Min Gi and I will celebrate our anniversary on Sunday--our first date was one whole year ago!
A little bit ago, The Metropolitician posted an interesting and insightful blog about some of the more obscure cultural issues he's faced when dating Korean women. Although my personal experiences with relationships with Korean men is limited to Min Gi, I have numerous close female friends in relationships with (or formerly in relationships with) Korean men while living in Korea or other places in the world. Also, prior to dating my lovely boyfriend, I did go on dates with several different men in Korea, from which I learned a lot.
One caveat: Before I offer you my observations, please note that I am from the U.S. and most of the foreign woman/Korean man relationships I've had personal contact with involve women from western countries--usually white or ethnic Korean. And all of them are love-based relationships. Most international couples/marriages with Korean men involve women from China and southeast Asian countries and suffer a number of other problems regarding racism, unequal financial status of the countries, and an association with prostitution/mail-order brides, even when the relationship began as a romantic courtship. This makes me sad, and most of my advice will not be terribly helpful for women in that situation.
Ten things I've learned about dating Korean men. They are generalizations, and definitely don't apply to every single case, but this is my insight from personal experience and girl blab sessions, a la Sex and the City:
1. Men older than 30 are dating for marriage. This is not always true in Western countries, where the social pressure to be married before 35 is relaxed. Even men in their late twenties seem more serious about relationships than U.S. men of a comparable age. I had many men ask me, within about five minutes of meeting and flirting with me, my opinion of international marriage and/or how long I planned to stay in Korea. After Korean men hit 30, they will usually not get involved with someone who they don't see as a potential marriage partner, so they put a lot of weight on your answers to these questions. I found them uncomfortable and inappropriate coming from someone I just met, but over time I came to understand why they were being asked.
2. Most Korean men cannot or will not marry a foreign woman. This is especially true with first or only sons and men in their late twenties who have a good job and are from wealthier families (as they are considered top-pickin's by Korean standards, and their mothers will be a lot less open-minded because no one is ever good enough for their little prince, especially not some dirty foreign, girl who doesn't even know how to make 된장찌개!). There are some very unfortunate, general prejudices Koreans have about the purity of the Han race. These show up strongest when a young man foolishly falls in love with a non-Korean girl, as in the fifties it was fairly common for white folks to have a "I don't mind those black people, so long as my son/daughter doesn't bring one home" attitude. It's not right, and it's not acceptable. But ladies, do you really want to marry someone who's going to think those things about you?
Interesting note: If you combine #1 and #2 it leads to a corollary note that many Korean men, even if they are interested or smitten, will not ask you out or date you. Don't take this personally. The less-good ones might sleep with you a few times, but they will not make you their girlfriend.
3. If it gets serious, you must make nice with the family. Korean parents hold a much stronger sway over their childrens' futures than is typical in Western cultures. It is likely your man is already defying his family just by taking his relationship with you seriously enough to introduce you to them. Learn as much as you can about proper Korean etiquette and definitely learn some of the language if you have not done so before if you don't want to end up dumped by parental disapproval. The part of this that I'm still having trouble accepting is that this hold doesn't exactly end after marriage; Korean men are expected to help support their parents financially and emotionally once they are "settled," i.e. married and have a job. Effectively, if I marry Min Gi, I will already have a dependent: his mother.
4. Korean dating "rules" are different than your home country. Things that were especially difficult for me to understand and caused some problems early on: On most first dates, you bring along a girlfriend or else you seem easy. Asking a guy out (even as friends) is coming on very strong. An unmarried man still living with his mom in his 30s is not a "loser," he's normal. Most Korean men who haven't yet gone through military training are immature mama's boys. However in international relationships, you have to make up new rules or it just won't work.
5. Koreans are quick to forgive foreigners' cultural mistakes. Hence, you will not be expected to always act like a Korean girl or daughter-in-law. This is nice because trying to fill these roles could be a very huge burden for the women's liberation-minded Westerners. However, if you look Korean (i.e. are ethnically Korean or an adoptee) or can speak Korean well (especially if your relationship is conducted in Korean) this exemption does not always apply. It's funny because, your status as 외국인 can keep you at arm's length from the man you're dating or his family, and that's not a great thing, but being accepted into Korean society comes with big responsibilities.
