Be quiet. Times are changing.Choi Min-ah, 25, a graduate school student, is dating a guy several years her junior, a friend of her younger brother. This might appear to be an odd match, since age plays a big part in Korean society. Ms. Choi and her boyfriend originally started out as nuna, or older sister, and dongseng, younger brother. After a while they started using casual language in their interactions with each other, dropping the traditional formalities that Koreans use to position people according to age.
The transfer from casual friends to lovers went smoothly, Ms. Choi says. “I told people who looked at us as a weird couple that times have changed and that their way of thinking is just old fashioned.” Her younger brother has no problem with the relationship, she says.
Lee Ji-young has been seeing a Japanese man her age for the last seven months. There were times when a Korean woman would have crumbled over the decision of whether to go out with a foreigner, but Ms. Lee has no problem at all with her choice. She already has told her friends and parents about her companion. “I am not going out with a foreigner. It’s just that my boyfriend happens to be one,” Ms. Lee says.
Both cases would have been considered exotic relationships 10 or 20 years ago; they are not rare today.
Kim Ah-ram, 21, a student majoring in industrial design, seems to be a typical example of how dating in Korea has changed. She is seeing a student who is also in the industrial design department of her university. The guy she used to go out with before her most recent relationship was also an industrial design major in her class. Many of her classmates are couples. Serial romantic ties do not bring the negative reaction they did in the past. There is even a female student who has had relationships with three guys in the industrial design department. Seeing her old boyfriends and even hanging out with them at school is considered normal.
“Nobody points a finger. All they say is, ‘wow, she is competent,’” says Choi Jin-gyeong, 23, who will graduate soon.
The new trends in relations between the sexes is further evidence that Koreans are relaxing a bit from the rigid Confucian mores that have dictated their social behavior for centuries.
The biggest change on the Korean “love boat” compared with a couple of decades ago is that women have more say and are more active in the relationship.
Park Gyeong-young, 29, who works as a computer programmer, says his former girlfriend, four years his junior, approached him first about going out. At first, he says, he liked her aggressive attitude, but later on she began to act almost like his handler, checking what time he arrived home and giving him advice on his friends. In the past, men used this method to control girlfriends.
The so-called proactive approach seems to hold sway even in situations where couples break up. Kim Jae-suk, 27, an events planner, says a couple of years ago his former girlfriend showed up at a party he had planned, holding hands with her new boy- friend. Several years ago good manners would have dictated that she not attend the party with another guy.
New ideas on relationships are not only found in how couples get together and how they behave, but also how they split up.
In a survey by the JoongAng Ilbo, 36 percent of males said that if they decided to end a relationship they would tell the person directly, compared with 49 percent of women. And 16 percent of males said they would use excuses, such as following parents’ wishes, in a breakup versus only 9 percent of female respondents. Physical appearance is not only something that males pay attention to; it is also a factor that females are taking more seriously.
Recently, Kim Myeong-heui broke up with her boyfriend, a soon-to-be doctor, after she noticed he was losing hair. A stable future did not seem to be enough for her.
Ideas about marriage seem also to have undergone change. In the JoongAng survey, about 54 percent of males and 63 percent of females said never getting married was acceptable. Living together without being married was approved by 52 percent of males and 43 percent of females.
Kang Min-suk, 33, who owns an interior design firm, and Sohn Mi-hye, 27, a secretary, are part of this new trend. They live in separate houses, but they consider themselves as a committed couple. They commute to work in the same car, attend meetings for married couples and go on trips together. They have been in the relationship for three years, and the families of both have accepted their choice.
“We haven’t had any ceremony, but we are inseparable,” says Mr. Kang.
Commenting on these major changes in Korean society, Lee Jae-gyeong, a professor at Ewha Womans University, says, “Chastity ideology is losing ground in Korea. Hence living together without being married has become more acceptable.” Mr. Lee says that the number of couples living together with their parents’ acceptance is growing.
by Kim Sun-ha