A disease festers and spreads each day in South Korea. It isn’t an immune disorder or a venereal disease; it doesn’t destroy organs or weaken limbs. No, it is a follicle epidemic that is voluntarily, and enthusiastically, contracted by the men of this country. It is the long standing love of Korean men with the perm.
I began noticing this trend at the start of spring when the snow was receding from the sidewalks and hats were receding from pressed down hairdos. The men strutted free from galoshes and overcoats, ready to take long strides in vinyl, shimmering pants and sparkling jewel-like shirts. Everything was glistening from the studs on their bow-ties to the opulent watches that weighed down their wrists like diamond shackles. Then, slowly, their hair began to grow. They sprouted up like skyscrapers. The bouffant, the beehive, the pompadour, all of the styles worn by crooning singers and doo-wop groups from the 1950s paraded the streets of Daejeon—at one point I even saw a Jerry-curl. I began watching them and taking notes.
I discovered that much like peacocks Korean men drape themselves in bright colors and jewels to attract the attention of the opposite sex. They became walking bank accounts, wearing their wealth, and sometimes lying about it, in their clothing.
But it didn’t stop with the men. The disease was passed on like gonorrhea blinding a child. I thought they would give the boys a fashion choice, a chance to see why this style had faded with oversized Robin Hood hats and platform shoes with fishes in them. I thought if I asked the children, I could discover at which age this love of the curling, feathered hair occurred. And then I could persuade a new generation to abandon it—unless they decided to become pimps. I was distraught by the information given to me by a group of seven-year-olds.
“Very manly,” was the reply of most students. “Korean men good looking,” was the other.
I thought they would stop at tales of the splendor of the perm, and only prepare their children for it in adulthood the same way an aging, patriotic soldier tells his son that one day he will fight for his country if he chooses. But these Koreans would not leave the fate of their young men’s hair to chance and predilection. It began with one little boy showing up looking like a member of the Marcels. His hair swirled up to a rounded dome like a cone of soft-serve chocolate ice cream. I passed him three times before asking him about his new hairdo.
“My mother take me…you like?” he asked with a wide smile as he rose out of his seat to show the rest of the class. I nodded in shock, and avoided any insult to Korean fashion culture. At first I thought this one hairdo was innocuous and it would have no effect on the school. I was wrong. They began flowing in like plagued rats boarding a ship headed for Venice. Glistening helmets streaked the walls in pomade and gel, slug trails that stained the tiles and wall paper leaving behind the memory of failed fashion. I tried to be culturally sensitive, and waited for the adults to see the lunacy in a child in soccer cleats, a basketball jersey and magenta Umbro shorts having a hairstyle meant for a bell-bottom, wide lapel suit, but they never did.
I began making subtle jokes to a few Korean women I knew, hoping they would influence the men. “Wow, I never knew they made motorcycle helmets out of human hair.” Most of my jokes were met with raised eyebrows and questions as to what I meant. The sickness had taken their eyesight away. I saw pictures of their husbands, all shorter than five-foot-five with hair that plumed out of frame.
I gave up asking, and inquiring. I am now working on containment and tolerance. I cannot argue fashion—and have no desire to—with a country that believes asphalt sparkling black pants and a black belt go well with scuffed, brown patent leather shoes. I only seek to make a few Koreans appear less ridiculous to Western eyes. But then again I wear slip-on black dress shoes with jeans and a black baseball cap, so I have little fashion wisdom to pass on to these people. They will just have to avoid mirrors and foreigners, and let their glinting hair fall over their ears to stop the roars of criticism. The male perm will continue to happily infect generations and remain contained on this small peninsula.