Monday, January 11, 2010


When I arrived in Korea in 2007, my first exposure to K-pop was a band called Super Junior which is comprised of 12 (or 13, there is some debate) pretty boys. Watching this video, I was struck by two things. First, how flamboyantly cute the guys were acting, and second the number of Snoopy shirts.

Characters are really popular here. Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Garfield, Mickey Mouse, ...Everyone in Korea knows who Snoopy is too but I doubt they could tell you anything about him.

First, you see a yellow Snoopy Tee on Sung Min.

Then you might notice that in the dance scene, all the band members are wearing black and white striped Snoopy shirts.

Yet ANOTHER Snoopy shirt.

A Charlie Brown shirt.

Han Kyeong is trying to decide between TWO Snoopy shirts.
Life is tough, isn't it.

I can't picture any of my guy friends from home dolled up like this, but in fact, being pretty or cute is more of an asset for a guy here than being traditionally handsome. Since homosexuality officially "doesn't exist" in Korea and remains unacknowledged by the general public, guys can be as metro sexual as they want without risk of anyone calling them gay.

At first, when I saw how boys here hold each other's hands and touch each other freely I felt uncomfortable because I am used to many guys being homophobic, but now I think it is liberating to have everyone be so secure about their sexuality. Unfortunately this comes at a price. The culture is rigid in it's non-acceptance of gays, although I hope this is slowly changing.

Only mainstream Korean writing is available in English, which means I never had much of an opportunity to read literature representing any minority group or subculture. That is, until I found an interesting blog on myspace where a Korean American translates gay fiction and poetry into English. Reading this has been fascinating and helped me understand just how suffocating Korean culture can be.

As you watch the video, you will see that the band members have no shame about being absolutely cute and pretty, right down to wearing lip gloss so shiny it is nearly blinding. They touch each other a lot too. This is normal with Korean guys and their male friends. They tend to act like a typical image of sixteen year old girls at a sleepover; they pounce on each other, tickle, slap, fight, wrestle, fix each other's hair, hug...

At the end of the video you will see Super Junior standing in a public place holding up "free hug" signs. Free Hugs are quite popular in Korea. People wait in a crowded area with those signs and as you walk past you can hug them. It happened to me just last weekend when I was in Myeong Dong, right outside of Forever 21 (where I bought a ton of cute clothes). Some people were holding up free hug signs and I hugged one of them. It made me feel really warm and bubbly inside. If you have the opportunity to get a free hug, I recommend doing it.

Hugging aside, Koreans love to make hand gestures. Sometimes I think they make more hand gestures than actual facial expressions. For example putting two fingers up to your head like horns means, "angry." Putting one hand on either side of your cheeks means, "I'm being cute." There are gestures for "glitter," "one more time," "sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry," "that's very hot..." Everyone, from elementary school to grandmothers, is familiar with these signs.

Here, Shindong is crossing his forearms in front of him. This is a common Korean hand gesture meaning "No." When it's a small no, they sometimes only make an X with their fingers. When it's an emphatic no, they can go as far as to cross their forearms and their legs to let you know that No means NO! The opposite of this, making an O with your hands over your head, means, "yes".

Check out the boys making a heart with their hands. My students rarely say the word love (which they pronounce luhbew) without it being accompanied by making the hand heart.

An even greater love can be expressed by making the head heart by placing your arms over your head like a heart.

The hand heart AND the head heart. There is some serious love in this video, and obviously it's all for ME! ;)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Finding My Seoul Mate

In the 2+ years that I've been in Korea, I have, by chance, dated exclusively Korean guys. The reason is partially that my exposure to Korean media has made them attractive to me, partially because I wanted an avenue to explore the culture more deeply, partially because the foreign men here are mostly interested in Korean girls, and partially because I genuinely liked the individuals I dated.

The Korean guys I dated have greatly varied; from casual to loving; watchmakers to University students, guys who have never left Korea, guys who have lived in more countries than I have; those who barely speak English, and those whose knowledge of grammar and Greek roots far surpasses my own.

I am now going to share some observations about my experiences.


People of all nationalities are attractive. If you are cute, you are cute, regardless of your background. That being said, Koreans go the extra mile to take care of themselves through exercise, personal grooming, etc. Its nice when when my boyfriend can give me advice about how to get my hair the way I want it because he admits spending a lot of time on his own hair. I also like guys who look soft and cuddly but are surprisingly strong. Many ordinary guys in this country (office workers, students, the guy in 711) are supermen underneath their clothes. Its refreshing when guys pride themselves on their fashion sense and look like they paid attention to what they put on, rather than just grabbing the cleanest shirt off the floor. American guys who do this, tend to get labeled as Metro sexual, and are seen as bit more dandy than others. I'd certainly appreciate it if, in America, we could be more open minded towards fashionable men.

