The idealisation of Korean men

Since I started my degree in Korean Studies and moved to Korea, I have noticed that foreign women are idealising Korean men. From students of Korean to English teachers and people just casually interested in Korean popular culture, they have all created this perception of Korean men being the perfect man, boyfriend and husband.

K-pop idols either belong to the cutesy “I want to be your super cute boyfriend and buy you puppies and cupcakes” group,  the “I am so amazingly funny and lovely that you can look past my slightly less than stellar looks” group or the “I want to protect you against all other men with my chocolate abs, bulging biceps and mean, manly stare” group. Now I will admit that I haven’t watched more than a few episodes of a Korean drama but I have noticed a few staple stereotypes: handsome but petulant son of a chaebol family; beautiful but sensitive and shy son of a chaebol family; and the good-looking normal guy who lacks in confidence but is still going to fight for the love of the pretty female lead.  I believe that it is because of these media representations that Korean men have started to be the must-have “thing” for foreign females in Korea.

Now, I sound very cynical but I am generalising based on people who I have met, read or heard about in Korea and also things that I have seen on the internet. I know foreign girls, indeed they are friends of mine, who feel at home in Korea; they want to live here for the rest of their lives so of course they would want to be with a Korean man. They want to be with someone of the culture and lifestyle in which they are comfortable and identify with. This is just natural; they have not been influenced by the media representations of men, they are purely acting upon a natural instinct.

I have also met and heard of girls who just want a “hot Korean boyfriend” just like An example of this is a Facebook status on a university page which went along the lines of “How can I get an asian boyfriend? They’re really hot”. To say that I wasn’t impressed by this and the answers to the question is an understatement. I will admit that I too have thought this and as a student of Korean I often get told “if you want to improve your Korean then you need to have a Korean boyfriend”. Before I had lived in Korea for a few months, I was guilty of wanting to date a Korean just to improve my Korean and, in a way, fit in with the foreign female stereotype here. However, I soon realised that my way of thinking was appalling; no one should date a person just to improve their language ability of to fit in with societal expectations.

What I really want to say with this piece is that Korean men are just like men of any other race or nationality. They come in many shapes, sizes and personalities: cute and shy; handsome and athletic; hot and arrogant; hot and humble; pretentious but intriguingly interesting hipster; less than average looking with an amazing personality; rocker, fiercely intelligent; fat, skinny, average, ripped… I could go on. The media representation of these perfect men is to get Korean and foreign girls alike to daydream about their ‘perfect prince'; but ultimately it is to market these men in a way which will make them the most money. So next time you think “oh I want a Korean boyfriend…” please think again about your reasons. If it’s because you know a Korean guy who has an incredible personality or you genuinely feel at home and comfortable with Korean culture then fantastic. However, if it’s because you want to improve your Korean, think that your romance will be like that out of a drama or you just simply “want a hot Korean boyfriend” then rethink your ideas. These men are ordinary humans after all.

This is part of a series of posts about dating and relationships.

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  • Life’s Adventure2 신디

    Interesting post. It sounds like things have changed from when I lived in Korea (2005-2008) which isn’t surprising with the growing popularity of Hallyu. Few of my foreign female friends were interested in Korean guys because of Hallyu then. I wonder if this is more true among the younger girls (as social media might suggest) but it’s a great topic for sparking discussion.

    • Oegukeen – Boyfriend in Korea

      I have also not noticed this Korean guy obsession. Maybe “online”, but “offline”, women are less then insterested in Asian men. Sad.

  • Nic

    I’ve noticed this happening more. This idea that a Korean guy will be some amazing hot but sweet guy. Yes, my Korean husband is wonderful, but wonderful to me because of his personality, not just because he is Korean. Before I met him I did date some other Korean guys, most of my friends at that time were Korean so it was natural that I met guys through them. But those relationships failed miserably because of course it comes down to personality and if you are a good match. Them being Korean did not make them good boyfriends for me. At that point I wasn’t even aware of this idealization of Korean guys yet. By the time I met my husband I still hadn’t watched a Korean drama and the only Kpop I knew was Big Bang.

    I do think a lot of teenage girls who say these type of things will grow out of it and have a better grasp on reality eventually. But I have met some women in their 20’s obsessed with every Korean guy they meet, which is a bit more worrying.

    Also, while you may pick up a bit of Korean from a Korean boyfriend, forcing them to teach you Korean usually doesn’t end well…

  • Oegukeen – Boyfriend in Korea

    just curious, why do you think it is appalling to date a person in order to
    improve a language ability? Who exactly gets hurt in that situation? Is that
    because you think we need to judge relationships that don’t have a
    potential to end in marriage and offspring?

    • fayona

      I just think you should date someone for who they are, not what you can gain from them. If you just want to learn a language from someone, then I believe the best way is through friendship or language partners. If it develops into something else then that’s great.
      And no, I don’t believe that at all. Each relationship is individual and I don’t judge anyone based on their choices. I was just saying what I genuinely believe.

  • uhnny

    Made me think and re-check. :) Thanks.

    • fayona

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear that :) As I said, I too thought that way but in the end, we’re all humans and should want to date someone for who they are, not their nationality or mother tongue so we can learn it through them. Then again, that is just my opinion and I know some people who disagree with me!

  • Argentia Krystofel

    Where I live, if I dare tell a girl I think an Asian man is attractive she gives me a stare that could possibly indicate that I’ve just transformed into an alien being from a planet on the furthest fringes of our galaxy. It makes me angry. They’re just as beautiful as everyone else and deserve to be thought of with the same respect, awe, and consideration as men from other parts of the world are thought of by women. That said, some people have different opinions of what is ‘beautiful’ in a man’s looks and personality, so we can’t expect everyone to be like me-and I really wish they’d stop expecting me to be like them, too.

