Kyu Min Huh on South Korean + Ecuadorian Beauty Standards

I asked my dear friend Kyu Min to be my first featured interview on the blog. Kyu Min and I first met in the rainforest tracking an anaconda (seriously). We were both exchange students at a university in Quito, Ecuador.  She had a difficult time in Ecuador, struggling with the often-abrasive and antiquated beauty standards. However, it led us to some powerful conversations about beauty.  Kyu Min’s friendship was one of my initial sparks of inspiration for Radiance Around The World. And from her interview, it is clear to see why:

A South Korean woman smiling and showing beauty and radiance
Kyu Min Huh in the back of a pick-up truck
Laguna Quilota, Ecuador 2018

Tell me a bit about yourself:

My name is Kyu Min Huh. I was born and lived in S. Korea for 19 years, then came to New Orleans to study biology. My life is mostly centered around science, especially birds. I am always fascinated by birds’ flight, and how still little we know about it. Moreover, I recently had a taste of bird banding in Ecuador for a summer course and now I want to carve out some time and money to receive training in handling birds.

Living in New Orleans, I love good music and food; I got to appreciate live jazz scenes and food with history and effort. I pour much energy in keeping my life exciting and happy. Therefore, my free time is usually some concoction of cooking, biking, drawing, journaling, playing my Korean bamboo flute, dancing, and hanging out with my favorite friends.

I ultimately want to do more writing. I am often reminded that I wouldn’t reach my full potential without writing.

Kyu Min holding a bird in the rainforest while the beautiful bird is calm in her hand
Kyu Min caring

Do you think culture influences wellness? How and why?

I do think culture definitely influences wellness. Culture is often whatever others do, and not all of what others do is necessarily healthy. However, it takes time to realize that. For example, I used to sleep only 4-5 hours and stress out frequently in my elite high school just to keep up with others. Looking back, sleeping 4-5 hours was definitely not healthy and may have lowered my work efficiency. On the other hand, my then-roommate insisted on sleeping 7 hours and performed very well in her own way.

Since my high school offered some freedom to pursue whatever unique interest students had, I gradually learned that going my own way is more fulfilling and even more successful than following what others do. As a result, I rarely participated in the drinking and partying culture as a freshman in college [at Tulane]. And I was perfectly satisfied with what I chose to do for myself. I quickly found my own group and did not feel lonely for my habit choices. I feel more comfortable spending time alone than awkwardly drinking in a big, anonymous group.

I think part of wellness is knowing what is good or bad for your own body and being confident in yourself. A.k.a. having a high self-respect. This is hard. I had a very low self-respect throughout high school. To overcome this, I spent about a year in a completely loving and accepting environment.

A girl radiating love and happiness as she embraces the beauty standards that are internal
Kyu radiating happiness
Ecuador 2018

How has your upbringing in South Korea shaped the way that you see health and beauty?

I am actually not so proud of beauty standard in South Korea. There is a certain criteria you must satisfy to think of yourself as pretty, if that’s even possible. You should have white skin, big eyes, and be very skinny. These standards are slowly changing in Korea, accepting more diversity and personal differences. However, I would say the general criteria is still holding onto its ground.

For me, I found out that beauty standards are in fact subjective when I moved to New Orleans.

For example, pretty girls were muscular, big, or brown. In the end, I see that there is so much more than physical appearance that is attractive: genuineness, intelligence, kindness, social awareness, passion, compassion, interests, charisma, eloquence, artistic appreciation, etc. I began to have more confidence of myself as well. In general people readily liked me and enjoyed my company. It took me a while to realize that maybe I am at least as great as the person they see in me.

Cuyabeno, Ecuador ^ where Kyu Min and I saw an anaconda and experienced the rainforest's magic

So, we met studying abroad together in Ecuador. What was your experience about beauty standards in Ecuador?

My experience in Universidad de San Francisco de Quito is limited and quite negative. The culture seemed to be in a strong grip of machismo. I could see some social expectations exist for girls to groom themselves in a particular way, like having a long hair and wearing make-up. As an exchange student, I tried to assimilate to whatever cultural criteria they had instead of keeping my post, and I was mentally exhausted by the end. Yes, I had a long hair and at least put an eye-makeup before going out. I felt such freedom back in New Orleans to be whoever I am.

For my second visit, I stayed about four days in Ecuador in an eco-lodge run by a family and I thought they were all very beautiful. As one would commonly expect, the mom was the cook and the dad managed the farm. However, they were all very good at what they were doing and had a strong mutual respect. The mom was a powerful figure in the family. She had a bold, loud voice and would gently laugh at the dad’s love for sugar. The nature surrounding their property was very lush and beautiful. 

Their thirteen-years-old girl seemed to have a prettier and simpler life than what I imagine USFQ students had. As a result of limited transportation, going to school was a bit difficult. She went to school around 7AM and came back around 1:30PM to the green house surrounded by free-range chickens and ducks, two dogs, a cat, and a toucan. She helped with whatever domestic or outside chores, did her homework, and often hugged and joked with her parents. In a different form, all the social pressures that I disliked in Quito seemed to not exist in this rural Esmeraldas province in Ecuador.  As a result, I was very happy in such environment.