On the other hand, this can backfire when my boyfriend takes longer to get ready to go out than I do, can't pass a mirror, window, rain puddle, or any reflective surface without glancing in, and is generally prettier than I am. In addition, although this is acceptable in Some Western countries, in my homeland men do not wear pink. I'm open minded to men in pink (also to men in make up, glitter, skirts, etc.) but even I am going to laugh good naturedly if a man I find attractive is taking off his clothes, only to reveal pink underwear. I also laugh when Korean men refer to their underwear as "panties." "Panty" is actually the proper Korean word for gender neutral underwear. I know that, but it still gives me the giggles. Of course, if the guy laughs too, or makes a joke about me in return, the moment becomes comfortable and fun, instead of awkward.

The Telephone

Some Korean guys like to be in contact with the girl they are interested in all the time. If a guy I like calls me, I appreciate it because I don't have to wait for his call, or wonder how many days to wait before I should call him. However, don't over do things. In the past, Korean guys have sent me up to 50 (this is a literal, unexaggerated number) text messages in one day, if I allow it. I get freaked out by such a high volume of texts, especially when none of them say anything particularly interesting or important. Some of my Korean girlfriends say I should appreciate when my boyfriend sends me texts like "The weather is beautiful. Have a nice day," because it shows he is thinking about me and he cares about me. However, those generic messages leave me wondering, "Does my boyfriend know so little about me, that all he can talk about with me is the weather?" I want to be asked "What do you think about?" "What do you care about?" "How are you feeling?" (Do guys of any nationality ask those questions anymore?) Personally, I'd rather have one phone call in a day where we really connect, talk deeply, and feel close to each other, than 50 texts messages about the weather, no matter how beautiful it is outside.

Language Barrier

You would think that the language barrier would be a problem since I'm in Korea and I only speak English, but when people trust one another with an open heart, they are willing to forgive miscommunications. Many of my Korean girlfriends are not perfect English speakers but we are very close friends and talk about everything. That is because we both have a willingness to talk to each other. Sometimes the guys I've met don't have that willingness to communicate, and many times, they blame it on a lack of English. Of course, a certain amount of common language is necessary to maintain a relationship, but a willingness to talk openly and try to understand the other person is also necessary. Some Korean guys tend to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics. Past ex-boyfriends, at times, wouldn't tell me that I had done something hurtful or upsetting to them, assuming that I should just know. If I knew everything about everyone I'd be telling fortunes and reading tarot cards on the street (which might be fun^^), but since I can't, its up to my boyfriend to tell me how he feels, instead of assuming I know, and avoiding me. I am always open to discussion.

I Love You

Too often, I'll meet a Korean guy who decides he likes me right away. In a matter of days or even hours he is saying, "I love you" to me. Its nice to hear "I love you," but when he hasn't known me very long it sounds insincere. I know that he is saying it because it represents his strong feeling for me in the moment, but love is a feeling that is meant to last over time. Can he really put up with me as the weeks go by? Is he sure he can handle who I am and accept me? Will he still love me when he finds out my negative qualities? If he's not sure, he should hold off on saying "I love you." A better way for him to show he cares about me would be by asking questions and being interested in who I am. I don't want to be asked "Where are you?" or "What are you doing now?" Based on my previous Korean boyfriends failing to really get to know me as a person, they had an inability to trust me. They always wanted to know where I was and what I was doing. They would get angry if I went to a club or a bar, and sulk if I didn't message them back fast enough. Even the one boyfriend I loved the most, couldn't perceive that I would never cheat on him.

It feels like a lot of people haven't really thought about what love is, no matter what country they are from. I'm not blaming them, as romantic love is a fairly difficult concept to get used to. 120 years ago in my country, we were still looking at marriage as a sort of contractual relationship, uniting two families. Today we see marriage as the product of romantic love instead, and yet 50% of our marriages end in divorce. Korea has had even less time to get used to the freedom of romantic love. Even now, many people around me believe that a relationship and a marriage is not only about the couple, but about a uniting of two families. The families themselves especially seem to believe this. I've often wondered how my previous boyfriends would approach their families about me, if we ever became that serious.

