Thursday, February 17, 2011

Manliness and The Pink Slip of the Tongue

In the vast caverns of the Seoul Metro Transit System, a former colleague of mine overheard some Neanderthals discussing reasons why Korean men are not “real men.” “Korean guys are not real men,” the Neanderthal said, “because they wear tight jeans and pink shirts.”

It is with a certain level of shame to admit this, but the Neanderthals were Americans. I wonder if such thinking is typical of that breed, as well as where they came from and from what era they lived. And who gave them the right to dictate what a “real man” wears? Not every man is willing to blindly follow the fashion trends of Gentleman’s Quarterly or Esquire, let alone Details, Maxim or other “real men’s” magazines. Don’t get me started on the dress code for boy bands and other assorted pop stars.

First, we need to recognize something about Korean manliness. Korea’s geography features a terrain that is 70% mountains, with the remaining 30% set aside for farming or for residential areas that scrape the sky, but don’t as yet stand as tall as Nam Mountain in the heart of Seoul. Hiking those mountains is a national obsession. On days when I had time to visit places like the fortress at Namhansanseong or the trails of Bukhansan National Park, I found people wearing clothing of all shapes and colors. Only in Korea would I find a woman wearing her Sunday dress clothes hiking in high heeled shoes on a well-traveled mountain path for recreation. Some of the men I found in the Korean woods wore a color that most Americans might consider to be too “girly,” i. e. pink.

Pink. The color of a room lovingly painted by a father anticipating the birth of his first daughter. The color associated with “Hello Kitty” toys and accessories.

To the Persian it is the “color of the face.”

To others, pink is a symbol of romance, love, roses, and Valentine’s Day. Pink is a color for Spring, when color returns to the black and white world of Winter.

But this is South Korea, where it has taken nearly 50 years to overcome an aversion to anything associated with the color ‘red.’ The Reds invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950. The US stepped in to help South Korea defend itself and so Americans and Western culture began to affect Korean culture. However, the Reds of North Korea and the Pinko Commie sympathizers of the South that supported them helped radically change the way Koreans dress. Red fell into disfavor lest anyone think they were Communist supporters. When I arrived in South Korea in late 2005, red was gradually making a return to the fashion scene.

There are two skin tones found among Koreans. One student I worked with had the black hair and dark eyes typical of girls in Asia, but her skin was pale enough to make me wonder if she had any European ancestry. She assured me that her heritage was Korean on both sides of the family. Other Koreans have darker skin. Some have golden skin. Others have more of a brown skin, like stained wood. I am an American mutt, a mixed breed of Irish, German and Norwegian that leaves me too pale for certain colors, including some shades of red. However, most Koreans and I have managed to wear pink shirts and make them look good.

But pink is not exclusive to just Koreans. I have seen many Thai men in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, wearing pink polo shirts, usually embroidered with a school logo on the pocket. They look manly enough not to be messed with, let alone talked about behind their backs.

In the 1920s someone decided to assign colors to the sexuality of babies. If the baby was a boy, pink was thought to be an appropriate color, as it was related to red, a truly masculine color. The cherry red sports car is the fantasy of many men, and it is thought to be a color of power, action, and passion. Blue was for girls, as it was a color associated with the Virgin Mary. It took a few years for blue to become the color for boys and pink the color for girls. Today a man has to be very comfortable with his masculinity to wear pink. It takes a brave man to wear pink without a care in the world about what other people think of his choice. A pink shirt, red tie, and gray trousers looked good on me. That’s all that mattered back in the day.

Due to my size, I have never looked good in tight jeans. However, American girls love guys in tight jeans. Unfortunately, the only men in America who look manly in tight jeans are found in the American West. And they are almost crazy enough to wear pink, but not quite. They will wear any other loud and bright color combination for boot-scooting at the honkey-tonk, but pink isn’t on the list for these cowboys. Most Americans have never ridden a horse or have never used a pickup truck for serious work, so they won’t understand why boot-cut jeans are so functional. A good pair of tight jeans will fit in at work, at home, at play. Just don’t go thinking that they look sexy. It isn’t about sex appeal, which is why pop star sensibilities do not register them as a serious fashion statement. Then again, from where I stand, I have a problem taking pop star sensibilities as seriously as they do.

Once upon a time there was a rule of thumb that dictated “live and let live.” A person could wear what they were comfortable wearing, and colors didn’t matter. If a Korean man is comfortable with a pink shirt and tight jeans, then let him be about his business. What he thinks about your style of dress is just as irrelevant. He could look at you and think you are nothing more than a fat American who needs to stop eating so Western food and eat healthy Korean food for a change.

Clothes do not make the man. The outward appearance can be deceiving. Dressing like a pop star or supermodel does not make one marketable to the next generation of consumers. What matters is the character of the heart and the actions he takes in achieving his goals that reveal his true manliness. A real man treats people with dignity, honor, respect, and has love in his heart for friends and compassion for strangers in need. The fakes and frauds of manhood shouldn’t be so quick to open their mouths without a thought and say stupid things like criticizing Asian men who wear pink shirts and tight jeans. The real man is comfortable in his manhood wearing such things. Those who would say otherwise have some rather obvious insecurities they need to address before it’s too late. After all,  Koreans  taking the subway can hear  every word you foreigners are saying.

Manliness and The Pink Slip of the Tongue
(c) 2011 James Heald

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