On love & relationships in S. Korea
I am pleased to bring you the first guest writer to this is rocio—Rob Defina. Rob is a Canadian writer that shares my passion for cultural ethnography. In this article, Rob dives into the intricacies of romantic love & relationships in S. Korea (and beyond). This in-depth essay is the first of a series in which Rob will dissect various topics that make up Korea’s cultural fabric.
Rob is currently traveling the globe after spending a year teaching in SoKo, so be sure to keep up with his travels at Momentum.
Note: Some content is NSFW.
Before I came to Korea, I was obsessed with a Korean reality TV show called Crime Scene, which involved six Korean celebrities assuming different roles in every episode as suspects of a crime. They had to use their wits to uncover which of them was secretly the murderer. This show sparked my interest in Korean language learning, which in turn, made me more serious about coming to work in Korea. Crime Scene also taught me a lot about the culture and the way that things operate over here.
In one particular episode, when inspecting the scene of the crime, one of the players discovers a 뽀로로 (PO-RO-RO) watch on the ground. 뽀로로, for those of you that are unaware, is an animated Korean penguin who has his own show and is highly popular among children but is also considered super 귀워요 (cute) by many adults. The player who discovers the watch gasps, realizing that she has seen the same watch adorned by one of the suspects. “Couple items!” she shouted (in Korean, of course, God bless subtitles) “Couple items!!” Couple items? I thought to myself, Well what the fuck does that mean?
After a pause of the show and one quick google search (and now, after 7 months of living in South Korea) I can tell you that couple items are indeed quite the identifier. Whether you’ve committed a murder and left your matching 뽀로로 watch behind or you’re walking around downtown Daegu wearing a matching outfit, your couple item declares to the world who you are dating in an instant.
In South Korea, couples are often seen adorning the exact same outfit. I’m not saying they’re matching colors or wearing the same hat – no, no, no – it is entirely socially acceptable to wear literally the exact same outfit as your girlfriend or boyfriend when you are out in public together. These articles of clothing and accessories are known as ‘couple items’ and most young couples seem to wear them when together.
As it turns out, couple items are merely a scrape on the surface of the relationship culture in South Korea.
Whether it’s guys holding their girlfriend’s purses or an innumerable amount of selfies being taken beside you at the café or even the girls on their phones crying hysterically on the side of the street late at night from recent heartbreak – romantic relationships are unavoidable here. If you’re not in one, you’re going to be noticing them. A lot.
On my first day of school my students asked me if I had a wife. Baffled and attempting to explain to them that I was too young for a spouse and also just moved to South Korea by myself, their next question was “Do you have a girlfriend?” to which I replied (obviously) no and they all kind of laughed and giggled and then asked “Why?!
It took several months before my co-teacher became comfortable enough to ask me about these things. One day, after lunch she said to me, “Do you want to date a Korean girl?” The awkwardness ensued instantly and I decided to come up with a quick excuse. “No... I said. I don’t want to lead anyone on. Don’t know how long I’ll be here for.” She persisted with “Oh, but it’s a good way to learn the language!” and I said, “Well wanting to date someone just for the sake of language would be a little… messed up, wouldn’t it?” The conversation came to an end with her smirking and remarking, “You never know what can happen!”
Since that day, she has reported several anecdotes to me about expats meeting Korean women and staying here and getting married and having families. All of which lead me to respond, nod my head and say “Ahhh.” Whether you feel it or not, the pressure is there. Koreans love hearing about people being in relationships, and they love being in them too (for the most part).
But what’s always interested me about this obsession with relationship culture is where the depth lies. When a friend of yours tells you they ‘just want to have a boyfriend’ back home, the initial instinct is to wince and say “you can’t force that sort of thing,” but here… I’m almost certain you can.
Now, you’re going to need to get out your calendars for this next part. Firstly, if you are a woman in South Korea, February 14th is important for you. Valentine’s Day is specified as the day where women buy men gifts (not the other way around). Now, don’t worry ladies, March 14th is the day where men get to return the favor. On what is denoted as “White Day,” men give gifts to their female counterparts. And, well, if you’re single, hold out for two months of watching everyone else swap gifts because on Black Day, April 14th, you and all your single friends can go share a bowl of 짜장면 (jja-jang-myeon = noodles in black sauce).
In addition to this and other anniversaries, also remember, it is of tradition to celebrate every 100 days of your relationship! Make sure you’re keeping count… Oh and don’t forget Rose Day (May 14th) or Movie Day (Nov 14th) and Silver Day, Diary Day, Kiss Day, Hug Day and all the others I can’t be bothered to list!
Are you convinced that it’s a little… over the top, yet?
