Difficult parts of Korean culture part I: Dating culture.

Tonight, there was a surprise hwaeshik that I'm still not quite sure I understand -- only a handful of teachers showed up. I think it may have been something just for the English and math departments. Anyway, New Co and I ended up separated off into another room with four other math teachers and that was that. Tonight I wasn't so good at keeping up with the conversation, perhaps because it wasn't all about our program, our students and New Co's time in the US, which are all topics I can follow along with using my knowledge of context as well. Also, just.... it's just so hit or miss. I have on and off days. I don't really understand how that's so exaggeratedly possible, but it is.

Anyway, the weather broke into warmth sometime this afternoon, and I took an easy stroll home from the restaurant, stopping in our brand new Paris Bagette Cafe to grab a cup of coffee on the way. Nice having that there. Used to be only one place to get a cup of brew around here, 30 minutes in the opposite direction, and the quality is distinctly lacking. This one's literally on my way home from school and lined with market streets up the road in the opposite direction, down from the main road. It's a nice walk, a convenient location.

So. About this question business. I'm tired. My boys were good today and I enjoyed them, but I'm really running on empty. So if this doesn't come out quite right... perhaps I should put it off, but I've got time to kill before it's a decent hour to ring the family back home.

What has been the hardest cultural difference for you to keep a
n open mind about since coming to Korea?

Let's start with the dating culture, mostly because it's the one I get the least upset about and I don't really feel like getting upset at the moment.

Here's the thing: I accept it for what it is. Korean young people are operating on a very different level than American young people usually are at the same age. They are largely gender segregated right up into their late teens, and by the time they're around my age, they've usually only had a few years of proper dating experience. They also largely (LARGELY) live with their parents, to the extent that you find yourself shocked to encounter an unmarried person who lives on their own. A lot of the young women I've met are unemployed, or barely employed, and simply waiting to meet a husband, so they can quit their jobs.

Now. That is not the case with all, or even the majority case. But it is prevelant. And I feel like it's important to stress that I do not, in these cases, get the feeling that the women feel trapped in this situation -- in fact, I've heard a lot of young Korean women complain that Korean men are starting to expect their wives to work as well, to help combat ever-rising education costs, and that they wish they could meet an "old style" man, who would allow them to stay home and raise the children. This is not an entirely one-sided culture. Many women, upon hearing a man say that they want their wives to stay at home, feel relieved at having finally met a proper gentleman.

However, we're not talking about Korean women, are we? We're talking about me. Me who smokes, can throw back a bottle of booze with the best of them, cusses like a sailor and walks around all tattooed in t shirts and bomber jackets.

What it comes down to is this: I'm not cute. I have nothing against cute -- I like cute. I have had cute partners. I have very, very cute best friends. But I'm not cute. In fact, anything I've ever done that could be considered cute is usually something I chalk up to being just plain embarrassing and do my best to forget.

So. God I feel like I'm positively swimming in a generalization danger zone. But let's just get into it, shall we? I trust you all to know me well enough by now, and to take this in the spirit in which it is intended to be taken.

By and large, when you ask a Korean man what he likes in a woman, he will come out with "cute", at some point. Sitting in any given coffee shop on any given afternoon, you'll see the tables lined with couples, one half of which being girls talking with lisps, habitually wiping hair out of their eyes, stomping their feet, whining, "opaaaaaaaaaaah!" and puffing out their cheeks. Like this:

That's fine. But that's not me. That's not even a semblance of me, on my very, very cutest day. I'm quiet and reserved, but not in a timid way. I don't speak often in a group setting, but when I do, I tend to speak firmly. The one exception is when I'm speaking Korean. When I'm speaking Korean, I stutter. I make all kinds of ridiculous mistakes. I blush. I laugh unnecessarily. I keep my eyes down. And I obviously can't say anything too opinionated or biting. There has been more than one occasion where a guy has been literally falling out of his seat leaning into me while we're speaking Korean, when the conversation switches to English and he suddenly looks horrified. Not because I suddenly turn into a crazy raving bitch, but because that's how stark the difference is between me speaking Korean and me speaking English.

