Talking to Strangers: Seoul, South Korea
He showed up that day and I thought, “Hmmm, yeah, he looks good.”
Seon Yul, 30
So you live in Seoul?
What’s your job?
I work in marketing.
Are you in a relationship?
I’m married. This June it will be one year.
Oh, newlyweds! How is it going?
Yeah, it’s good! I originally come from Busan, not from Seoul. I moved to Seoul for work and lived here alone, without my family.
Is that unusual?
Well, it’s not unusual if you need to move for work. Otherwise, some people would stay at home until they were married. I lived in Seoul by myself for, like, 7 years. I was pretty lonely. I didn’t have any family or close friends here. They all live in other cities. So when I met my boyfriend, now he’s my husband, I felt really good. I was relieved.
How long did you date before you got married?
About two and a half. Almost three years.
Did you know you liked him right away?
Uh, actually, not really. At first we were just friends. We were in a dance club together. He was the leader and I was just a beginner. So, I didn’t know anything. He was interested in me. So, he asked me out and we went on a date.
Did he have to convince you?
Uh, no actually. We were doing a lot of chatting online at night. So, I got to know him a bit better that way.
I think it’s sexy if someone is good at something, if they are talented and passionate about it. Do you think so. Did him being a great dancer do anything to convince you?
Maybe but the first time I really knew I had a crush on him was when I saw him wearing a suit. Normally, he doesn’t wear a suit. He wears jeans and t-shirts. He’s a computer programmer, they dress really casual. His normal outfit is really laid-back but, on that day, he had a business meeting and showed up just after in a full suit. And, well, then I knew I liked him.
You see, I hadn’t really thought of him “like that.” He’s younger than me and I hadn’t thought about him in a romantic way. My ideal man was older than me. But he showed up that day and I thought, “Hmmm, yeah, he looks good.”
That’s interesting. I interviewed another guy whose wife was one year older and he said that it’s important and it’s unusual if the woman is even one year older. In my country, one, two, three years difference — it’s not important. Why is it important here?
For my mother’s generation, it was always patriarchy. The man had to be older than the woman. Also, for the familiar names we call each other in Korean, it’s always “Oppa” for a big brother, an older male colleague, friend, cousin, or boyfriend. It’s respectful. But when your boyfriend is younger than you, you use the other name, for a younger guy, and they have to use the older sister terms for you, it’s a respect thing. But it sounds really strange to use the older sister/younger brother familiar words for your partner. It might be like if you called your boyfriend “she” instead of “he,” it sounds really strange to us.
How did you know your husband was “the one?”
My case is really rare. I never had a boyfriend before my husband. I have been a serious Christian since I was young. I always thought about the only one man is enough for my whole life. When I meet my one guy, I will marry him. I don’t know why. But that’s what I wanted.
So, we met and he had a crush on me and he was so kind and honest and diligent and he doesn’t smoke and his drinking habit is really clean (minimal). His lifestyle was stable and good. So, all of things were right for me. And best of all, he’s really kind. He’s a good man.
How did he propose?
To marry? Hmm, actually in Korea, the first thing we do is get an auspicious marriage date [from an astrologer]. They also make sure you are a good match. It’s very important. So after that, the man just proposes but it’s not actually a thing that is a big part of our culture. Some people do it now, but we borrowed this from the West.
Westerners think the proposal is like a duty before they get married. But here, the first thing you do is fix the wedding date. And figure out the details for the ceremony. In between that time, the husband might do it, he also might not. In my case, he proposed last year. We were in the car and he pulled into the parking lot and he read a letter to me and gave me a ring and showed me a video clip he made on his phone. It was a slideshow of ridiculous pictures of us. Not happy pictures, but eating faces and funny things. And he asked me to marry him.
Was that good for you?
I cried a little bit because I didn’t expect it at that time. Afterwards, when I talked about it with other women I knew who were married, they also didn’t get the crazy proposal in front of a crowd that you see in the movies. So we always complain to our husbands, “Why didn’t you do it at a party or something?”
