badly and was running to the ladies room. I dashed inside and was gathering some toilet paper (big roll outside, not inside the cubicles. Don’t forget!) when an old lady came storming up behind me. She poked me in the ribs from behind with her umbrella and shouted “NAMJA!” Boy! As in, what the hell are you doing in here, get out!

She pointed and waved, and as I was about to go to a cubicle she grabbed my arm. Anneyo! Yeoja Hwajangshil! No, girls' bathroom! So I unzipped my jacket, smoothed my t-shirt tightly over my boobs and shouted “Yeoja!” The look on her face was worth all the times people looked questioningly at me. Take that, granny! 36C, biyatch!


  1. hahahahahaha!!!!! Brilliant! I love it :D

  2. Fantastic. Now I might consider going to Korea... with the shoulder-length braids that I'm considering getting again when I get back to Cape Town in November.

  3. I've got shorter hair than you, yet have never had anyone mistake me for a boy. When my kids do ask why I have a boy's cut, I explain that
    1) it's popular in France and
    2) only pretty women can have short hair. Ugly women should hide their faces.

    Then I show them photos of Natalie Portman and Liz Taylor with short hair.