Okay. So when I speak Korean, I'm cute. That's because I speak Korean like a three year old. It's definitely not on purpose, and it's not something I hope lasts long.

All of this is kind of a mute point, because I have found many men in the ROK who like me just fine when I am speaking nothing but English. They don't have a problem with opinionated women, they don't have a problem with the fact that I'm not wearing high heels, and some of them don't even have a problem with the fact that I smoke.

But then my problems with them start. Not them, actually. But with the dating culture. Or the male-to-female culture. Or whatever you'd like to call it. Now, I'm not going to do the whole counter-balance thing on this post. I'm just going to let it speak for itself. I've largely made my peace with most of this, and it no longer causes any wrinkles in my forehead, for the most part. I'm just going to list the grievances as they have occurred and let you take it all in for yourselves. Let's switch to the list:

1. Paying.

I don't see any reason why you should pay for my pack of cigarettes. I don't need you to pay for my coffee, or my food, or the noraebang. If you want to buy me a drink, that's fine, but the next round's on me. I think it's nice that you have a car, but that's not going to capture my interest anymore than if you told me you have a bicycle (motorcycles are a different story). And, frankly, when you insist on getting my cab fare, it makes me feel like Holly Golightly in a not-so-nice kind of way.

None of this means that I'm not interested in you, as a potential mate. None of it is anything to blow a fucking gasket over. I just don't see the point. And, frankly, it makes me uncomfortable that you might think I continue going out with you because you always pick up the tab, which somehow keeps getting more expensive (you don't need to order three different kinds of anju after I already said I'm not hungry, just to make sure that it's there).

2. Planning.

I don't want to eat there. I'm sorry that you decided three days ago that that's the place we were going to eat without asking me, because it's an appropriate place to take a girl, but I don't want to eat there. I think Korean "spaghetti" tastes like crap. And Outback Steakhouse is not a place I went to when I lived in a city where there was one on every corner (not that there isn't one on every corner in Korea, these days). Also, it's really nice that you've put a lot of thought into this, but I sort of came to today's events with a few suggestions of my own. It doesn't mean that I don't like yours -- it just means that sometimes there are things that I want to show and share with you as well. Is that okay? No? Well, then, I'm afraid at this point I'm starting to get a little irritated with you.

Let me explain this one as best as I've come to understand it -- Korean women, apparently, generally expect the man to set the agenda. It's part of his ability to prove he's a worthwhile mate. It is, generally, his job to keep her entertained throughout the day's events. When you start to contradict those suggests, you send two different messages: 1. I don't like what you've planned -- you've done a shitty job at this, and I'm mentally deleting you out of my phone right this very second and 2. Why did you plan everything out for today? Did you think this was a date? We're just friends hanging out. Why are you being like this? Well, don't you just feel like a fucking idiot for getting the wrong end of the stick....

3. Texting.

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it is a good morning. And let me just save you the trouble -- I am going to have a good afternoon, and a good evening as well. I'm eating rice for lunch. How about you? Rice, too? Who would've thought.... What am I doing right now? I'm working. That's generally what I'm doing from the hours of 8 to 5 on a weekday -- it was certainly what I was doing when you texted to ask me yesterday afternoon. It hasn't really changed since then. Yes, I am going to bed now. I will have sweet dreams, thank you. "Hi!^^" right back atcha! You're going to take a shower now? Well, thank you for letting me know. If you hadn't, I might have panicked when thirty minutes passed without a single text message coming in.

4. The Morning, Week, Month and Year After.

..... Seriously? It wasn't even ever like that. I appreciate the fact that you don't want to make me feel undervalued, but there's no need to take it this far.

5. Don't touch my bag. Ever.

It's mine. If it was too heavy for me, I wouldn't be carrying it.

6. You want me to go out in public wearing what?

This one I haven't actually encountered personally yet. Mostly because I reckon any man who's ever gotten close enough to me for it to be an issue knows exactly what would happen if he ever, ever suggested it. You all know what I'm talking about.

