I meant to post this on Valentine’s Day itself, but Andrea and I spent time being coupley and adorable as only brain twins can when otherwise alone on the big love holiday.
And because I knew this would be a fairly involved post, I didn’t want to rush it. I’ve been wanting to post about Korea’s couple culture for a while now, and what better time than in the vicinity of V-Day?
Well, honestly, I could have posted it on the 14th of any month and had it still be holiday appropriate. Why? Because Korea has not one, not two, nor even three – but twelve love holidays: one on the 14th of every month. Imagine the dread you feel about Valentine’s day – the pressure, stress, angst, gagging – and multiply that by twelve. So next time you pity yourself mid February, pity first the scores of single Koreans mid every month.
Before I delve into what these love holidays are, I’m going to give some context by also giving y’all a belated (and much abridged) rundown of my settling down experience in Korea. It’s relevant, I promise.
Perhaps one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in South Korea was an overwhelming discomfort with going places alone. Which is odd because I’m not the kind of person to feel awkward about this kind of thing. Even though Andrea and I had applied together, our contracts were separating us and we’d accepted this adventure as one we’d face (mostly) on our own.
On-my-own travel isn’t something I’m new to: I took off for Australia alone, knowing no one on that side of the hemisphere, and once there would often take long walks on the beach by myself to take pictures. The year after, I booked a ticket to go to Vancouver riding solo for two weeks of backpacking style exploration. In fact, being the introvert that I am, I often was alone while in the Montreal vicinity as well, enjoying lengthy reclines in the parks while reading or treating myself to a solitary caffeinated beverage while people-watching (and sketching) in Second Cup. Being alone is my natural habitat, and I love it. So why did I feel so awkward doing any of this in Korea?
Granted, for the first week in Korea, I was paralyzed by crippling loneliness. Rationally speaking, this came from not only losing my brain twin, but after the habit of spending weeks of frantic, jam-packed, last-minute hang-outs with everyone from back home, I really missed the bustle of constant company. It was confusing though, because as the sister-feeling to my love for aloneness, I’ve never been one to be lonely. I’m usually very good at not getting homesick, nor even agonizing about the people back home that I love and miss – not to say that I don’t miss you guys, but being able to not feel lonely is part of what makes me able to travel away from home for long stints.
So what was up with all these feels of isolation?
I broke it down to two things: first, I had no internet, phone, or knowledge of how to find a PC bang (internet game room), which inevitably cut me off from the world. But because anyone who knows me is well acquainted with the fact that I’m bad with keeping in touch with the world in the first place, sometimes not looking at my phone for a full day at a time (not to mention on occasion answering text messages a week late), I knew there was something else contributing as well.
And bingo! As I walked down the streets of shinae (downtown), the second thing was as intuitively obvious as realizing you’ve accidentally dressed too slutty for the evening and everyone’s flicking you the judgement eyes. Not that this is a scenario that often happens to me…
For on my walk, I wove in and out of couples linking arms, groups of guys clustering around benches, school girls forming impenetrable red-rover-esque lines as they ploughed through the crowds with their elbows locked – and I noticed that no one else was alone. Even the ones who were physically alone were on their phones either talking or texting.
Since that first moment , I’ve dubbed this constant companionship phenomenon the “couple culture”, though this doesn’t necessarily refer only to romantic couples. In addition to lovebirds, there are also girlfriends, bro-friends, moms and daughters, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, (I’ve not really seen any fathers and daughters though), generational outings of grandparents with parents with kids, big groups, small groups, mid-size groups…they’re everywhere.
It made me very uncomfortable at first to go walking alone because of all the odd looks you get. At first, I thought it was the paranoid parrot in me, but their eyes really all seemed to say, “Why is she alone?”
Paranoia it may have been, but months later I decided to ask my co-teacher KY once and for all if it’s considered strange to eat alone or get coffee by yourself (two of my favourite pastimes and ones I’ve been too self-conscious to engage in here). She answered in the affirmative.
“If we see someone eating alone, we think they have something wrong,” she put it delicately. “We wonder if they have no friends that want to eat with them.”