The Korean marriage ritual includes the family of the groom purchasing a house for the couple, and the family of the bride purchasing the furniture. This is how young couples get started. If the family disapproves of a Korean man's white girlfriend, they aren't going to buy his house, so unless he is quite successful on his own, he would feel enormous pressure to concede to his family's wishes. At least two of the guys I dated had the potential to eventually be successful on their own. One of them was so serious about me at a certain point that he told me I'd have to learn Korean so it would be easier for his family to like and accept me when it came time to get married.

It seems that although the family's approval is still important, at the same time, romantic love is gaining popularity. Many of the guys I've dated have told me that they already talked to their family about how they eventually want to marry a foreigner. In the Korean-Korean relationships of my friends, when the families disagree with the couple's decision to marry, the couple tries to "hold out." They believe if they wait long enough to get married, that their family will fear they will never marry at all and accept any choice. That is one avenue of rebellion I've seen so far, so I am optimistic that it is possible to go against the family's wishes.

On top of that,(or maybe because of it) Korean pop culture is very couple oriented with couple t-shirts, couple underwear, couple sets, couple menus, couple discounts; all promoting excitement over romantic love. There is a high expectation placed on people to find the perfect love, and it seems that Koreans are focused on obtaining it despite the expectations and pressures of their family.

Unfortunately, however, they don't seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about how to maintain it once they get it, or how to create it. Carrying my purse, giving me a massage, cooking for me, drying me with a towel after my shower; these gestures, as well as couple t-shirts and any of the things associated with couple mania, are manifestations of the emotions my previous boyfriends have felt for me, but none of them produced a lasting relationship.

Everyone probably has his or her own definition of love, but I'm sure that many would agree that it extends beyond your momentary feelings of happiness to be with someone, and the romantic gestures you make because of those feelings. Text messages and toweling me off are not enough to make a lasting love. I would say that love is something you have to work on together as a couple. That feeling cannot last without effort from both people, and that effort needs to be internal; in your mind. Talking to me and knowing who I am and what I am about would be more effective. It would eliminate the Korean habit of messaging me 50 times a day, since he would know that I care and I'm thinking of him, whether I'm texting him at that moment or not. It would eliminate his fear and doubt when I stay out all night with my friends because he would know that I understand commitment and I am not flirting (or more) with other guys. In fact, it would make for a stronger bond between us all together.

A cross-cultural relationship between an American girl and a Korean guy contains all these problems, plus the personal characteristics and issues of the individuals involved. Casual relationships are easy enough, but a more serious relationship would be a difficult road that I would only be willing to walk for a very special person.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Understanding Korea is Not Oxymoronic

"But, in the view of most reasonable observers, including mine, Korea's strangeness leads us more to incomprehensible than to interesting. (Interesting stirs the mind to study and enjoy the object of interest.) Incomprehensible encourages frustration and exasperation...Americans are easily lulled, by the numerous signs of Americanization or Westernization ― witness McDonald's, automobiles, high fashion, trips abroad ― to think that Koreans are or can be just like them. They are soon surprised and frustrated to discover that, at the core, Koreans are impenetrable and immune to change."
- taken from an editorial, which was originally brought to my attention by Evan Watters (who was shocked and disturbed by it).

This article overwhelms me with anger, especially the presumption that it is true "in the view of most reasonable observers." Admittedly, Korea has been difficult to get to know. Is there anything wrong with that? Sure, its inconvenient for foreigners, but who said every nation's culture must be easily definable to others? Should Korea be expected to compartmentalize and serve itself up like dinner on an airline?

I can sympathize with Korea, as I am often a hard person to get to know. This has been pointed out and discussed with me by my closest friends (after they got to know me, of course). It has been implied by my boyfriend, when he recognized that I'm more comfortable expressing myself through writing than speaking. Several of my coworkers, past and present, have mentioned it; sometimes indirectly ("you never come out with everybody") and other times very bluntly ("you should be yourself more at work") . It's even been observed by my best Korean girlfriend that I rarely talk to anyone I'm not close friends with unless I absolutely have to. When I tried to tell her, "I'm just shy," she wagged her finger at me. "No, no, no Kate. Not shy. If you need to talk with another person you can, but if you don't need, you don't want their. Not shy, Kate. Arrogant."