NO!? Okay well…
If you’re in a relationship in Korea, you’d better not lose your cell phone. Even from my half-assed experience (which I wouldn’t call dating, more like testing the waters) with Koreans, there is a non-stop flood of messages between the two parties.
KakaoTalk, which is the common texting application in Korea, includes a feature that allows you to see when someone reads your messages. So, if you accidentally read a message while you were out and didn’t reply, the next message is going to come within moments, and probably another few after just for good measure.
And hey! If it turns out that your horrible responding patterns are too much to handle and you get dumped, don’t worry about it! I’ve been told from multiple sources that it is common for your friends to find you a new girlfriend or boyfriend the day after your break-up. Because I mean, c’mon, who needs to heal their wounds! And isn’t everyone just the same here anyhow?
All of these notions add up to one clear truth about the couple culture here – it is very superficial.
Being yourself and falling for someone who you truly connect with are things that seem to be on the backburner in certain situations. Of course, it’s impossible to tell whether or not this is pervasive – relationships are unique in every aspect and shouldn’t be compared to one another, but in South Korea, there is such a desire for relationships that an abundance of them, especially those sought out at young ages, tend to head in the direction of appearance over substance.
There’s even a subset of the language here, where women will change the tone of their voice when speaking to their boyfriends and add “ng” to the end of their words to make it sound ‘cute.’ For example, the word for yes (or right) is 네 (nay) and a girl exhibiting this type of ‘cute’ language might say 넹 (nayng) instead.
How long can such charades last? How long do people keep up an act for? And when does marriage and serious commitment come into play?
My two main co-teachers are both married with children. Their perspectives on things have always been more mature in my eyes and I’m grateful to have two people with life experience to discuss deeper things. Surprisingly, though, when it comes to relationships, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with our conversations. “In Canada, why does a man choose to date a woman?” My co-teacher asked. The structure of the sentence itself was layered with a deep subtext of assumptions, especially when it comes to gender roles in relationships.
“Ummm…” I replied “usually men and women choose to date each other if their personalities are compatible” I said, trying to level the playing field for the girls. “Oh right. But what about looks?” She asked. “Obviously people date who they are attracted to, but that isn’t the main reason why people date each other. Your personalities have to be compatible.” I reiterated that sentence so many times that day. I had believed it was a universal truth, not a cultural belief.
“In Korea.. men see pretty as a personality.” She said, her and my other co-teacher laughing in unison at the truth of the matter. “But what if someone is pretty but a terrible person!? How do you make that work?!” I asked, somewhat startled by the admittance of the superficiality.
“If the woman is pretty, the man will make it work.” My other co-teacher said and her colleague announced, “Yeah, that’s right.” After some awkwardness we cleared the air with “Anyways, it’s different here.”
Yeah. No kidding.
I have thought long and hard about that conversation, trying to understand why anyone would be so complacent about the fact that their husband may have chosen them for looks instead of their inner selves, but I’m always brought back to the ideas from discovering the motives behind the plastic surgery craze here – looks are important because they are not ashamed to admit that that is how they choose to judge one another.
In fact, I’ve been told by a contact helping me write this blog that doing your make up and working on your appearance is considered a sign of respect when you are going to meet up with someone. In other words, how much effort you put into your image declares to that other person how much you value them. This shines a light on a lot of the behavior in Korea then, especially something like constantly texting – it can be seen as a test of effort more than a vitally important part of the relationship.
What’s funny about marriage in South Korea is that, despite all the aesthetic fluff associated with dating, engagements aren’t really a big deal, and wedding ceremonies are usually quick and painless. Perhaps this comes from a value on money and not wanting to spend an awful lot on something that doesn’t require it. To boot, hardly anyone wears their wedding rings and South Korea, in fact, has one of the higher divorce rates in the world.
What about sex?
Firstly, you should know that porn is banned in South Korea (all hail the VPN). Why? Sexual imagery and stimulus is strictly prohibited. As one would expect from the conservatism of the society, sexual activity seems very private and rarely talked about amongst individuals, especially those who are not part of the younger generation.
When it comes to the younger generation, however, sex is a little less embarrassing. In fact, the 30-day rule is a common motto followed by many girls who are dating. I will explain it but, like, you probably know what it means already. After 30 days, a girl feels that she will finally be willing to consent to sex. That kind of timing is what (sexist) American men might call a tease or what other people would call “taking it slow” or what an older generation might call “too soon.”
The funny thing about sex (세잌스) is that it is even more bottled up here than back home. As the guest lecturer in our 3rd year human sexuality class once said:
It’s unsettling how true this is. It seems the trickle down effect of Christian reign, both over the Western world and South Korea, is that relationships hold a ton of value (because you need to make babies. I mean, c’mon, the birth rate in South Korea is very low) but sex is reserved for private moments related to having children, not to the sinful pleasures associated with scientifically proven stress release.