A butterfly in Ecuador, another pretty and radiant butterfly with black and white wings and green trees in the background
Cuyabeno Rainforest
Ecuador 2018

Between Ecuador, United States, and South Korea, who do you think has the most holistic perspective on wellness? And why?

This is a hard question to answer. I think none of the country actually have the representative, holistic perspective on wellness. However, if I to choose one, considering relative equality between diverse groups of people, I think US provides a better environment to have a more fluid standard of beauty. Yes. Racism and sexism do exist in US, but they still seem to be more muted and politically corrected than in Ecuador or S. Korea.

I remember a USFQ staff presenting “political incorrectness” as one of cultural traits in Ecuador during exchange student orientation. I am not sure yet how to interpret political incorrectness in cultural context, but, to say the least, the Quiteños we hung out with were unreserved in calling each other by physical traits such as “gordita” [“little fat one”] or “flaco” [“skinny”]. In fact, I feel like almost everybody was one of the two.

In South Korea feminism and body positivism have been gaining more public awareness. Therefore, I do believe any degree of sexism in S. Korea is definitely being more frowned upon. However, whenever there is racism in South Korea, it comes out as very brutal and cruel. People are not used to coexisting with different races and easily villainize people with darker skin.

The much-acclaimed K-pop culture with mostly white-skinned and Western-looking idols is not really helping neither.

beauty standards of nature are seen here with a young korean women in the beautiful rainforest with a waterfall in the back ground

What does beauty mean to you? How do you practice it? What do you do to make yourself feel beautiful?

I remember feeling so beautiful when I was biking over the hills of Missoula in Western Montana for my sophomore summer.

 I was there to study hummingbird flight. For two months, I worked very independently, making trials-and-errors and living a researcher life. I basically created that internship from scratch. A professor at Tulane introduce me to a professor in University of Montana with a manuscript I’d spent a year writing.  It was revamped from my senior thesis in high school. Luckily, the professor in U of Montana had potential projects for me and I also got a student grant to fund myself. This is maybe the remanence of my previous competitive life: to feel beautiful and happy through my achievements.

However, it was different from earning the first prize in a writing contest somebody hosted. I made my own contest and I won it. My own physical abilities made me feel beautiful, for example having the capable of biking 30 minutes to the field station and back 5 days a week. Also being able to see all the valleys, pink cotton clouds, and feel the wind on my face.

I generally feel beautiful when I keep by basic routines that I know are good for myself, such as stretching, cleaning myself, and having a good cup of tea for the morning and night. I also feel beautiful when I do my own artistic projects as drawing, dancing, and playing my flute. I do feel like a very elegant bird when I do ballet. I love listening to good music that makes me shiver in my heart. One of the reasons I enjoy listening to jazz is because it engages even the smallest cords of my emotional muscles. I especially love brushes in jazz drums because they whisper.

South Korean beauty Kyu Min in Ecuador reflecting on beauty standards in the US, Ecuador and South Korea
Kyu Min showing her beauty
Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador 2018

What do you do to make yourself feel healthier?

For feeling healthier, I think there is no other way than being disciplined. If I do all the stretching and ab exercise routine for the week, I feel healthy and fit. My dad is exemplary in such disciplines. He meditates an hour and works out for an hour every morning and before bed. For the rest of the day he reads and learns. He is extremely healthy, fit, and brilliant. I will feel complete as a person if I can be disciplined as my dad.

Who do you think is the most radiant person that you know personally? And why? What about a celebrity or public figure that you admire?

Hannah Craig is the person who pops up in my mind as a radiant person. We used to spend afternoon with sunshine on our faces swinging in the porch eating cookies. She is currently working in a non-profit named International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and she has worked for UN Women in New York. I think her majors were environmental studies and public health. She writes a lot for her work and writes poetically.

On the other hand, I don’t have a celebrity or public figure that pops out of my mind. For some reason since my childhood, I did not have many idols. I always end up finding at least some parts of people around me quite educating and inspirational.

What draws you to people?

Often, I am not that drawn to people unless they first show their favor to me. When I am drawn to people, I am drawn by their passion, honesty, tenderness, and genuineness.

What is one tip you would give someone on how to live healthier?

Loving yourself! I believe that self-love empowers oneself to positive changes.

How can we be more radiant?

I think there are many ways to be radiant! Such as accepting oneself, clarifying one’s desires, braving waves of uncertainty, being passionate and compassionate, and challenging comfort zones.

These are what I constantly try to do while writing journals. Writing helps me to clarify my desires and juggle with them to direct myself. I am dealing with a great deal uncertainty upon graduation, on getting a job and potentially moving out from New Orleans that I love so much. Writing throughout my time in Ecuador and free time has helped me a to position myself even when facing uncertainty.

Thank you, Kyu Min!


My favorite part of her interview was when she spoke of her time spent in Montana and Ecuador. Nature is the original teacher of beauty. And spending time with Mother Nature does wonders for shifting our beauty standards and perspectives towards self-love.

the rainforest and a butterfly, two beautiful scenes
Cuyabeno Rainforst
Ecuador 2018

Until next time and Namaskar <3

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