This is no surprise, considering Korea is a culture wherein instead of asking, “How are you?” as a greeting, instead asks, “Have you eaten yet?” The rationale behind this is that you never leave anyone to eat on their own, thus it is only polite to indirectly offer your presence to the other person should they be hungry and want a meal. That’s not to say that Koreans will take you up on the offer, as they will usually answer, “Yes” or “I’m about to with some friends” as their version of Westerners saying, “I’m fine”.
What I find interesting about the two versions of greetings however comes in how it relates to couple culture: the automatism of Westerners using a question directed towards the state of the individual vs. Korean automatism about companionship says it all. Where we value each person as a unique snowflake, Korea directs focus to community.
And yet somewhere in the course of time – I’d gauge in the last few decades, since it’s only been about half a century since the post-Korean War rebuild – that focus on community has diverged into a hybrid of traditional Korean values and Western individualism. I’m no sociology major, nor do I have any facts to support this theory except my own observations, but I hypothesize a correlation between Korea’s emphatic couple-dom with the lingering American influence.
When we first applied to South Korea, Andrea had said that it was an easier transition because it’s comparatively Westernized. Yes and no, as we’ve now seen first hand. But one of the “yes” areas is certainly the romance of…well, romance. If I were to personify Korea, I’d say she’s a thirteen year old girl. I mean this in the least offensive way: she’s sweet, fresh, innocent, and very honest in her attempts to find her stride in a broadening future.
However there are also the unmistakable signs of immaturity. Appearance is paramount here, evident from the plethora of makeup shops, plastic surgery clinics, and insecurities about weight and beauty.
Other things are more insignificant in their tween-y ways. Kakaotalk, the nationwide chat app (if any of you want to add me, it’s free and you can text and call international for free!) has grown adults using emoticons like these:
And then there’s the approach to romance. The communal mentality in everyone adopting the same ideals, such as the same bucket list (mentioned in my post on the Korean education system), also translates to the checklist of how to go about romancing the opposite sex. (I say opposite sex here as standard because homosexuality isn’t publicized or even acknowledged from what I can tell).
Yes, the West also falls prey to expectations of idealized romance, as many many rom-coms, Disney films, and fairy tales have hammered into our skulls (or hearts?). Considering that, though, in recent years we seem to be increasingly veering toward the hipster, idiosyncratic coupley meaningfulness. Evident if you’ve seen any of these movies:
On the whole, and from what I’ve seen (and heard in conversation about dating), Korean culture embraces the cheesy formulaic of your average rom-com for their real life expeditions into love. Couples follow cookie-cutter traditions much the same as dating was portrayed in the 50’s: a date consists of a), b), c); a relationship easily fits into definitive boxes; labels can be ascribed without worry of controversy or confusion. The perfect age to get married is 27 (26 international age), and having kids is of course a given.
Before tying the knot, though, couples…dare I say “enact”?…the roles of boyfriend/girlfriend. They go to coffee shops, the movies, shopping, restaurants, walk through the city – all the while taking selfies, posing for the camera. As an English major graduate, I can’t help but analyze symbolism in real life, but I’m sure there’s also psychology to back up the fact that taking pictures of yourself so often is posing for more than just the photograph: it seems rather an extension of posing for a social triumph. Having a boyfriend/girlfriend is one of the things on the communal bucket list, and like visiting the Eiffel Tower, there’s no way you’re not taking a picture of yourself with it. Proof. A quintessential element of human nature. Is there emotion in the moment captured? Of course. But there also exists the underlying motivation to brag about it afterwards.
I certainly am not saying all Koreans are braggy, because the vast majority that I’ve met are lovely people, but within the communal nature of Korean culture there seems to be a lot of anxiety when it comes to love. Then again, I suppose Westerners experience much the same thing.
“Am I doing it right?”
“Is this what it feels like?”
“What are they doing over there? Should I be doing that?”
I think Koreans and waygooks alike can relate to these sentiments. The difference comes in the expression of these sentiments, in the expression of, “We’re a couple!” With Westerners, some are extremely PDA and will make out in public, while with others it’s not always clear they’re together.
