I’ve never written about dating before on this blog. I’ve also never written about my proclivity towards AMWF relationships. I just didn’t want to be known for that. I guess I don’t want people thinking it’s the only reason why I live here, in Asia. But the truth is that when I have dated, both in Seattle and abroad, it’s almost always been with Asian males. Why? We all know that motivations are always this abstract, jumbled mess of things. But I can narrow it down. I tutored Asian ESL students when I was a university student, both male and female and I always admired and respected how hard they worked. They were doing what I was doing but they were doing it in a language totally foreign to them and while living far away from their family and friends in a culture that was totally new to them. Hard work has always been sexy to me and these guys were the opposite of the privileged white male (or female, for that matter). But there are other reasons. My mother was divorced when I was four years old and some of the only father figures I had in my life were Asian men. We traveled to the Philippines when I was 8 years old and I most certainly left pieces of my heart there. Plus, Asian guys are just downright sexy. So that’s just a few of the my reasons, it’s easier to see the picture once you have some of the puzzle pieces. When I arrived in Korea in September 2013 I sort of hit the ground running as far as dating went and started finding guys to drink coffee with and go out with as soon as I arrived. I joined a language exchange. I met guys at bars, at church, online, and even at the 7-Eleven by my house. I mean, I’ve always been the introverted type and have never been much of a party-girl but for me and my standards, I was going all out. I thought, This is going to be so easy and fun and exciting!! And sometimes it was, but oftentimes it really wasn’t. It’s not that I had come to Korea obsessed with K-Pop and K-Dramas and wanting my own recreation of that sort of dynamic. I don’t think I had unrealistic expectations. But I did want a healthy, vibrant relationship. And what I got was something totally different. By the time I had been in Korea about 7 or 8 months, I looked around and noticed I knew quite a number of other Western girls who had also been burned and disillusioned from their experiences with dating Korean men. And these were some good girls. Sweet, intelligent, bake you a cake and talk about real-shit girls who had absolutely had it with Korean men. So what happened? I still don’t really know. But hindsight is 20/20, right? I’ve polled some of my friends who have dated in Korea and I’ve racked my mind about it and so without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s a list of things I think every woman should know.
Dating in Korea: What Every Woman Should Know 1.) Get Yourself A Korean Bestie and Pour Your Little Heart Out* Nobody will be able to give you dating advice in Korea better than another Korean and your best bet is to have a Korean girlfriend who is around your age. I’ll never forget this moment. I’m on a long distance bus ride with one of my Korean co-workers who would end up being one of my closest friends and we’re talking about dating. Myself and my other Western girlfriends had come up with a set of sort-of standards about Asian guys and one of them was that they would disappear for weeks or months at a time and then just call or text you out of the blue. It had happened to so many of us and it happened so regularly that we just figured it was a normal thing. Koreans are busy, hardworking people, right? I told this to my Korean girlfriend and she gave me a sort of sad, I feel-sorry-for you look. “No,” she said. “If someone is doing that to you, it’s unacceptable behavior.” Bam! It might be something small but right there my world shattered and I realized I had been going about the dating thing all wrong because I had been trading advice with other Westerners instead of Koreans. Who knows Korean men better than Korean women? Get a Korean best friend and when you start finding you’re interested in a guy or he’s interested in you, get him to have coffee with you and your girlfriend, she’ll use her 눈치 to help you figure out who’s sincere and who’s straight up playing games with your heart.