6. You can't use the same markers of relationship progress you would in your home country. For example, he might not tell his family and friends about you for six months or even years, but it doesn't mean the same thing it would in your home country. Koreans just aren't open about any romantic relationships, even with family and close friends. For example, two members of my swing club seemed to be like a couple on our last MT, so I asked them if they were dating and how long. They'd been dating 10 months and were only just last month telling us about it. My co-teacher last year dated her husband for nearly 10 years before marrying him. Her parents didn't know about her relationship until about a year before they wed. "Secret relationships" are the norm here for about three-four months for friends, a year or more for family. Min Gi, while not hiding anything, refused to answer our friends' questions about whether or not we were dating for about three months. And my own questions for that matter, which was much more frustrating, at the time.
7. Be smart and do look for some evidence that he's serious about you. Honestly, some men are only looking for one thing, and Korean men are no different. Since you can't use your normal clues about his level of commitment, you must find new ones. Is he respectful? Does he go out in public with you? Does he listen to what you say and remember it later? Here's a tip: Look at how he treats you (ok, this is going to sound weird) when he's drunk. Korea is a country big on alcohol, and they have a saying about how people under the influence can't lie (they can, but in Korea they usually don't). Korean men in love get really sappy and lovey when intoxicated. This can be mildly annoying, but it's also a clue.
One helpful note: Don't automatically forgive all of the things he does that bother you because of "cultural differences." Just because it is "normal" in Korea for men to go out drinking every night and possibly visit dens of iniquity with their bosses doesn't mean you have to accept your man doing this. Be clear about your expectations for him and for yourself. He should do the same with you.
8. If he's in a serious relationship with a foreign woman, he's probably an atypical Korean. Being atypical in Korea is a lot more serious than it is in Western countries, as conformity is the golden rule. Make of this what you will. I love Min Gi's eccentricities (Min Gi Style!) and his different ways of thinking, but they are generally considered unattractive by Korean women. As is his age (Korean age 36), his current job situation, and the fact that his younger brother is already married. Personally, I think stuff like that is a silly basis on which to judge a potential romantic partner... but I'm not Korean.
9. Koreans are not used to talking about relationship/sexual history. You will not be sharing lists. As secretive as Korean men can be about current relationships, they are doubly or triply so about past ones. I believe that this is, in part, to protect the reputation of past girlfriends (as Koreans have very strict notions regarding the sexual purity of marriage-worthy women). Confronted with the Western openness, he might be uncertain how to proceed and end up lying to you because he thinks that's what you want to hear. Even if your guy is open about his past, there are some cultural differences about the acceptability of prostitution in Korea compared to the U.S. You might not want or need to know everything that happened during military service.
As a modern gal, you are probably very aware of how to protect your sexual health, but this could cause some initial problems. Unless your fellow has been with Western girls before, it's unlikely that he'll understand why you might demand that he wear a condom, ask him if he's been tested for STIs, or how the birth control pill works. Korean men and women, even when intimate, do not discuss these things with each other. It is important that you get comfortable with having to clear up the confusion.
10. Ok, this one might be controversial, but... Korean men are very attentive, thoughtful lovers, whatever your relationship status happens to be. Without getting into details, I have accounts (some my own) from women who were wives, girlfriends, "fuck buddies," one-night stands, and mistresses with Korean men. All have reported that the men are generally skilled lovers who also enjoy post-coitus snuggling that we women so adore. Some exceptions exist, obviously, but I have yet to hear about it. That said, please ladies do not assume that because he treats you like a queen the morning (or week) after that he is serious about you. He is simply grateful to have shared your bed and is man enough to express it. Refer to #7 for assistance with checking on your status with him.
Of course there are lots more things, but that's a pretty comprehensive list of the wisdom I've accumulated over the last year and half-plus I've been living in Korea. I will leave you with one final note:
* Most Korean men believe Western women are not attracted to them, so sometimes they won't make a move. So many guys I was interested in a little when I was single suddenly began flirting with me when I was officially "out" as a couple with Min Gi. Ridiculous, but true.