Koreans make it obvious. PDA isn’t a big thing here, aside from holding hands or linking arms (kissing in public is a big faux pas!), but you don’t need that to tell:
As you can see, it’s not just the young ones who take part in this trend – if anything, it’s aimed at the long-term partners. There are also those who make it less BAM IN YOUR FACE – for instance, Andrea knows a couple who subtly wears the same style of hat, though in different colours and designs.
And to be fair, there are also those Koreans who don’t partake in that kind of relationship at all, feeling it’s just too over-the-top. Without doubt though, this is one of the weirdest things about Korea to me. As a person who values her freedom, independence and identity, the idea of ever taking part in this tradition myself horrifies me almost as much as the idea of pregnancy. Melding into a single unit, ditching individuality to become the other person and vice versa; who do you become?!??
Sorry, thinking about it too much traps my brain in a panic room. For the participating Korean couples however, it’s not really seen as something offputtingly cute – it’s shouting from the mountain that you love the other person and that you’re together. “I want all the world to see we’ve met”, goes the Beatles song. Too true.
What’s more bizarre than this, however, is that not only is couple-dom an individual choice of expression, but the whole of society is literally constructed around being a couple.
It’s happened when I’ve gone out for lunch with a guy friend before that waiters will bring us “service” (on-the-house) drinks in cups constructed extra large complete with two bendy straws under the assumption that we’re a couple.
And it’s not just cup sizes that are made extra large to accommodate two servings, but all the food portions are made for two or more. Sure this isn’t something strange, given my aforementioned communal-eating traditions – but the little quirk on this one is that matching couples are celebrated at some food establishments and events by getting a discount. Where this is, I don’t know exactly, but it’s been confirmed by my co-teacher.
That’s just the beginning though, because it’s not just seats, cups, and meals that show this nation’s dedication to coupling off: it’s kept track of by the national social calendar.
Which brings me to the twelve love holidays Korea celebrates. I don’t know how official these are – and likely are constructed commercially like Peppero Day (see Andrea’s post on this), but then again, isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is too?
Anyway let’s take a look at this majestic list:
- January 14th: Diary Day/Candle Day – This first holiday ties in with New Year’s, both the Gregorian Calendar and the Korean new year. It involves giving decorative candles to your SO and/or diaries wherein you write down important dates for the both of you (100 day anniversary, 200 day anniversary, 300 day anniversary, etc), events that you should remember/attend together, and memorial days on milestones in your relationship (“This is when we first got coffee together! This is the first time we went to the beach together! This is when we first thought about thinking about the things we did together!”)
- February 14th: Valentine’s Day – You know the drill on this one, except it’s celebrated with the special twist of women give men candy, chocolate, presents and everything else that men are traditionally supposed to do back home.
- March 14th: White Day – How well the women treat their man on Valentine’s Day determines how nice this holiday is for them since it’s the men’s turn to show their ladies a little lovin’. Usually gifts given are thematically white, as the name of the day suggests.
- April 14th: Black Day – Otherwise known as Racist Day. Lol jks – this one’s the only holiday for single people – aka the ones who didn’t get anything given to them for either Valentine’s Day or White Day. Named so for the tradition to eat black noodles, it’s essentially a big pity party for everybody single, thrown by a nation that likely has no idea that the compassion of having a “single person day” only draws further attention to the fact of being single. Then again, maybe that’s the point…it has been called a day of mourning for those embarrassingly without partner.
- May 14th: Yellow Day/Rose Day – Thematically yellow, couples match themselves in sunny threads and trade roses of the same colour. It also is a bit of a half-day for the lonelies: forever alone continues for the poor unfortunate souls sitting out judgment in purgatory and can feast on yellow curry noodles. The logic behind this is that it’ll spice up their love lives.
- June 14th: Kiss Day – Need I say more? (Well I will because I’m wordy). Convenient holiday to start up a relationship by confessing a crush. Also any business that can cash in on mouth-related merchandise will feel that sweet, sweet ka-ching: mints, lipstick, lip balm – anything and everything for them crusty crusts you got (in the mouth region at least).
