‘You are so Korean’ Dating a person, not a culture.
This is a guest article written by Oegukeen of Loving Korean
My boyfriend is the first Korean I have ever met. He’s the first Asian I have ever met. Actually, he’s the first non-European I have ever met. Cultural differences and bewilderment from both sides seemed inevitable.
I was eager to learn about his culture, not only to know what to expect but, more importantly, to leave a good impression when I meet his friends and family. I browsed and read about Korean culture and customs. I was also learning from him, observing everything he did, trying to separate what was his personality and what his culture.
I got more confident as I felt I have mastered the basics. “You are so Korean”, I would say, every time I recognized traces of Korean culture in his behavior. We would both knowingly smile.
And then I met my boyfriend’s best friend.
They had lived not far from each other, they had gone to the same school, they had had the same teachers. They became best friends, like everyone else, because they have a lot in common. Without a doubt they were influenced by the same culture, and I was going to be able to recognize that culture in their behavior, right?
Take, for example, Korean driving. Having heard complaints from expats in Korea about it, I was pleasantly surprised what a gentle driver my boyfriend is. We even joke about it. “I drive like a maniac”, he says. I get surprised: “You’re the slowest and calmest driver I know!” He nods, “Exactly. Only a maniac would drive SO slowly”. On the other hand, I found myself clinging on for dear life with his friend behind the wheel of the car. How are they so different, I wondered?
And rice. They wouldn’t be Koreans if they didn’t eat rice – usually for all three meals of the day. But my boyfriend doesn’t want to eat it when he’s in Europe. He says he could use a break. He hadn’t touched rice or Kimchi for the whole year we lived together, and even got unused to spicy food. His friend, who only spent two weeks away from Korea, would get positively miserable if he went one day without rice. So for two weeks, before we entered any restaurant, it was my duty to first check with the waiter if they serve rice. With two Korean men standing behind me, I wasn’t exactly breaking any stereotypes.
I also knew how important for bonding and friendship Koreans consider drinking together, yet I don’t drink any alcohol at all. Before his friend arrived, I was concerned how he would feel about this. However, only reaction I got was: “Oh, that’s nice. My girlfriend doesn’t drink either”. And that was it.
But the turning point for me was one calm summer evening. The three of us were sharing a hotel room, and at some point I found myself alone in it with his friend. “Don’t move”, he said – the first English words that came out of his mouth that night. He came over slowly. I stood still, wondering. He bent down and… bam!
With victorious shout “I got it!” he ran back out on the balcony where my boyfriend was standing to show him the spoils – a dead bug he has squashed on my bare leg seconds before. I was standing stunned in the bedroom. Not because my leg was stinging from the slap but because such behavior went against everything I had carefully constructed in my head about how Korean men behave around strange women.
It may seem like a trivial event, but that night I gave up on culture. You can’t define people. Whether you eat with chopsticks or fork, bow or shake hands, wish a good day or inquire about previous meal, it has little importance for human relationships.
Our opinions, our personality and our actions are what define us. And that is very faintly influenced by culture. Otherwise we would all be mindless copies and not unique and diverse individuals.
So now, when my boyfriend does something I consider unusual, I don’t say “You’re so Korean” any more. I say “You are so weird”. And what does he say? “You like weird”.
He knows me so well.
Oegukeen is a blogger who writes about her experience dating a Korean man and offers advice to others doing the same. You can check out her blog, Loving Korean, here.
This is part of a series of posts about dating and relationships.
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