Friday, January 9, 2015

Korea's Couple Culture

One of the strangest and most intriguing things I've witnessed in my time here in Korea is the culture of coupledom. Maybe it was selective perception, but the first thing I noticed when I walked the streets in Seoul was the ridiculous number of couples holding hands. There was rarely any kissing—just hand-holding, or shoulder-holding, or even a few people neck-holding (what?). I don't know if there are more single people in the United States, or if most American couples just aren't as comfortable showing PDA, but seeing so many couples being so coupley really took me aback. It’s like 90% of Korean couples are forever stuck in the honeymoon phase.

Okay, so couples here like to be cutesy and hold hands. But you can also see two Korean females holding hands, and I've even seen a few teenage boys holding hands with their mother or father. (I would never, ever see that in the States.) Therefore, widespread hand-holding would be acceptable IF Korean couples didn't also wear matching outfits. Yes, that means matching shirts, jackets, pants, shoes, sweaters. I've even seen matching dyed hair. Lingerie stores also offer matching underwear and bras. Because there's no better way to publicly declare your love than wearing the same striped underwear. 

And then come the selfie sticks (셀카봉): the most ridiculous, tacky, and ingenious invention Asia has to offer. Usually about a foot long before they're extended, these sticks attach at one end to your smartphone and can stretch to about 3 feet in length. They range in price from $5 to $20, with the fancier ones coming with a bluetooth remote that lets you snap pictures from afar without setting a self-timer. I think selfie sticks are a relatively new creation (one site says they were invented in Japan by 2000), but they’ve become so prevalent here that they’re impossible not to notice. And what’s scary is that now I’m seeing them pop up in other countries, too.

I will admit that, armed with a handy selfie stick, one's selfies include a much wider panorama of the background, which is great for touristy or scenic areas. However, the way that many Koreans, especially Korean couples—and not just young ones, either—carry these things around like third arms is a bit much. I have never seen a people so in love with close-ups of themselves.

[We foreigners like to joke about these selfie sticks, but I suspect secretly we’re all resisting the urge to buy one, too.]

Lover's Lane
Another thing I've noticed is how so many
things here seems to be oriented towards couples. There are heart-
shaped structures everywhere that are perfect for posing in front of with one’s partner, archways decorated with hearts that are ideal for kissing under, places that seem exclusively meant for couples… Even Daegu's kid-oriented amusement park E-World has several love-themed structures right in the center for couple picture-posing. You know, just in case you need to reaffirm for the 1000th time how much you love your partner. 

The place where all of these special characteristics of Korean coupledom
came together was the Jinju Lantern Festival, mentioned in my last post. I
have never seen so many matching couples or selfie sticks in one place…
so tell me, how could I NOT document
it in pictures?  

More picture spots at the E-World amusement park in Daegu: 

I also found this curious "Love Wall" at the top of a spiraling outdoor mall in Insadong, Seoul. It's hard to see in the pictures, but it's a little corridor filled with thousands of 3D tags with love notes written on the backs. Sadly, some of the tags had been cut in half. I guess not all love stories have happy endings…

On a different note, another large but less obvious difference between Korea and most Western nations is that many Koreans live with their parents until they're married—which means even my 30-year-old Korean coworkers live at home. For a westerner, spending so much of one's life at home would be unpleasant, to say the least, for both the child and the parents. But over here it seems to be the norm, especially when rent is so expensive compared to one’s salary. Unfortunately, this creates a problem: Where can people go to get intimate with their partner? Surely they can't get wild at their parents' house—that would just be awkward and uncomfortable. So where do they go? Here are two popular options:

1) A love motel! These incredibly gaudy, conspicuous buildings are everywhere. They tend to cluster together and can be seen from miles away with their bright, flashing, multicolored lights. These are the perfect place to go do one's business for as little as an hour at a time. I’ve read that they even have secret entrances so couples can remain as discrete as possible. According to teachers who’ve been temporarily placed in one of these motels while waiting for their new apartment, there’s even mood lighting and themed rooms. Still, these motels aren’t exclusively for lovers; they’re often used for cheap ($40+ a night), reliable accommodation as well.

But they're so pretty to look at!

There's actually a really good
selection of both old movies and
new releases.
I was finally convinced to
try one out and yep, there
was definitely a bed.
2) A DVD bang! (Where "bang" means room.) Like one's own private theater, these places have hundreds of movies to choose from, and they offer the comfort of a large, personal TV screen/projector for slightly cheaper than a normal cinema. While these can be used for casual movie watching, they are generally known as a place to hook up. The fact that many of these private rooms have beds instead of couches doesn't help with this stereotype.

And because Valentine's Day is only a month away, here's a little info on how this day is celebrated in Korea:

There are actually three Valentine’s Days: the normal Valentine’s Day (February 14), White Day (March 14), and Black Day (April 14). On the main Valentine’s Day, women give chocolate to their male partners. On White Day, the men reciprocate this gift with something else sweet, but usually bigger and better. And then there's Black Day, when, at least theoretically, single people get together to eat black bean noodles (jjajyangmyeon) to commemorate their singleness. According to this site, the 14th of every month is a different couple’s day, but I don’t know how closely all of these are observed.

And finally, as for marriage, weddings are usually a combination of a Western-style ceremony first (big white dress, etc.), and then a more traditional Korean celebration, where the bride and groom wear the elaborate, colorful hanbok (traditional Korean dress). The Western part of the ceremony often takes place in special wedding centers, where weddings are allotted only two-hour slots. Furthermore, I learned recently that newlywed Korean couples have up to two years before they have to declare their marriage to the government. Many Koreans tend to get married very quickly once they meet someone, but there is also a high divorce rate—so it’s better not to make it government-official just yet. That's actually not a bad idea…

Traditional Korean hanboks, worn
only on special occasions

Let me know what you think in the comments section!


Fatina said...

So informative, I cannot believe you actually took all those pictures. They are beautiful. Surprised me that diverse is common.

Fatina said...

I meant divorce

Lisa said...

Hania! My phone died so I don't have your number for Katalk anymore! I hope you are doing well! Haha wow I didn't realize selfie sticks were so popular there. I knew they existed but I guess it has become a thing now. I love reading your observations of Korean culture... We shall have many interesting conversations when you get back. Hope the climate isn't too much for you and you are keeping warm! :)