2.) Remember That Western Women Have a Reputation in Asia I would estimate that at least half of my first dates in Korea ended up with the guy trying to have sex with me. Sometimes this would happen after I had very long open conversations with him about the fact that I was tired of the reputation that Western women have in Korea and that I wasn’t interested in casual sex! Actually, this almost always happened after having this conversation because I almost always had this conversation and yet still, 50% of my first dates ended in the guy seriously trying to hit a home run. Western women like sex and they have sex a lot, this is what
many most Korean Asian guys think. It is the most undeniable, indisputable fact about being a Westerner trying to make relationships work in Asia. Now, some of you don’t know me but I don’t dress provocatively. When I moved to Korea, I read that showing cleavage and shoulders and all of that was a no no and so I didn’t do it. I was a kindergarten teacher in South Korea. I come off as more cute than sexy, more stays-home-and-bakes-cookies than goes out to the club. I wasn’t giving off a sleep-with-me vibe. It’s just that as a Western woman in Asia, you ARE a stereotype and you’re gonna have to fight that every step of the way if you want even an ounce of respect. Does this sound harsh? I’m sorry. Yes it is harsh, but I find it’s also something that women in AMWF relationships on the blogosphere don’t write about enough. When I came to Korea I was a bit ignorant and naive and honestly I was used to dating Asian Americans who’ve been taught to understand that no means no. It’s not like that in Korea. In fact it’s common in Korea for girls to pretend that they don’t want sex even when they do want sex because Korean women are not always allowed to express their sexuality fully, at least not at first in a relationship (See previous link). So, when you say No! in Korea, I don’t know it seems like you’re saying, TRY HARDER, COWBOY! My advice and plea to Western women is to not sleep with someone on the first date (or the second) in Korea. If you do, you are just cementing an already established stereotype into the mind of the collective cultural mindset. There are countless coffee shops, restaurants, and bars in South Korea. My advice would be to keep your dating in that sort of setting until you really know what you want. Because no matter how sweet and demure he might seem, the moment you invite him up all bets are off. 3.) Learn the Language, Learn the Culture This one is huge. If you’re going to be dating in a culture other than your own, you need to try to meet the other person halfway. Plus, Korean guys think it’s just so damn cute when you’re learning Korean and if they don’t, that’s also a red signal. That might seem incredible to you but my Korean teacher told me that she had a female student whose boyfriend didn’t want her to learn Korean and he was Korean! She definitely knew there was something wrong with that relationship. Also, my Korean teacher ended up being a great source of advice (for me and countless other students of hers) when it came to dating and she loved being involved in our lives. We’re still friends to this day. Studying Korean in Korea was one way for me to separate myself from the people who came to the country just to play around and have a good time and it was a way for me to connect myself to the culture. It wasn’t easy and I never got super good at Korean, but I’ll never forget the praise I got from some of my Korean girlfriends one night when we were walking (to a bar?) who knows, and they were commenting on the fact that my Korean was “so good” (not true) and that so few Westerners bother to study it. Learning the culture is also super important if you want to be a good girlfriend when that day finally comes or if you just want to understand what the heck is going on in day to day life. Watching shows like Eat Your Kimchi might help a tiny bit but in my experience nothing helped better than reading and having good Korean friends. The book that prepared me the best for my move to South Korea was without a doubt Korea: Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor. 4.) Don’t Let Yourself Be Used For English If you are a Western girl living in South Korea, you are most likely an English teacher and this can be a sticky situation because maybe you don’t mind being used for English at first but sooner or later, you’re gonna get burned. All of my friends and myself included, we all ran into this problem multiple times. You meet a guy, guy is nice and sweet and attentive and you hang out and have coffee and talk in English; repeat ad nauseam. You think it’s the start of a budding fresh new relationship, he thinks it’s awesome that he’s getting free tutoring! Do you know how much private, one-on-one English tutors cost these days in Korea?!? Or you guys might even be sleeping together. He might call you his girlfriend. It might still be all about English and you don’t know it yet. I’ve seen this happen numerous times. So how do you stop it from happening? Well, if you’re following the two points above, it should be easier to avoid. If you’re also studying Korean, make sure that the language exchange is at least 80/20 or something like that. Of course his English is going to be much better than your Korean so you’ll talk mostly in English but if he’s interested in you and not just the free English practice your presence provides, then he’ll also be interested in helping you study Korean. Also, introduce him to your Korean friends; they’ll help you separate the wheat from the chaff (there might be a lot of chaff). 5.) Remember Your Company is a Commodity In Korea, being seen with a foreigner (you!) can be seen as a status thing and hooking up with a foreign girl can definitely be a sort of notch under the belt. Many guys will want to date you just to be seen with you. You have to decide for yourself if that’s something you want. Are you dating a guy who has always had a thing for Western girls? Find out why. Whenever I used to date Korean guys, one of the first things they would complain to me about was Korean girls. They told me Korean girls were too superficial and materialistic and traditional and basically too expensive to date. Translation? They wanted a cheaper, easier girl. Looking back, if I could change the way I dated in Korea, do you know what ONE THING I would have done differently? I would have made the guys I dated pay for more shit. Yeah, I’m not even kidding. In hindsight I realized that a good 75% of the dates I went on all chalked up to my last two points, they were either about English or about the fact that I was a commodity. I should have at least gotten a free coffee out of it or dinner. But I always felt too guilty to make them pay and I’d get to the coffee shop and order and pay first or insist on splitting it or something. But in hindsight, if you value something, you’ll pay for it right? And if a guy is dating you because you’re the cheaper option, then he’s dating you for the wrong reasons. Okay, now going back to the commodity thing. Sorry, SO MANY THINGS TO SAY. Try and find a guy who likes you for you, someone who asks you about your family and hobbies and sees you as something other than another Western face. Being a commodity isn’t the worst thing in the world but it can’t be the only thing in a relationship. There has to be more. 6.) Beautiful, I Love You, and Different Styles of Dating “The thing is,” my friend was now ranting, “Back home when you’re having something that means nothing, you KNOW it because the guy is careful not to lead you to think it’s a relationship because that’s a total dick move. He’s not all lovey-dovey and romantic about it if he’s not serious. But here, they’re all like that! And it’s impossible to tell who is serious and who isn’t,” she fumed, steam billowing not only from her Americano. I was having the same issue. The killer thing about dating in Korea is that most of the guys are like that, they really can make you feel like the only girl in the world even when they have no long term plans. But the whole country is set up to feel romantic, so in a way, I almost can’t blame them.
