What Does It Mean to Look Korean?


Compared to the United States, for example, Korea is definitely a homogenous society. The Korean people share a common language, ethnicity and culture. They also share many physical attributes, especially when you notice the physical diversity of other countries in comparison. This does not mean, however, there is no diversity in the Korean population.

Perhaps some of you have heard it too. Someone will say to you, as they often say to me, “You have the classic Korean appearance.” What credentials such people have to make such a statement are beyond me, but I have heard it often. And I always wonder what does it mean to have a “classic Korean” look.

The question has become even more of a curiosity to me since I received my DNA test results from Family Tree DNA (a more thorough review of that site and my experience with it will follow later). My genetic breakdown, according to FT DNA, is Northeast Asian, Southeast Asian and Siberian. No real surprises there although the Siberian finding is kind of cool and should probably be taken with a grain of salt (or not?).

Regardless, it begs the question, “What is the classic Korean genetic make-up? What does it mean to look Korean and what is the ‘classic’ look? Is there a classic look?”

The other day a friend and I were walking through the neighborhood, which included a stroll through the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. It just so happened that a Korean classical music concert was taking place that evening at the college’s concert hall. The performers apparently flew in directly from Korea for this concert. As we passed a steady stream of performers entering the building hours before the show, my friend turned to me and said a curious thing, “You don’t look a thing like the Koreans we just passed by.” This didn’t surprise me because after spending so much time in Korea, it has become very obvious to me that I do stand out physically, in more ways than one. But I was curious about this outsider’s observation, so I pressed for more.

“Well for example, your skin is darker, your face is rounder, you don’t have a square jaw as many of the women we passed do, and your mouth is smaller and lips fuller.” Normally I would pin this all down to a difference in fashion, nutrition, plastic surgery (which many Koreans undergo) and overall lifestyle, but ever since I received my DNA tests, I have started to question all those explanations I used to make up to explain why I don’t look like women my age in Korea.

Of course I know fashion, make-up, lifestyle, etc. still play a very big role in all that, but I am now also starting to wonder how much of an influence genes have in the equation. For example, how different is my genetic make-up from the average South Korean woman’s? And is there a genetic combination that creates this “classic Korean look” people sometimes say I have or are they all just talking bullshit, which I kind of believe they are. It’s a fascinating concept that could easily drive a person insane if they obsessed about it too much.

I’m not a scientist and science is not my strong suit nor my interest, but the general concept of genetics fascinates me. I remember struggling to do those genetic exercises in school because I did not know the physical attributes of my birth parents although I could probably make a good guess now that I’m older and wiser. Still, as some of you can relate, there is nothing stranger than feeling like a stranger in the land you grew up in, but also the land you were born in. Where do we fit into the larger scheme of things? How do we explain these blatant differences that one would think would not exist? How much weight do we put on genetics when it comes to appearance, for example, and how much do we blame on lifestyle? These are all questions I may never find a satisfactory answer to,  but they are questions I am only now, just starting to ask.

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