But it could be embarrassing to do that. I mean, what if she says no?
Oh no, for us, we would already have gotten the date and talked to the families, there is no chance that she would say no. It’s more of a gesture.
Before you were married, what did you think of dating in Seoul? Was it hard or easy? How do people meet each other?
I think it’s pretty easy but people are busy. A lot of people use matchmakers. And blind dates are very popular. People always ask their friends to set them up. And hobbies. A lot of people meet through hobby clubs. If you work in a big company, maybe your colleagues or colleagues’ friends.
Oh, what about group dates? That’s also popular isn’t it?
Yeah, but mostly for students, people don’t really do that when they are over 25.
What are the most common reasons for people to break up?
In your late 20s, it’s usually that the woman wants to get married and the man is not ready.
What about cheating? That’s a big one in lots of countries.
I guess so, but we’re actually pretty conservative. Korea has a long, conservative history and is very religious. So, maybe not as much cheating as you might think.
Anything else you want to tell me in Korea?
Oh yes. About paying for dates. We don’t “dutch.”
So, the man always pays?
Yes, usually. Definitely for the first few months. He has to do it to get her heart, to win her. It’s normal.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an agent for photographers
Are you in a relationship?
I’m in a relationship.
How did you meet?
We are both swing dancers and we met on the dance floor.
How long have you guys been together?
Four or five years.
Is there anything that you notice that’s different about Korean dating habits as opposed to other cultures?
People can be less direct. If someone likes you, they won’t just go up to you and tell you. They will ask friends to find out about you, whether or not you are single, what your background is, if you are open to dating. Then someone might try to play matchmaker between you.
Is there a lot of dating on the swing dancing scene in Seoul?
Yeah, so much.
Is there a lot of drama when people break up?
I don’t think there is much drama even though people date and begin or end relationships pretty regularly. Usually, if people start them, they are pretty serious, long-term things. People aren’t big on short-term relationships here. People tend to keep drama minimal, maybe they express it when they are alone but it’s not acceptable to become emotional in front of a group of people. It’s just not what people do.
Is it better or worse to date someone who has the same hobby as you?
I think it can go both ways. There are lots of pros and lots of cons. It’s good when you start off, because you have a shared interest and you can get to know each other well and slowly, in a natural way, and make sure you want to start a relationship with this person in a friendship setting first.
It’s better than blind dating where you only have a few dates to decide if you want to date someone, and you really don’t know them well at all, at that point.
Have you ever dated another swing dancer?
Is there jealousy in the swing dancing scene. Like, about who is a better dancer or “look at how much time she spends dancing with that guy?”
Yeah, I get jealous sometimes about my girlfriend dancing with other guys but it’s rare. I don’t think she does. If she does, I don’t hear about it. About dancing? She’s been dancing longer than me. I know she is better at it and I’m not jealous about that. Swing dancing is one of the most conservative types of dance there is. It’s not like tango or salsa. There isn’t much close touching.
How about dating in Seoul? Is it easy or hard? Where do people meet?
Meeting people depends on the crowd and the place. I’m lucky that I have a hobby that lets me meet a lot of great people. Most Koreans are very busy and move quickly from work to home, work to home, without much free time. If you have a hobby, that allows people to meet each other.
What first attracted you to your girlfriend?
It wasn’t love at first sight. We didn’t sweep each other off our feet. It was more like, I was really having a hard time with some stuff in my life and Chloe and I were friends. She was there for me. In a really strong way. We had been buddies in a big group of friends, but it changed after that. We’d been friends first for about six months. So we knew each other pretty well before we started.
What are the qualities you like best about her?
She’s more rational than me.
Are you irrational?
Yes. And I’m very moody. I think she’s a little bit smarter than me and I like that. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but sometimes I think we have too much in common. We also are both big believers in blood type compatibility. That lends a whole different way of thinking about being together and what you are like and what she is like when you believe in this.
Is this blood type compatibility thing popular in Korea?
Yes, compared with other countries, it is. It’s popular here and in Japan.