    But I would never date a guy JUST because he’s Korean. I’m 17-by far the strangest teenager I have ever met-and I’m not crazy over a guy for just being Korean. For being beautiful, both inside and out, maybe I would consider someone as dating material. The reason I began listening to K-music and then K-dramas and finally learning Korean language and culture is indeed because I saw a cute face and wondered where he came from, but that doesn’t mean the cute faces are the only reason I like Korea. I also don’t find every Korean singer, actor, or average guy I see ‘hot’ and I find some of them who ARE cute have personalities that irk me just the way some other men do. It’s all a matter of perspective. Oh, and not letting your hormones control your brain, hahahaha. XD

  • Andreia Batista

    I loved your article! I´ve been a “fan” of Kpop for a while now and I´ve noticed some of the subjects that you pointed out and I have always questioned their means! Thank you!

  • Cassie

    I always get irked by drama fan girls who say that they want a Korean man simply based off of the guys they see in television shows. Korean men are so diverse, and I can tell you, the men you see in dramas are virtually non-existent in real life. Just like American men are rarely anything like the men in American movies.

    I think some women’s idealistic views of certain men are what lead to unhappy relationships…Men are men, no matter where they’re from! Let’s not forget that, ladies!

  • Baakus

    This just goes to show the power of the media. Depending how they’re being portrayed, Asian men can go from being sexual zeroes (as represented by, say, Ken Jeong in the U.S.) to being fetishized objects of impossible fantasies (as represented by, say, T.O.P. from Big Bang).

    It’s also funny how these women who fantasize about Korean men are so particular in their desired ethnicity. It HAS to be a Korean guy, right? He can’t be Chinese or Japanese, even though there aren’t significant physical differences between various East Asian groups.

    Again, the power of the media. No wonder the white men who run Hollywood are so reluctant to cede screen time to women and minorities.

  • Jessica

    I’m finding myself with the opposite stigma being attached to me. I’ve been doing a lot of research into Korea since I hope to teach there in the spring. I don’t think it was crazy of me to start looking into dating culture, but a lot of my friends assume that I’ve been watching too many K-Pop videos and dramas and have some kind of “yellow fever” going on, but I only did it because I’m single and, if everything works out with the English teacher thing, will find myself surrounded by Koreans. Race and “foreignness” are genuinely the furthest thing from my mind in a potential partner and it’s incredibly frustrating that friends would think that way about me. Maybe it’s the lack of a large Asian population in my area?

    I’m not totally sure where I’m going with this post, but I had to get it off my chest. I agree that there’s a lot of idealization of Korean men going around (I’ve seen it in A LOT of places while just trying to research potential culture differences), but I also think that there might be a lot of people like me that end up being pushed into the category just because they’re open to the idea of dating a Korean man.

  • Hana

    I agree with you on most points, but need to disagree on the “dating to learn the language” one. I believe it is just another forum to meet new people, regardless of how the relationship progresses or ends. My Korean tutor actually advised me to begin a language exchange with one of her cute guy friends as a means to motivate me to do more/better (she thought I’d want to impress the man). She was right! However, I never envisaged a relationship with that person, and the transition came late, much later. Now, engaged, we’ve never looked back.

    On another point, I am entirely with you regarding the idealization of Korean (or any other) men based on what the media portrays. Like Nic said earlier, it all comes down to personality and compatibility. You might want to force a relationship, but it will ultimately backfire if there is no real substance to work with. You’re basically lying to yourself by putting up with a relationship with a man who “fits your ideal” in some way (say, physical appearance and masculinity), but miserably fails to do so in another way (say, ability to communicate and caring personality).

    In any case, lovely post. Keep it up.

  • En En

    After traveling around Asia (since I have lived in Asia Pacific for all my life), I’m have come to realise that Korean guys are generally tall, including middle age ajusshis. I dunno, is it because of better diet/air/water? Next is Taiwanese guys, I guess most of them workout to look good? Japanese guys are generally scrawny 😛

    Sorry for the above generalization, I’m only based on my observation during day to day commuting/getting around various Asian countries as tourist/short-term working pass at different points of my life.

  • Ben88

    In the USA, considering that 5% of Korean men marry out, but 25% of Korean women do. Some good exposure of Korean men is necessary.

    They actually show more black male/Asian female couples in the media than Asian couples. LOL. That’s how messed up it is in the West.

    Asian women are the only demographic that is less willing to date their own gender, while it’s 90% for the rest.

    STD rates between male and female is similar for all groups, except Asians, where Asian women have 400% more STDs.

    So yeah, Asian men need good media exposure. It’s not an idealisation of Korean men, it’s just considering them as a possibility.

  • anoo

    i hoped this article would talk more about western influence in the beauty pattern, cosmetic surgery, loss of weight etc… in korean men! That also influences the way they want to portray themselves and the way they are seen…

  • Rumore

    Great article. It’s never attractive when your partner is only with you for a silly reason like that.

  • Kochigachi

    Korean men have too much pressure from Korean society and their family to carry responsibility of continuing family bloodline and legacy, this is why Korean men tend to marrying Korean women not because they wanted to but because they’re pushed to take this responsibility. Also, Korean men have been fighting for their family and nation for centuries from vicious foreign invasions. Just give some break to Korean men, their nation and families are abusing them too much.