Couple Ts.

No. Just no.

7. Teasing.

You... sorry, what? That's not fucking funny. Stop fucking laughing. Now. You wanna take jabs at my intellect, that's fine, but you'd better be prepared for what's coming back at you. I'm not cute, as we've already covered, and I'm not going to act cute and cutely pout and giggle when you point out a mistake I've made. I'm not going to speak Korean now because you like to hear me sound like a child. Don't touch my hair or my face, and don't shove me. We're adults and we're in public. My feet are big? Well. Not in my culture. In my culture, your feet are small. And you know what they say about small feet. Oh. I'm sorry. Was that not funny to you? Guess you shouldn't have gone there.

This one is a big, huge personal thing. It has to do with my repulsively high levels of pride. I know that. It's a rare human being who walks the face of this earth who can tease me without it resulting in an immediate and concrete mood shift. I've never had this problem back home, because most people can suss that this is my personality type, and just leave it alone. Something about the way things are supposed to be between a man and a woman when they are getting friendly in the ROK, however, seems to ride right up against this.

8. "You can just call me 'oppah'."

Really? I have a full-time job, my own apartment and have lived away from home for seven years. Your mom still does your laundry. In what sense, exactly, do you reckon you're more mature than I am? Earn it, big brother. Then we can talk.

9. That's sweet. But I don't believe you.

My mother will be the first to tell you it seems like I was born with my eyes rolling. This one isn't just an issue with Korean men -- it was one back home, as well. But it's possibly more exaggerated here, because the culture of sweet-talking is exaggerated here. Really, really exaggerated.

What it comes down to is this: If you keep saying things, like how you couldn't sleep last night because you missed me so much, or how you want to take this or that romantic trip with me, or how you're going to cry when I'm away on vacation, eventually I'm just going to start completely disregarding everything you say, and then we're gonna have ourselves a little problem.

10. No, I don't want to be your girlfriend -- what was your name, again?

We met yesterday. Let's give it, like, a week, shall we? Or at least until you learn how to pronounce my name right. Nope. Still don't want to be your girlfriend. But thanks for waiting ten minutes before asking again. No, I'm not particularly lonely being a foreigner, and even if I was, that still wouldn't be a good reason for me to agree to be your girlfriend.

God bless the man who eventually makes it through all of this with me. Be he American or Korean or fucking Martian. I suppose it's not fair to blame it all on Korean culture, eh? Also, my spellcheck isn't working. Sorry, get over it, yes I shouldn't be an English teacher, etc etc etc.

I feel like it's important to note that absolutely every last one of the things listed above makes a man, in the ROK, a "good" boyfriend. If he is doing these things, then he is doing things right. And that's what the men I haven encountered have been trying to do. They are good catches. They're doing what they ought to. It's just been a long, hard road adjusting. Which was what you asked.


LostMyMindInSeoul said...

Holy shit, I love this post so much!

This is pretty much how I feel when I'm dating here. But I try to suppress those feelings saying "Ehh, that's how how they are... I have to get used to it."

(Though I think the texting constantly is adorable. Unless I'm not into the guy, in which case it makes me want to flush my phone down the toilet.)

I especially hate the teasing, because if it's someone I care about then I don't ever tease them. So I feel super pissed if they're always trying to tease me. My ex used to try to tease me by mimicking me all the time. Argh.

Kosaru said...

This post is hysterical! I never dated anyone while in Korea, seeing as I'm engaged, but I certainly had my share of run-ins with guys, and trying to become just friends with them. Which is a little more difficult to navigate, and maybe just impossible. But anyway, I was in hysterics about the texting bit particularly-- how do you respond to "good morning!!" every single day? How do you actually connect with someone, even though you're in contact constantly throughout the day, if it's just that kind of mixed-signal mess? I was so baffled by that at first. Thanks for another great and thoughtful post :)

t-hype said...


i know what you mean about the language difficulty. i had a guy thinking i was "cute" for a few weeks until he saw me with my american friends. HA! turns out he was a total player anyways so whatever...