Alas, porn is banned. Porn of all kinds.
Despite being a totally closed off society to sexual imagery and conversation, for some strange reason, South Korea is dotted with odd “parks” that represent sexuality in strange ways, including “Love Land” on 제주도 (Jeju island), which I visited during my last vacation.
Heads up: THE PHOTOS ARE NSFW.
Sometimes you will see foreigners (외국=waygook) holding hands with Korean counterparts. In fact, this is not uncommon. It turns out that, most of the foreigners you ask who have stayed longer than a few years are in relationships with Korean partners, or were at one point and are stuck here after a breakup.
As a Western guy your attractiveness clout kind of goes up when you come to Korea. Not saying anything about anyone in particular but it’s clear that the Western look gets a lot of attention here. And some guys I’ve talked to knew that coming in. Hell, some came hoping to get Korean girlfriends in the first place. And, like I said, in Korea, if you want a relationship badly you’re probably going to get it – especially in your young 20s.
But when my friend, who will remain nameless for his own sake, went on a date with a Korean girl a couple months ago, he had the shock of his life. “She kept squeezing and pulling me by the arm and saying ‘let’s go!’…it was so embarrassing. It’s like I wasn’t even a person” he recalls, traumatically wide-eyed. This is a kind of PDA I’ve noticed frequently here. It’s not in the nature of Koreans to be physical with one another in public (you’ll rarely catch them snogging), but presenting this appearance of overly cutesy attitudes and behaviors is, in its own way, a form of look-the-other-way inducing stuff.
Westerners would likely perceive it as feminine behavior and the masculine vernacular would deem the men as being “whipped.” On the outside, it truly does seem that younger Korean women are more dominant in relationships. Perhaps they are too shy to initiate but once the men initiate for them, they sort of let loose and allow themselves to develop this relationship ideal that they have had for years.
And that’s the most interesting thing about relationships, especially those that come at a young age – the ideal. What do we expect when we get into a relationship? Because… everyone wants one, right? Everyone has to have one. You should be getting married at some point in the future because a partner will make you happier, right?
I’ve noticed that there are a lot of complications these days with relationships, and an older generation might look down on my age group and scoff at the silliness of it all. But the truth I’ve come to is this: the construct of relationships is entirely cultural. We are not wired in a monogamous way, right? How would we explain polygamous marriage?
All of those emotions we feel and all of that security we tie ourselves into with relationships comes from years of consuming media and listening to our families and growing insecure with ourselves both physically and mentally. Emotions are shaped by our culture and our environment, and these emotions are what lead us into relationships. This is so ingrained in us that it’s not the relationship that makes us happier when we get into a long-term, secure one – it’s the things we begin to tell ourselves, it’s how we unravel when all those tightly wound uncertainties about ourselves, which have been perpetuated by years of culturally filtered stimuli, feel more manageable because we now have the thing we’ve been told that we want and the thing we believe that we need.
Security is psychological.
What’s truthful and beautiful about relationships, though, is that the need for comfort is not entirely social. The innate human that rests beneath the layers of cultural indoctrination is alive within us. And, indeed, however you expect your relationship to unfold, regardless if it’s initiated by years of insecurity or loneliness, or if spurred by that one person who changed your opinion of everything you thought you knew about love – all of these varying factors make you undoubtedly human.
The shell we wear sheds when we get home to the people we love and there’s no sense in denying that we may need that at points in our lives. And maybe the older generation can sit from their perched pedestals of years of tough, hard-fought relationship experience, laughing at the trials of the young twenty-somethings buying each other gifts and dragging their boyfriends down the street by their sleeves, but everyone has their road to the relationship that consoles them on their fundamental levels.
However deep each person may be capable of falling in love, that depth will one day be achieved and it will feel insurmountable to them, and whether or not that relationship lasts, it acts as a vital moment in their life and they too will learn to grow and understand the rough edges and soft bends of love and relationships and will sit on their pedestals one day and look down upon those who are exploring it for the first time as well, not knowing which corners cut and which provide opportunity.
So no matter what surface you present to others because of what your culture dictates, the capacity for love is there, it is human, and it is not exclusive to one side of the globe.
When I was travelling in Seville, Spain, I met a man from Turkey who told me that when you translate the English “I love you” into Turkish, it sounds more like “I am loving you” as if it’s temporary, as if the feeling of love recognizes it is as fleeting as the words that represent it are. Whether permanent or temporary or existing in the eyes of a Korean girl who gets asked on a date, or a Western guy who travels to South Korea with his fingers crossed, my conclusion is this:
Love is like the ocean.
When you stand on its edge it seems like it could go on forever…but we all know other shores exist.
The ocean covers three quarters of the earth, though… and you could possibly live your life sailing it without ever seeing land again.
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