Where do you learn about it? Online?
Magazines. They have pages devoted to it each month, like a forecast of what will happen to you that month based on your blood type.
Oh! Like astrology?
I’ve never heard of that.
Yeah, we are really into it.
Ok, last question, do you think you are easy to be in a relationship with?
No, I’m picky and moody and not sensible. What’s your blood type?
I have no idea.
What is your job?
I work in software.
Is Storm a nickname?
How did you get it?
I chose it because I wanted people to think I’m special.
What’s special about a storm?
Is it sexy?
Are you married?
Yeah, for six years.
How long did you date before you got married?
Do you think Korean people are very dedicated to their relationships?
Well, they are very competitive. They are very eager to be the best at everything. I think it’s in our nature. But when people decide they are serious about something, you can tell. And for us, with relationships, we decide quickly if they can reach marriage and act that way.
What about your wife, did you know that you liked her right away?
No. She’s older than me.
How much older?
What?! That’s nothing! [reporter laughs] Does that count as older?
[Storm laughs] No, it’s different in Korea. It’s a special circumstance! Before we had a relationship, I was never interested in her as a woman. I was interested in her as a friend and we shared the same hobby but, I don’t know. Koreans don’t think about this when the woman is older, usually.
In my country, if you say your partner is older, you would usually mean, 5, 10 or even 20 years older, you wouldn’t mention it for one or two years’ difference. Why is it different here? It’s not like the person comes from another generation or something?
There is a history and a background. In the Zhou dynasty we had Confucius. There is a word saying that you have to respect the elders and there’s a certain way to act, a whole code of how to treat people that are older than you and it doesn’t suit the way, in society, that you treat your wife. For example, you would have to bow when you saw her and always pour her drinks. But those are typical female things that she would do for her husband, out of respect. And she would want to react to him in that feminine way. So, it’s different with how you treat people. It makes the relationship complicated. Awkward. These days, everything has changed so fast though. Too fast.
Why too fast?
It’s a difficult question.
So, what changed your mind about your wife. Despite her her being older?
When I found out she was single I started thinking about it. And we had spent a lot of time together in a group, but went for a long time without ever spending any time alone together.
Did she have an issue with you being older?
No, she was pretty open.
So, you’ve been married six years. how is it going?
Do you think marriage is easy or hard?
It’s sometimes one and sometimes the other. But Korean people don’t think too hard about it, because unless it’s an extreme case, we don’t get divorced so you just stay calm.
Is marriage different than being in a relationship?
Well, in the relationship itself, not much has changed. But there is an added value of having in-laws.
That’s a plus?
Well you have to look after them and there is more responsibilities.
And this is a benefit?
In our case it is.
In my country, many people don’t like their in-laws. You like yours?
Yeah, I really do. I stole some ties from my father-in-law. He has good style sometimes. My wife helped me steal them.
Is this a benefit of being married? Free cool ties?
Yeah, one of them [laughs].
So,what do you do for a living?
I’m a painter. I do traditional Korean paintings.
Are you in a relationship?
No, I’m single.
When was your last relationship?
Four or five years ago.
Do you think it’s hard to meet people in Seoul?
Well, I don’t really have the urge to meet anyone at the moment. I’m super busy.
What kind of person might change your mind about that?
An equally busy person might change my mind.
Yeah, it’s a burden when one person is busy and the other isn’t and you are constantly trying to eke out time for them and they are constantly waiting on you.
Yeah, I always think of it as a waiting dog situation. Like when you get home your dog is always waiting for you.
What kind of guys do you like?
I like athletic guys. I love sports and other people that are into sports.
Which sports are popular in Seoul?
Soccer and a lot of people do yoga and go to the gym and swimming.
What do you like about athletes?
They don’t whine as much. When you’re physically active, you are putting up with pain sometimes and pushing yourself and you have more energy. People that aren’t athletic tend to be more tired all the time and get cranky easily. And if I want to go swimming or something, I want to be with someone that will go with me.
How do you or your girlfriends meet people in Seoul?
