Dating South Korean Men Showed Me I Have to Be Free. from Myself

Some guys I knew loved hanging out with girls whom they called cool and funny – for example, girls who could drink two bottles of soju straight

I see myself as a lively, bright and sociable girl. I love to interact with new people and have no problem making new friends. I’m not exactly quiet, and I’m definitely not the ‘submissive girl’ that many people see South Korean girls as.

There’s nothing wrong with who I am. But somehow, my personality became a problem when I started dating men in South Korea at the age of 20.

A bunch of my girlfriends had similar worries when dating South Korean men

But sooner or later, they started to complain about things that energize my life, what I think are important, like interacting with people and having fun at interesting social gatherings. Here are some things I heard from my ex’s:

I was confused. I thought, is my outgoing personality – which was attractive to them in the beginning – an obstacle to developing a stable relationship?

I soon found out that I was not alone. The biggest source of complaint was the irony of men applying different standards on their female friends and “my girlfriend.”

But the same guys would get angry when their own girlfriends tried to drink more than one can of beer. They wanted to date a girl who was smart and independent enough to handle her own life, but also dependent enough to respect their choices, rely on them to make decisions, and get advice from them when faced with difficulties.

You can see this contradictory expectation in female heroines of many K-dramas. The beautiful female protagonist is independent and savvy at her office, but in front of a guy she likes, she’s one step behind, submissive and gentle. She should be resilient but needs to be rescued when hardship arises.

Isn’t there a contradiction here? I could concede that independent and dependent tendencies might coexist in a person, certainly, but often they don’t go together. I thought it more a fantasy of men who craved unequal power relations with their girlfriends than a reality.

It’s an old battle: fighting against the chasm, between the expectations of South Korean men (and even women who embrace these expectations) and the real, live selves of South Korean women.

As a young woman, I kept wondering about how I should act, and how much of myself I should show men. It’s strange: In struggling, I sometimes found myself trying to do naesung and aegyo.

Aegyo and naesung are two modes of behavior young women are expected to engage in when dealing with men. Aegyo is more explicit; it’s acting in a cute, flirty way, usually with funny faces, shrugging one’s shoulders and shaking one’s head in a child-like way, or often answering questions in a higher-pitched voice. Naesung on the other hand is acting coy, not being outright honest. For example, if a guy asked me how many bottles of soju I could drink, I would say “half a bottle” instead of “two bottles.” That would be me “doing naesung” or naesung hada in Korean. (Both terms are rarely used to prescribe how men should behave.)

And yet I couldn’t bring myself to do either aegyo or naesung in the proper way. I wanted men to accept me the way I truly am, complete with my outgoing, straightforward personality which I thought didn’t go together with girlish behaviors.

Then in my late 20s, I met someone. He was in finance, in his first job after college. (I had already been working for several years by then.) We dated over a year. For a long time, he never commented on my social gatherings or asked me to see him as my sole source of emotional support. He gave me space – and he gave himself space. He was considerate, and accepting.

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