Kel said...

Awesome post...Sonja and I have couple's t-shirts, and couple's hoodies, but she made both of them and they both involve pink & gold unicorns ^_^

Diana E.S. said...


Find a Korean dude who suits your style. :) They're out there.

I'm no Picasso said...

LMMIS -- The ridiculous thing is, I've started to come to expect these things. If some guy *isn't* texting all the time, now I just assume he's not interested. It'll definitely be hard going back.

Kosaru -- The "good morning!~~" texts kinda drive me crazy. Because there is literally no content to them. Good morning. Again. At the same time as yesterday. It's literally a non-text.

t-hype -- Yeah. I feel kind of bad for them once they realize what they've really got their hands on. They could do with trying to cover their horror a bit better, at times -- I will say that.

Kel -- You know I have huge double standards, anyway. Anything cutesy and coupley is totally offlines for heteros, but when homos do the same things, it's the best thing in the world. Don't ask me why.

Diana -- Believe you me. If I find a guy who can put up with me eventually, I definitely won't be making any qualms about what country and/or culture he hails from. He can be purple, for all I care....

Hooking Up in Hanguk said...

Hahaha, this is 100% true. Gahhh I don't think I can go back to dating Koreans after being with another waegookin. -_-

ALSO, let me know when you're in Seoul sometime so we can meet up!!!

I'm no Picasso said...

HUIH -- It sounds like things are going just swimmingly with your gyopo fella. I don't even mind that it means there won't be any more sordid tells in your blog for (hopefully) quite a while.

And I most certainly will. This weekend is all weddings and volunteer work. A real humdinger of grownup activity. But maybe next weekend the weather will be nice enough to sit outside somewhere and do some IRL gossiping.^^

invisbilemap said...

Even though I've just arrived, and haven't dated any Koreans, I found this post to be very informative, and hilarious! Thanks for the laugh (and info).

BTW, I came over from Hooking Up in Hanguk :D

Hot Yellow Fellows said...

I am so grateful I've only had to deal with most of these from the 18-year-old I went on one date with. (I didn't know he was 18 until halfway through the date.) Except for the texting. I've grown to really, really like the texting thing to a certain extent. My guys so far have known that I'm irked by most Korean's reactions to my ridiculously-large-by-Korean-standards feet and know better than to comment upon it, thank fuck.

doosanbear said...

Hilarious...Love this post! I'm Korean-American, and I've had the same issues that you mentioned while dating Korean guys. They also tend to forget that I'm not Korean-korean and expect me to act the same way ("How come you didn't reply to my good afternoon text?"). After almost 3 years in Korea, the texting, the morning wake-up calls, bag-holding...fine~~, but what will never fly with me is the constant "who are you with and where, why didnt you tell me you were leaving the house (really??), why are you staying out so late" badgering and freaking out when another guy happens to call my phone. Nooo-go.

wakenda said...

Awesome post. So true. Especially #9. I seriously need to learn how to say that's sweet but I don't believe you in Korean.

Anonymous said...

I've been almost 4 years in Korea.. and this post is so true..
to wakenda : that's sweet but I don't believe you = chongmal motjin marindae, midel(sound similar like 'middle') suga obsoyo...

Mr. Spock said...

Oh my god this list is wicked very funny! I am a early-twenties Canadian guy and this is why Korean women I have been with have usually been pushing or over thiry, because they are more mature, independent and grounded and don't expect me to act in the ways you listed...At the same time, I think a large part of why they like ME is that they think I am cute >< ugh! lol

Christie takes on Korea said...

I met a Brit down the hall and as far as what he expects goes, he reminds me a bit of the Korean "will you be my gf even though I've only spoken to you in person for 15 minutes?" really? get a clue!
I don't know if you're still in ROK, but I just got here and chanced upon your blog. I enjoy it.

Larissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larissa said...

I don't understand #4. Is it a continuation of the texting thing?

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