A lot of blind dating. But it’s not super formal. It’s more like “Hey, I’ve got a friend…” or even “the friend of a friend…” It’s important here because Koreans aren’t big on total strangers, it feels safer if there are mutual friends involved. Or you can ask your friends, “Hey, I want to date! Do you know anybody good?” And then they will introduce you and see how it goes.
They probably want their boyfriend to be from the same cultural background, so getting introduced by friends helps with that. That happens a lot around your school and academic friends, people that were in your class or major.
What do you do on a blind date?
Usually they will invite you for dinner. Or go out for coffee. If you really like the guy, you can go drinking.
Drinking is really big in Korean culture, isn’t it?
Oh yes! But actually, sometimes we even skip dinner and go right for drinks because dinner is considered not that important as in Western culture. Here, it’s just getting food. Other places, it has some serious significance that you eat together, but not here. So, on dates, a lot of people skip dinner and just go drinking because, you always eat snacks with drinks in any Korean bar. It’s considered very strange if you don’t order snacks for the table with your drinks. So, it’s not like you aren’t going to eat on the date.
Is drinking on dates a problem because it lowers inhibitions? Do people end up doing things they wish they hadn’t?
Yeah, but it’s the first date and it’s Korean culture and we are really uptight. So, if you are not a serious weirdo you don’t do any crazy stuff like being “that girl” or “that guy” on a date.
So, you think Korean people are uptight? They don’t often have sex on a first date?
They really don’t. Not at all.
Why are people uptight?
It’s a Confucian culture thing. And, we still like virgins. People like to marry virgins.
Is it important?
Yeah, to some people. These days it’s pretty open but for the last generation it was still really important and it’s still a little bit important now.
What about living together?
People do it but they don’t say it or announce it.
They hide it from the parents?
Yeah, if your parents are really Confucian, then yeah. But, these days if you have a job and are supporting yourself, your parents don’t have that much of a say. It’s becoming westernized.
What are some of the relationship issues you hear from your friends?
People being too busy. I haven’t had any friends break up over cheating. I studied Oriental Painting in school, so that’s an especially conservative field. We don’t fool around. It’s usually more of a “I was too busy and he was too busy, so we had to separate” kind of thing.
Another thing that’s popular is not just blind dates, but blind dates intended for marriage. So those are getting big. There is a website called Duo that sets people up for that purpose based on their specs. It’s a marriage consulting firm, they call it “the marriage link” and it helps people meet in order to get married.
What are specs?
We call them specs. It’s like: what school you went to, what job you have, what your parents are like. Then you are given a “grade” and then you get matched with someone in a matching grade. What these services do is try to match cultural backgrounds and education and economic background and make introductions.
So, marriage is important?
Yes. But everyone is so busy they use these services. It’s like online dating but it has a filter and a purpose — to get married.
So, in the States, there is still a stigma to saying that you met your partner online. People think it’s a little bit uncool. Is that true here?
Yeah, but online dating isn’t actually that popular. Most people still meet their partner through friends and networking and personal connection.
Does it get awkward if your friends set you up with someone and you don’t like him?
Well, we have a rule in our culture that you don’t say anything bad about a person unless they do something really crazy. We have a saying, it translates as “Go with an easy heart,” I guess it means “Let’s just see what happens” and don’t make snap decisions.
What was your ex like?
He was from the same school as me.
This is important, the University that you went to and your major and class. It continues to be very important long after you’ve graduated?
Yeah, it does. I think in my case it’s even more prevalent because I went to Seoul National University [the best and most competitive university in Korea]. The social and cultural group gets set at that time. All my friends are from that school. And all my friends’ parents are from there too. Statistically, most of our connections come through school networking and almost everyone marries someone from their school and wants their kids to go to the same school. It’s very important and we kinda like it that way.
Would you consider someone from another school?
What if he didn’t have much education at all?
Yeah, sure. If he had a goal in life.
So it’s not a make-or-break thing?
Not for me but it is for a lot of girls. I like to take it on a case-by-case basis.