Love springs eternal, but girls do the springing on Feb. 14

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Love springs eternal, but girls do the springing on Feb. 14

“I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day,” said one scowling Frenchman as he swerved around the stacks of chocolates and stuffed animals and dodged young couples clinging together in the Jamsil Lotte Department Store on Valentine’s Day.

But despite one naysayer, many expatriate women in Korea take the opportunity on this day to take the lead in giving gifts to the apple of their eye, following local practice.

Koreans observe this commercialized holiday with a chocolate-ridden vengeance, not just once but by spreading the controversial lovebirds’ day into three separate celebrations over the course of three months.

On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, the women give chocolates to their beloved in a similar but less portentous version of the Western Leap Day marriage proposals. On March 14, if the feelings in their fluttering female hearts are reciprocated, men will reciprocate the gift with candy (or preferably jewelry) on “White Day.” That special day was created in Japan by the confectionary industry in the 1970s and has become popular throughout East Asia.

Then on “Black Day,” April 14 (a solely Korean custom), the singles who had been left out of the romantic gift exchanges can gather, eat black bean paste noodles and commiserate their fate together.

Of over 40 foreigners asked by the Korea JoongAng Daily, in places such as Seoul’s Samseong-dong, Jamsil, Gangnam, Myeongdong and Itaewon, every respondent who had lived in Korea for at least a year was aware of the Korean Valentine’s Day and White Day traditions. Black Day was only known by four people.

For singles in Korea (at least those who don’t share the Gallic sentiments in this article’s lead), Valentine’s Day can be a lonely one. But at least here, women who want to push a relationship a little further into fruition have a chance to step up their game.

Daisy Larios is a 27-year-old from Los Angeles whose parents are originally from Mexico. She has spent the past seven months working in Korea.
Her new crush is a year younger, a Korean and an art student.

They met three weeks ago via a “meet up” event through an online social networking portal that arranges outings for its members. They had been on several dates together, despite their busy schedules.

For Valentine’s Day, on a date that almost didn’t happen until he changed his work schedule, she presented him with a box of chocolates she had waited all week to give him. They had Andong jjimdak (marinated broiled chicken), her favorite food, at a restaurant near Gangnam Station, then went to a cozy “multi-room,” a popular date spot which provides private rooms with a large-screen TV where couples can watch DVDs, play video games and consume unlimited snacks and drinks.

“Was I supposed to pay for dinner too?” Larios asked as an afterthought. (She wasn’t - men usually reciprocate the sweets and gifts with dinner.)

As they waited for her bus home, concerned that he hadn’t made a move yet on the most romantic day of the year she asked him, “Why haven’t you kissed me yet?”

He thought she said, “Kiss me!” and gave her a peck on the lips, completely unexpectedly for her.

“I mean, Koreans generally don’t kiss in public, especially at crowded bus stops,” Larios said. “But I guess a peck is a good sign, though, assuming I didn’t scare him away with my assertive American ways.”

Though he speaks some English, she admits, “I have the feeling a lot of things get lost in translation, or just never make it out in the first place.”

About Valentine’s Day in Korea, Larios said, “My sense is that women in Korea are expected to be receptive to advances, not initiate them, so it’s cool that there is this one day a year where women are encouraged to be more forward about their feelings, and a day for the guys to respond in kind.”

For new couples, Valentine’s Day is a rite of passage; for long-term couples an obligation; and for the married, a hassle and an event which can become quite costly.

Shinsegae Department store surveyed 820 men and women age 20 and 40 for 10 days beginning Jan. 27. The Valentine’s Day gift most coveted by males is a tablet PC, favored by 31 percent, followed by an iPhone dock and clothes and shoes. About 32 percent of men surveyed said they were prepared to spend 200,000 to 300,000 won ($180-270) for their girl friends on White Day, and one in four was willing to spend 300,000-500,000 won. A quarter of women surveyed wanted to give their men wallets for Valentine’s Day while 22 percent wanted to give chocolate.

The survey results suggested that women are also prone to giving handmade gifts as a sign of dedication to their significant others, including clumsily made, rock-hard chocolates made from pre-assembled chocolate making kits, complete with chocolate chips, molds, fancy sprinkles, icings, colorful foils, boxes and ribbons - all sold at convenience stores and stationary stores for 10,000 to 20,000 won. A box of store-bought gourmet chocolates can cost on average 40,000 won.

A clerk at a stationary store at the COEX Mall in Gangnam District said four or five foreigners bought the Valentine’s Day kits and cards daily in the run-up to the day. The store sells Valentine’s Day goodies for two weeks before Feb. 14, and has hundreds of customers per day snapping them up.

But the day doesn’t always have to be costly. Californian Brook Wilt, 26, was shopping at a lingerie store in Myeong-dong on Valentine’s Day. “I didn’t prepare much for my fiance, and we’re cooking dinner together tonight,” she said, professing that she was a “holiday hater.”

She said she has found that gifts are very different from those usually given in the United States, especially the “giant chocolate bars that are two feet long and the candy bouquets” which she confessed she found somewhat overwhelming.

“Well, I made him a handmade card with origami hearts pasted on,” Wilt admitted during the conversation. “And I did give him chocolate, though it’s mostly repackaged from what my students gave me.” But she said that if she had been in the United States, she would not have dreamed of making a card herself, let alone one with origami, which she learned from her students at school.

One man stood by a flower shop in Myeongdong later in the afternoon on the same day, contemplating his purchase. “Is 25,000 won for a dozen red roses a rip-off?” he asked.

David Klein, 28, from San Diego, has taught English in Korea for the past two years. He planned a flower-and-chocolate surprise for his girlfriend, a Korean woman with whom he worked last year, and planned to present the gifts at her office.

“She doesn’t know I’m coming,” Klein said. “I know that on Valentine’s Day in Korea, the girl gives the guy presents, but I’m too much of a traditional American to let her do everything.”

Another couple was more in tune with the actual Korean experience as they walked hand in hand near Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, lost but laughing, in search of the Trick Eye Museum in faraway Hongdae. Simultaneously, they unzipped their jackets and showed matching Snoopy “couple” sweaters, in green for her and yellow for him. They also sported matching round, horn-rimmed “couple” glasses that they had just picked up in a market.

Richard Brown, 24, teaches English in Suwon, Gyeonggi, and has been in Korea for six months. Kaleigh Heathcote, 26, taught English in Apku for two years. “It was all her idea,” said Brown with a grin.

“It started out as a dare,” Heathcote intervened. “I told him to show up in front of my door on Valentine’s morning, and we’ll call in sick to spend the day together.”

He did, and after calling their respective workplaces, the two, who had first met several weeks earlier and discovered their shared California roots, followed their daylong “Korean-style” Valentine’s Day agenda. “So far today, we haven’t seen anybody walk around with the “couple look” besides us,” said Heathcote. “I haven’t seen the giant teddy bears, huge bouquets or anyone dressed in red either.”

After emerging from the markets in their matching looks, the pair went tandem-biking along the Han River. They planned to have Brazilian barbeque for dinner - but only after they found the museum, they said.

By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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