Love in South Korea: Part 2 - Getting to Know Each Other

Getting to Know Each Other

Have you ever wondered what relationships are like in South Korea? I mean, beyond what you see in K-dramas... What are the rules, the most distinctive aspects, the positive parts, the darker sides...?

Today, I'm starting a series of posts where I'll talk about relationships in Korea, how they start, how they develop, why they fail. Make sure to subscribe to the blog by email to get a notification when I publish the rest of the parts of this series, which are coming soon.

First of all, every person is different, there are exceptions to everything I'm going to tell you, but it's true that there is a certain pattern in the way romantic relationships are conducted in Korea, and that sets a cultural reference that not everyone can easily escape. Even when someone seems to be made of a different stuff, collective culture weighs heavily in Korea, and in the long run, old habits die hard.

Love in Korea is undoubtedly, like everything in this country, fast and effervescent.

Today, I'm going to tell you about the first step of relationships in South Korea.



Finding a partner in South Korea is quite a challenging task. Firstly, due to the lack of free time, and secondly, because of the enormous distance established between strangers. Just to give you an idea, I don't even greet my neighbors when we meet in the elevator because they might think I'm a stalker. Similarly, no guy is going to approach you in a café or on the street to ask for your phone number, and you shouldn't do it either, because in Korean culture, that's a bit crazy. Yeah, it happens all the time in K-dramas. Sorry, that's 100% impossible in real life. At least among Koreans.

Why is this so? Well, I don't blame them. There are a lot of weird people on the streets. Many beardless practitioners of strange sects who want you to join their church, old folks who announce the end of the world, or ladies who elbow you in the metro queue to scare you away so they can cut in line (I always stand my ground when they bump into me. You might have lived through the Korean post-war era, but I've been to sales in Spain, ma'am). The streets are more than ever a jungle, and nobody stops to listen to what someone has to say because 90% of the time it's going to be a waste of time. I've even stopped stopping when someone talks to me because I got tired of getting into awkward situations. We're lucky that at least they stop for tourists to help us find our way, although considering the behavior of tourists in South Korea lately, that might disappear soon too. It's true that outside of Seoul things relax a bit, but the notion of "mine/ours" versus "theirs" is embedded in Korean culture, so the difference between what's mine and what's someone else's is sometimes quite insurmountable.

That said, how do Koreans meet then?

Hobby Clubs or Dongaris

Since school, there have been hobby clubs or dongaris that you might have seen a lot in Japanese manga (although they have a different name in Japanese), where young people gather to share a hobby, whether it's photography, hiking (a big hobby in South Korea), dancing, or anything you can think of. These clubs are funded by the school or institution, and in university, they're an excuse to get drunk and go on trips all together into the countryside. Several Korean couples I know met there.

Similarly, later in life, the hiking groups that middle-aged people join are also a breeding ground for flings, lovers in the case of married people, or one-night stands, or why not, the resurgence of love for divorced or widowed individuals. That's why the entrances to Seoul's main hiking trails are full of motels.

But what if you finish university and you're not with anyone or you've broken up with your partner? Here, everything gets complicated. You can't meet anyone at your workplace because it would involve many problems or one of you would have to leave your job. It happens, but it's not ideal for either of you. Also, because of the sexual harassment issues in Korean companies, employees are very careful not to get too close to female employees, so there's no chance for a friendship to develop. So the simplest option is to do it through:

Sogaeting or blind date

Your friend has a boyfriend and they're very happy. Her boyfriend is a good guy. Your friend is a good girl. If he's looking for a single friend and she's looking for you, and they arrange for you to meet at a café, it could be the start of something. Many couples meet this way. Although it's very uncomfortable for many Koreans, and there's a certain percentage of people who don't want to do it, many others see it as a more organic way to meet someone, since being friends with your friend's partner ensures that at least they're not weird people and have a certain verifiable history (this is important, we'll talk about it another time). Going out with complete strangers isn't so strange when you think that someone you trust knows someone they trust who, in turn... well, I'm getting confused.

The way it works is that the matchmakers give them each other's contact details, they chat a bit, and then they meet. The matchmakers wash their hands of the matter and don't have to accompany them or introduce them in person. Obviously, before even considering sogaeting, there's an extensive recognition of the mutual photos that friends provide. Although sometimes there's a world of difference between the photo and reality.

In sogaeting, the guy usually talks and the girl listens most of the time. He talks about his work, his military service, his studies, the major he pursued, the university... and all that qualifies him as an interesting member of society and not a loser (don't miss my previous post about what a loser is in Korea). For this very reason, losers don't like sogaeting at all.

I really enjoy sogaeting. I mean, I enjoy watching them. It's like when you're studying in a café and you're next to one, witnessing the most universal courtship and pre-mating ceremony that exists while you drink your tea. It's worth learning Korean just for that.

Okay, the blind date didn't work out. What else is there?

Bars, nightclubs, clubs, various joints

Oh, friend. I've been waiting for this moment. Do you remember the stories our parents used to tell?

Your mom was dancing with her friends, I was with mine playing pool, then she sat nearby to buckle her patent leather shoes. I walked up with my pool cue and said, "Do you dance?" and she smiled and said, "With you or with the cue?" And here we are, 30 years later.

Beautiful, isn't it? Well, forget it. In Korea, it's not like that. I'm sorry, cancel the confetti. Send back the champagne. The concept we have in Spain and Latin America of nightclubs and bars is very broad. You can go alone to have fun with your friends, you can go looking for someone, you can go because you feel like having a drink or because you feel like dancing. You can decide not to talk to anyone, or to talk and meet people. Have a drink with that someone and then go home, just like that. Or have that drink and then another one and end up at that someone's house. You may never see that person again. You may see them again. Many things can happen. Or nothing.

In Korea, people go to the nightclub for one-night stands. Period. It's as simple as that. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's important to know. You're not going to find love there. You're not even going to have a good time with your friends, just like that, although that's changing. That's why once a couple becomes boyfriend and girlfriend, neither of them can set foot in a nightclub or a bar without jeopardizing the relationship. Those places are for singles.

Thanks to the thousands of foreigners who go to Seoul's nightclubs just to have fun with our friends, things are changing. But let me tell you something, even if you're looking for a one-night stand, I don't recommend looking for it here. The world of one-night stands in Korea is more complex than it seems, as it's somewhat taboo and very much associated with foreigners (although Korean women are no slouches either!). So, the characters who might hit on you in a nightclub can be quite something. CAUTION! If you want to know more about this topic, let me know in the comments. I won't say more now because I don't consider this love [read with a passionate voice].

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