So which is it, really? Shy or arrogant? Honestly, it's probably a combination of both- and then some. I am definitely not comfortable around people I don't know well, especially in large groups. I'm a great listener, but I'd prefer that the other person do most of the talking, at least until I'm at ease.

When I'm relaxed I like to ponder great questions like, "What meaning can I attribute to me life?" and "Are people developing an innate belief that the world will someday end, and is that effecting how they live on a daily basis?" none of which, I feel, should be tackled in the fifteen minute break between classes at work. A real conversation can take hours, especially since I'm also given to be silly and sarcastic in the midst of being serious. Due to this, I tend to censor myself in situations where I feel that there isn't enough time to properly talk, or I'm worried the other person (or people) won't understand me (and will come away thinking I'm strange), or both. The best way to get to know me is talking one on one in a quiet place, however, such ideal circumstances aren't often presented by chance. In most cases, the other person had to decide they wanted me as a friend and then pursue my friendship by inviting me to hang out a few times. That's why my friends are usually outgoing and warm hearted- they had to be in order to cultivate my friendship.

A similar warm hearted and outgoing approach is necessary for getting to know Korea. In my experience, many foreigners tend to remain aloof, and treat their time here as separate from their "real life." With this attitude, they are never going to get any closer to the core of the culture. Simple immergence into Korean culture will not bring you understanding of it, just as staring at a painting in a museum will not give you an epiphany. You have to study the artist's life, the time period, and the progression of art in general in order to fully grasp a painting. In the same way, simply viewing Korean culture from the outside is not going to allow you to get beyond the surface. You have to interact with it; become part of it and let it become part of you.

I've managed to do this, to an extent, but not because I thought this out before hand and planned to. By a lucky accident, I happened to meet a Korean girl whose personality is aligned with mine. Although her English level remains low, I always understand her 100% and vice versa. We have attributed that to our similar thought process. When we're together we speak broken sentences, but the ideas we communicate are complex. She is simply one of my best friends, which is not as exclusive a club as it may sound.

All of my best friends (and I can think of at least 10 off hand) maintain a balance of being both non-judgmental and completely honest. They are people that are not phased by the things that I do. It isn't that they don't care, but they allow me to be myself completely. I could call any of them up at any time and say, "I just robbed a convenience store and now I feel guilty and scared," and none of them would freak out or be disappointed in me. They would just talk me through it in an honest, but caring way. This is the kind of friend I strive to be as well. Beneath my exterior, which some may perceive as difficult to penetrate, I desire complete openness with my friends. It may not be what people expect. (I hope) I offer those who do get close to me a valuable friendship, that is worth the initial effort.

Not seeing this, sometimes people subconsciously pass me by in favor of friendships that are easier to form. There are definitely many easier people to become friends with than me, so I appreciate the people who have put in the effort to become my friend. In a similar way, Koreans seem to appreciate the attempt a foreigner invests to learn their culture- especially if it is done warm heartedly and without judgement- clearly not the case for the writer of the above-quoted article. He is frustrated because he cannot intellectually comprehend Korea, but he is offering no emotional understanding of Korea in return.

I ask anyone reading this blog, especially those who have never been to Korea and to whom this is really going to be an introduction to Korean life, to try and readit in an accepting frame of mind.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tae Guk il Jang: Shi-Jak! (Lesson one: Start!)

Did you ever do that experiment in kindergarten where you place a sheet of colored paper in the sun, with various objects on top of it? The paper fades, but retaines bright spots where a stone or a maple leaf had protected it from the light. In my mind, details grow similarly pale, unless I do something deliberate to anchor them.

I intend Seoul Kiss to be a blog where I can organize and retain my thoughts. Of course, Korea is my central focus, but I will also attempt to spring board into broader topics, such as what it means to live and love in a world where people are electronically connected, but seem so emotionally splintered. Also, through exploring Korean culture, I hope to make discoveries about my own cultural identity as an American.

Although writing and publishing novels is one of my dreams, presenting my thoughts publicly makes me feel vulnerable. Actually, I have had several blogs before, but they have always been disorganized and private, or at least, limited to a small number of select readers. This time, by linking my blog to facebook, I am actively inviting my family, my friends (both Western and Korean), my boyfriend, my ex-boyfriends, my coworkers, the girl I used to sit in the library with in jr high reading choose your own adventure books, the guy who always wore a top hat and saved his cat's bones after it died, etc. Its a little terrifying, but that makes me feel all the more strongly that it'll be worth it. Whoever you are, I'm glad you have become a part of this process. Welcome.