East-West fusion: Uneasy ValentinesThe Korean edition of Seventeen magazine, whose readers are mostly teenage girls and women in their 20s, recently announced that dating foreign men is “in” (as are Thai food, yoga and “Zen style”).
According to the article, foreign men have become popular among Korean women because they are seen as more romantic and less conservative than Korean men. They are thought to express affection more freely, and to be more likely to treat a woman as an equal.
That’s the Seventeen point of view. Then there’s the “Turkish bathhouse” syndrome.
That’s the term one 29-year-old Korean woman uses to describe how some foreign men ― including men she’s dated ― regard Korea. “It seems as if they enjoy sampling different girls while they can,” she said.
“Korea is a foreign country for Westerners,” she continued. “Many of them have no intention of staying here on a permanent basis, so it seems natural for them to go on casual dates without getting too involved.”
Western men: sensitive romantics, or crass womanizers? Korean men: closed-minded mama’s boys, or the only men a Korean woman can ever expect to understand her?
There are as many different ways to look at men and women as there are men and women to look at ― and when you add the complication of mixed nationalities, especially in a country that was known as the Hermit Kingdom not so long ago, things can get confusing.
Sunny Lee is in a better position than most Korean women to judge the stereotypes about Korean and Western men. She lived with a Belgian man for three years in Canada, where she worked as an interpreter. Now she’s married to a Korean. On the group level, she says, there isn’t all that much difference.
“The stereotypes in themselves are only a reflection of cultural expectations,” Ms. Lee said. “Some of them are true. Others are not. For example, I think it’s somewhat true that Korean men are attracted to women who are more docile and reserved. But it seems to be exactly the opposite for Westerners.
“But that’s also what the society people come from teaches about beauty ideals for men and women. If you come down to the individual level, it really depends on the individual character.” She says it was mostly for “sentimental” reasons that she felt more comfortable in the end with a Korean man.
There’s not much sentimentality in Kim Jeong-eun’s view of Korean men. A researcher for a foreign company, Ms. Kim has little patience for what she’s found to be their attitudes toward women.
“I know a lot of Korean guys that would say they don’t mind if a female smokes, but they prefer their women not to,” she says. “There is always this mentality embedded into them that makes them say things that seem to come from ‘The Book of How a Woman Should Be.’ And that’s typically a Korean man thing. Who wants to deal with that?”
Ms. Kim thinks Korean women are more open to dating Western men than Korean men are to dating Western women, because Korean women have a special affinity for foreign cultures ― Western culture in particular.
“I think females have more exposure to everything that is foreign, whether it’s cosmetics, clothing, movie stars or the image created by them in general,” Ms. Kim said. “The whole image is of a relatively attractive person in the form of a foreign man.”
Korean men have, of course, been known to date Western women. But the word on Korean guys, among some Western women, is that they have a Turkish bathhouse syndrome of their own when it comes to foreign girls.
“They see us as something they’d like to try, but not something they’d like to keep,” said Emily, a 29-year-old English teacher from Canada. “A smart girl is going to pick up on that immediately.”
Another Canadian English teacher, 26-year-old Sarah, is even more blunt. “I stereotype,” she said. “But I’ve heard so many negative things about Korean men, from wife abuser to alcoholic, workaholic.
“His mother will always come first. A Korean mom would never accept a foreign girlfriend. A lot of Korean men want to date Western women because they think we’re easy.”
Emily said she once raised the topic of Korean-foreigner marriage in her class. Most of her male students said they’d like to date a foreign woman, but not marry one.
Lee Seung-hyeon, a Korean man, says that dating Western women isn’t a problem if he thinks of marriage as a completely separate issue. But any serious relationship would eventually fail, he said, because it’s hard for a Korean man to ignore “family responsibilities.”
Having been raised in a patriarchal culture, Mr. Lee says, most Korean men are accustomed to obedient women who are prepared to accept a more passive role in the family. While that view may be changing slowly as Korean women gain more financial independence, expectations of traditional gender roles within a family still remain.
Han, a 29-year-old Korean employee of a foreign company, thinks family is one of the main obstacles that could scare Western women away from Korean men.
“If the guy happens to be the oldest son in the family, in Korea there is still that unseen pressure of continuing the patriarchal lineage,” he said. “With a foreign woman, that equation gets complicated.”
If a dating couple is considering marriage, cultural issues are likely to only loom larger in the future.
One Korean woman in her 30s, who holds a doctorate in sociology from a U.S. university, thinks modern Korean women might be attracted to Western men because they’re considered more “liberal,” meaning she would probably have more freedom in the relationship. But she sees a serious drawback for a woman who marries one.
“You have to remember, Korea is a group-oriented society,” she said. “People, meaning Korean men, wouldn’t like it if a woman they worked with were married to a Westerner. She would be excluded. That’s a major obstacle to thinking about marrying a non-Korean.”
Though Korean women seem to be growing out of the traditional homemaker role, Korean men “are 20 years behind the times in their expectations,” she continued. “They have had it pretty good. And that’s a problem.”
One symptom of that problem, she said, could be the Korean divorce rate, now verging on 50 percent, the second-highest in the world.
Then there’s the obvious language issue. Whether it’s a serious problem depends on who you ask.
Emily, the Canadian English teacher, thinks many Korean men aren’t interested in dating Western women because “Koreans aren’t willing to make fools out of themselves” by trying to speak a language they aren’t familiar with.
“I don’t think foreigners are as afraid of speaking Korean as Koreans are of speaking English,” she said. “They think one mistake is the end of the world.”
But Kang Hyung-sun, a 38-year-old partner at a travel agency who recently married an American after two years of dating, says it’s more than possible for a couple who don’t share a first language to develop intimacy.
“Sure, there is a limit to expressing my deepest feelings in English,” said Ms. Kang, who started to pick up the language after meeting her husband.
“But we seem to read between the lines pretty well,” she said. “It would be different in business situations. The communication would be much more difficult. But as a couple, we know. We develop other kinds of senses to understand each other.”
The couple’s “cultural gap” shows up in trivial moments in their lives, she said. It’s more a matter of practicalities than of values. “It’s mostly small things we argue over, like food preferences, or who will do the laundry tomorrow,” Ms. Kang said. “He likes meat, I like fish.
“Other things really just come down to differences in our personalities,” she said. “I think it would have been a completely different story to date foreigners in the ’80s. Korea’s living environment has become so Westernized since then. Everything has globalized; so has our sense of values.”
But another unmarried Korean woman with experience dating Americans, a 35-year-old director at a government ministry, found that the cultural differences were still there, and were too much to overcome.
“As we got older, the gap would get bigger,” she said. “I found I needed to tell him stuff all the time. It was irritating. A Korean man would know how I was feeling, what I wanted.
“I realized then that I could never get married to a Western guy,” she said. “I would have to be telling him things all the time.”
by Park Soo-mee
Other JoongAng Daily staff members contributed to this report.