Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dating in Korea II

Pure attraction, emotional connections, and "love," many times, isn't enough in Korea.  As Americans, we have the mentality that when we want something, we try to get it, no matter how difficult it can be, and many of us apply that principle to dating.  Numerous love stories in American movies are about couples who overcame a series of extremely difficult obstacles in order to be together.  I've never realized how much the notion of 'overcoming obstacles' is ingrained into American society until coming to Korea, a society where that thought process is significantly less prevalent.

For example, the first lady that I dated here in Korea and I had numerous what she called "barriers."  Despite having a strong mutual attraction, we never became "official."  Koreans are normally rather quick to attach that status onto their relationships.  But that wasn't the case with us.  I was an American.  Her English wasn't fluent.  She was buddhist, while I was a christian.  She was so afraid that her parents wouldn't approve of her dating a foreigner that she didn't tell them about me.  She was afraid of how other Koreans would perceive her, especially the people that were close to her.  Because of those things, she never officially became my girlfriend, despite secretly dating for over six months.

Koreans place an extremely high value on their reputations within their communities.  Doing something to cause others to view them less than honorably is one of the worst things that they can do.  This particular motivation cannot be understated in their decision making process, and it is especially true when they choose their potential spouses.  That is a huge reason why Koreans seem to be less likely to allow their infatuation to overcome their logic when selecting potential partners.

At one point, the first lady that I dated, who was fluent in Chinese, casually and jokingly suggested that we both quit our jobs in Korea, and move to China.  She didn't come across as one who would grow a wild hair, but looking back objectively, I believe she saw that as one way it would work.

In Korea, the compatibility of a couple seems to have to be more than emotional and physical.  The connection has to be circumstantially logical.  For example, the parents have to approve of the relationship.  The husband has to have the right job.  The couple must look good and upstanding before other members of society.  Those, and numerous other factors have to be logically acceptable, before two people can start dating.

My current girlfriend and I became a couple rather quickly.  We are a fit, because we are both christians.  Our mutual faith enables us to have a similar world view, and we seem to understand each other's motives in various situations.  I value her advice.  Despite the fact that our tastes are different, our growth as people, and as a couple, comes from the same place, the Bible.  Moreover, her English is fluent, as she lived and went to school in Canada for several years.  Because I am a christian, her mother approves of the fact that we are dating.  Our faith is a strong commonality that we have that makes our relationship a fit.  For many christian Koreans, that can be enough to make a relationship possible.

Many logical factors can come into play in a Korean's decision to not date a person, despite being infatuated, especially with a foreigner, among them being the fact that the westerner will eventually return to their home country, while the Korean is faced with a dilemma of whether or not to go with his/her partner, or even to stay together for that matter.  For example, my former coworker, who is a westerner, and her Korean boyfriend broke up because she told him that she is definitely going home to the States once her contract with her school is finished.

Americans, many times, date simply because there is a strong mutual infatuation.  And as they do so, and get to know each other, the circumstantial logistics are taken into consideration, or even confronted when they have to be.  Many times, those circumstantial logistics are ignored or overlooked if the physical and emotional connection is strong enough.  (It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that most of the divorces in America are because of finances.)

The notion that most Americans believe that "love" is enough is a reason why the courtship/engagement process in America tends to last a lot longer than it does in Korea.  I find that, generally speaking, Americans get married at a younger age, but do so at a later stage in the relationship.  Most of my American friends were married soon after graduating from college, but they dated and were engaged to their wives for three, four, or even five years before getting married.  And many of those that didn't graduate college tend to get married soon after high school.

The inverse seems to be true with Koreans.  Koreans get married at an older age, but do so at an earlier stage in the relationship than most Americans.  Koreans seem to be so career and educationally driven that for many of them, dating seems to be lower in their priorities.

If a Korean couple is of age, and are settled in their careers, they seem get married at an early stage in the relationship, by American standards, because everything is a fit.  So why not, and why wait?  I have heard of Korean couples agreeing to get married after dating for a few months, but I find that most couples here wait around a year, before discussing it.

Some of my friends at home have children around the age that I am teaching, so when coming to Korea, I was expecting to interact with parents who were close to my age, but that isn't the case.  The parents of the children that I teach are a lot older than I am.

Is one culture's mindset superior than the other?  They both have their strengths and weaknesses.  Americans, many times, overlook obvious red flags when dating, because they are together on the sole basis of attraction.  Many times, American divorces are because of the fact that logical circumstancial differences become too difficult.

Many times, Koreans can have a tendency to weigh logical circumstances too heavily in choosing who to go into a relationship with, when love and chemistry should be more of a factor.  Divorce doesn't seem to be as prevalent here as it is in America.  But unfaithfulness is every bit as such, and prostitution is significantly more prevalent and accepted here than it is in America.  That is certainly evidence of weaknesses in the marriage and family culture.

Upon coming to Korea, I thought that men are men, and women are women, so dating worldwide is universal, and as the old saying goes, "love is the universal language."  I find that to not be the case.  Attraction is universal.  Emotional connections and chemistry are universal.  But certain dating customs are not, and different aspects of relationships seem to be emphasized more by different cultures. 


  1. Very well written. There is one statistic that I have heard though that may surprise you. That is, though the higest divorse rate in the world is in the US, the country in the number two position is The Republic of (South) Korea. The statement that divorce doesn't seem to be as prevalent here as it is in America, is true but only slightly. Yet, this goes along with what you've said that "The couple must look good and upstanding before other members of society." Divorce is still very much a social stigma and because of that when couples are divorced they keep the fact hidden because it affects their "good and upstanding" position in society.

    I also dated a Korean with whom I had the same experience as your first relationship except for the fact that she was also a Christian. I kept waiting for her to finally go public about our relationship but alas it was never to be.

    Good article

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