Another point to remember is that buzz words are used more readily and more frequently but there’s not always a deep meaning attached. “Beautiful” gets thrown around a lot more here because of linguistic differences and sometimes the phrase “I love you” is used a bit early on. Korean guys might talk about their feelings more, and it might sound more poetic because of the language difference, but it doesn’t always mean they’re deep. I have nothing other to say on this point other than the fact that direct and clear communication and taking things as slowly as possible is the best advice I have.
7.) Dating/Not Dating, Hard to Tell
Sometimes something can feel like dating in Korea, but it’s not. There was one guy who I met early on in Korea at a language exchange and I harbored a long, long time crush on him for about five months. We became closer as friends. Once, we went to Seoul together to see a photography exhibit. We both *ahem* tried to find other friends to go with us but it ended up being just the two of us. Another time, he texted me randomly out of the blue on a Saturday to take a drive out into the country to find an old cathedral that’s been used in many K-Dramas and movies. It was a rainy, romantic day which ended with a side-trip (at my request) to see the ocean and an expensive dinner. He was always working hard and pretty busy but one night he drove to my neighborhood to drink tea with me in a fancy coffee shop, still dressed in his dapper three-piece suit from work. I was pretty into this guy. I had talked to my Western girlfriends and my Korean friends about him and had explained all his actions and they were certain he was into me, too. Another Western girl who had seen the two of us interacting was certain of it from the way he spoke to me in a crowded room. But in the end, when I couldn’t take it anymore and I straight out asked the guy, it ended up that he had no other motives another than practicing English.
This isn’t uncommon. I’ve had a number of romantic dinners with Korean guys that apparently meant nothing; Italian food, coffee afterwards, paying for my movie, that sort of thing. I don’t know why Korean guys think it’s okay to pseudo-date Western women like this when that kind of behavior would cause all kinds of drama with a Korean woman but it happens.
8.) Don’t Isolate Yourself and Find a Middle Ground on Culture Differences
This might be better titled, Don’t Believe Everything Your Korean Boyfriend Tells You About Korean Culture. I personally didn’t deal with this problem, but I had friends who ran into this scenario. They’d be dating a guy and guy would say “It’s okay that I do this, and you need to do that because it’s Korean culture” but really, it was just him wanting his way and he was being manipulative. The key is to try to find a compromise in cultural differences you are both comfortable with and never, ever isolate yourself. Always talk to your Korean friends about what is going on. Culture is broad and ever-changing and it’s also totally subjective so maybe what your guy thinks is Korean culture isn’t at all! But even if it is, he got himself into a cross-cultural relationship and if he’s behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable then he isn’t a good boyfriend if he doesn’t take a step back to reconsider if you guys can meet in the middle. Korean culture and Western culture are very different and it will take two open-minded people to make it work out. A lot of international marriages in Korea end due to cultural differences.
*When I first arrived in Korea, I tried to make Korean girlfriends and then I failed. To be honest, for a while I held this stereotype that Korean girls are vapid and materialistic and vain. While that’s sometimes true, it’s not always true. Korean women have been fighting the patriarchy for longer than many of us can imagine and in the past they were some of the most repressed women in all the world. They’re still fighting the patriarchy today to be honest the culture itself has pushed them toward the point where they are now. So what I’m saying is, don’t rule them out. They are your allies and they can be some of your best connections to the culture.
Author’s Note: I know that this blog post carries a bit of an air of cynicism with it and that’s why it’s taken me so long to write and publish it. I don’t want to come off as a cynic. I do believe that there are good guys out there in Korea (and the rest of Asia) and I met a few of them. But I also ran into a number of problems while dating in Korea, as did ALL of my girlfriends who dated there. Despite the fact that I did as much research as possible before arriving, there really wasn’t much out there that I could use to prepare myself. I was naïve. I read blogs because I live an unusual life and I’m trying to learn from my peers and the women who came before me. I also write this blog for the same reason, because somebody might want to know what it’s like to visit Zhāngjiājiè in January or the Seoul Lantern Festival and if I’ve done it, I think it’s almost my responsibility to share whatever advice I have for those coming after me. This is that advice. FOR WOMEN EVERYWHERE: ONWARD!! P.S. I would do it all again. Especially for the food. Korea, I miss you.
For a more positive, though in my opinion less practical article on this subject, go here: Are Korean Men Really Interested in Western Women?
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