- July 14th: Silver Day – Promise rings is what they mean by “silver”. Both members get one, and have the “future” talk, meet parents (eee), and generally begin to get down to business.
- August 14th: Green Day – *must not make a Green Day reference, must not make a Green Day refer- damnit* This is probably my favourite holiday. It’s a day to celebrate by drinking soju – because of its green bottle – and then strolling romantically through the woods. Aka, getting shitfaced and then stumbling through the trees to – ahem – enjoy “nature”. (Actually I’m making this more suggestive than it is, Koreans are super conservative and I wouldn’t be surprised if they got shitfaced in the woods only to hold hands and contemplate God).
- September 14th: Photo Day/Music Day – Aka Selfie Day. You’d think taking selfies wasn’t a daily occurrence that they’d need to have a holiday for it, but nope! Photobooths everywhere overflow with inky printouts on this day, such as the one below. That and noraebangs are all booked up for karaokeing your heart out.
- October 14th: Wine Day – My second favourite holiday. Love, dinner, and wine. Another opportunity for the singles, because though they sadly missed out on the soju-nature treks, they can still get shitfaced on their own!
- November 14th: Movie Day – Surprisingly, this is the holiday I can get suggestive about. Couples can either go to the movie theatre or give each other DVD’s and go to a DVD bang (movie room) that they rent out for a few hours. But any Korean knows what happens when you go to a DVD bang, which is why most won’t go unless it’s for that reason. Yes, friends, DVD bangs live up to their name and are the cheap version of the love motel. That stain you thought was a spillage from a prior visitor’s white choco latte with extra foam? Hah…err…sorry to make you wash your hands compulsively for the rest of your life.
- December 14th: Hug Day/Money Day – Give hugs and/or money, or no dice.
Phew! Made it to the end of those! I still don’t know how I feel about having so many love holidays – or being in a country that celebrates couples so vehemently and scorns the singles with such shame. Eh…I guess it’s just something to deal with.
I suppose the oddest thing I find about it is that weddings themselves are done with such a throwaway casual, “Oh yeah we’re married”, that it makes me wonder what all the lead-up was to. If you remember from my post about Korean weddings, the wedding is done streamline style, three or more parties in the same location, guests mingling from multiple celebrations, while the wedding hall itself is sandwiched between “Fashion Goods” and “Food Zone”.
Not only that, but in the last few months since then, I’ve been asked to another wedding – wherein invitations went out two weeks before the marriage. Andrea also mentioned that her co-teacher is getting hitched, and when she asked when they got engaged, her other coworkers said something to the effect of, “Well, they’d just been together long enough and it was kind of an unspoken agreement”. My own co-teacher wants to get married this year, since she’s at the ideal age of 27 to find a husband, and though she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she’s fine with getting married in six months. And I mean the all-inclusive finding a guy, dating a guy, getting to know a guy, and then boom putting a ring on it.
Which I find odd…excuse me while I don the Elsa costume Andrea’s making for me to say:
And yet the culture of Korea is one that, until recently, had arranged marriages. And for a people who are only finding their legs in the freedom of choosing a partner (though this is still debatable since the influence of parents runs strong), it makes sense then that they follow the example of a country who excels in the freedom of love: the United States of America. Since the most common love portrayal exported from America is the good old rom com, it would make sense as to why Koreans try and emulate this fairly inaccurate and shallow portrayal of love.
Whether or not that makes their feelings more or less genuine, who’s to tell? Only the people in a relationship are the ones qualified to make that judgment call, and at the end of the day I think I’d rather just steer clear of Korean’s couple culture entirely. (Except of course if I’m celebrating with my brain twin, cuz les-be-honest…).
So I’ll wrap up this fairly lengthy and essay-like post, and just say that Koreans don’t fuck around with being a couple (except perhaps in the literal sense eventually). It’s something that’s simultaneously cute, confusing, and cringeworthy, and most of the time I prefer to put it in a box and not think about it.
Now that I’ve done my duty to tell you all about it, at least somewhere in the thematic stretch of Valentine’s Day, what do you think?