The obvious differences first. Coupling-up seems to be a far more celebrated thing in this country and there are plenty of different days to celebrate a relationship on. The main days are those that everyone can notice who stays in Korea for any length of time, and there are 4:
Koreans have gleefully lept on this, rather commercial, tradition in the West, but do things a little differently and slightly more specific. Valentines day in Korea is actually a day that women give to the men, and it is almost always chocolate. Shocking, I know, but don't worry girls there are plenty of other, even more commercialised, days left in the calendar.
White Day (March 14th)
This is the day for the men to give to the women, and on this day it is specifically sweets, or candy as Korean people like to say in Americanised English. Flowers are rarely given, and a decent bunch of flowers is nowhere to be found, trust me I tried to find some for my wife one day in a bid to be a little more original on this day. Suffice to say, cutely gift wrapped sweets are everywhere, and there are even people standing outside convenience stores trying to sell them to you.
Black Day (April 14th)
This is a day for all those poor single people to sit together, wearing mostly black, and eat Jjajjangmyeon (Black sauce noodles) and feel sorry for themselves.
Peppero Day (November 11th)
A pretty ingenious idea from a company that makes chocolate covered biscuit sticks in Korea, 'Pepperos'. The sticks resemble the date, 11/11, which is why the day is on the 11th of November, and boy did they have a field day last year, 11/11/11. On this day men should give a box (or many boxes) of these chocolate sticks to his love interest. If he is lucky he might even get one back.
In my first year in Korea I knew nothing about all this and was slightly perplexed as to why my students were all suddenly giving me chocolate sticks and demanding some in return. Of course, I later realised that they just all loved me so much.
Last year, one co-worker of mine, who sits opposite me in the office, received a box of Pepperos that was bigger than her with a love note attached. She was rather sweetly glowing in equal amounts of happiness and embarrassment. It was called, 'The Millenium Peppero Box' and contained about 100 normal sized boxes, of which I happily received one, as I received none from my students because I work in a all-boys school. Other fellow English teachers in other schools were bombarded with boxes of Pepperos from their students, and I was very jealous.
There are also slightly lesser Known days, all falling on the 14th of each month:
Diary Day (January 1st) - couples share diaries to celebrate the year to come.
Rose Day (May 14th) - couples exchange roses.
Kiss Day (June 14th) - people kiss everyone they meet (very conservatively).
Silver Day (July 14th) - couples exchange silver accessories.
Green Day (August 14th) - couples enjoy a natural place, whilst drinking soju (in a green bottle).
Photo Day (September 14th) - couples take a photo together and put it somewhere nice to look at.
Wine Day (October 14th) - couples enjoy a glass or two of wine together.
Movie Day (November 14th) - couples watch a movie together.
Hug Day (December 14th) - people hug each other to keep warm in the winter.
There is more as well. Christmas Day is very much considered a couple day and people usually go on little trips with their loved ones and go to coffee shops, which are festively and cheesily decorated to mark this most Western of holidays.
But just when you thought that you couldn't throw-up even more into your mouth because of such sickly sweet events, Korean couples go even further. Anniversaries in my country are usually after one year, some silly couples celebrate after each month, but it certainly isn't mandatory. There is only one date, which you'd better not forget, and that is a year after your first date. Not so in Korea.
Anniversaries are celebrated after each 100 days. I know what your thinking, how do they work this all out? I would find it impossible to remember, but never fear Korean technology is at hand and many mobile phones come equipped with a countdown application specifically designed to calculate what day of the relationship it is. Of course, as in every country, it is most important that the man remembers these days, and he is expected to spend the most money. Women too, however, also do their fair share of spending.
Just when the wallet has taken enough of a battering from all these ridiculous days, there is worse to come (and I haven't even mentioned birthdays either!). These anniversaries, require Korean couples to give extravagant gifts, and not just a bunch of flowers, a card, or a box of chocolates. Designer labels are the most popular; bags, watches, clothes, shoes, and Jewellery. These little treats often amount to a spend of over 500 pounds (about $800) each time, indeed this is the expected amount to be spent.
My wife's friends regularly show off their new Prada bags, Tommy Hilfiger purses, and Gucci watches. Quite often their boyfriends only work in a bar. The girls also buy designer labels in return, though, leaving them both flat broke for the next six months, or the at least until the next 100 days when they have to come up with the cash to spend all over again.
Luckily, I have never had to live up to the same expectations. My wife doesn't really care about all that kind of stuff, although I am sure she wouldn't be upset with me if I produced some Louis Vuiton merchandise on our next anniversary. I hate to dash her hopes, but this is never going to happen, as I loathe the whole idea of paying over the odds for a name, when a perfectly suitable option at usually more than a tenth of the price is available.
Before you think of me a too much of a bad husband and skinflint, I should tell you that I purchased a rather expensive electronic piano for her at Christmas, as I knew she enjoyed playing and was in need of a hobby to relax her after her stressful work day had finished. I like to buy gifts that really matter and are useful or important.
My wife apparently used to have a (supposedly handsome, but I can't believe it) Korean ex-boyfriend that treated her and her mother and family to regular gifts and was very generous generally, even to my wife's cousin. They all thought he was great, but I am assured that they think I am a marked improvement in quality of man, and I have done it without buying them hardly anything.
Another common sight on the streets of Korea are couples wearing the same clothes. Not just the same colour and style, but actually clothes sold together, that are exactly the same but in mens and womens sizes.
It is even possible to get money off a meal in a restaurant if couples are dressed in these clothes. I am definitely one for a bargain, but I must refuse this little practice of matching dress. If I ever did it and it leaked out to my friends back home, I would never live it down, and in fact I would be ashamed of myself if I did it.
Couple rings are also popular and are probably a slightly more aggreeable alternative. It's all a bit too materialistic for me, I just can't get my head around it all.
Here are some examples of what can be regularly seen on the streets of Korea.
When things start to get serious between a couple then they have to run the gauntlet of the in-laws, which is intimidating in most countries and tends to depend on the parents' personalities, but in Korea there seems to be set rules to follow and it is somewhat of a lesson in how to completely suck up.
Parents in-law expect a lot from their son in-law, including regular gifts, endless good manners (no matter how badly they are treated), and money to help them in their old age.
Again I have managed to exempt myself from doing pretty much all of this, I have somehow charmed my way out of it all and my wife certainly does not expect this of me. Her parents see my regular mistakes, which can include things as simple as refusing some food or a glass of soju, as because I am foreigner and I don't understand their culture. What they don't know is that I understand most Korean etiquette and culture these days and I just choose not to follow it when I don't want to.
Korean men and women can't get off so lightly, however. My wife, for example is exceptionally fortunate to have English in-laws. Some Korean mothers in-law expect their daughters in-law to cook and clean when they come to their house, and are ordered around like a private by a drill sergeant.
They often test potential daughters in-law with specific household tasks, a favourite for their first meeting is to ask them to peel and cut fruit. They then assess how well they complete the task and deduce from this just how well they will look after their beloved son. Heaven forbid if they do a bad job on this - if my mother was Korean, my wife would have been screwed.
All in all, trips to the in-laws can be a pretty stressful occasion as more little exams are meted out and mothers in-law treat their daughters in-law like slaves. For the men it is more about money, gifts, and general politeness. They must show that they can take care of their partner and also their in-laws in old age. Mediocre job and he's no good, not a good gift buyer, and he's not a keeper.
Relations with the in-laws certainly are a whole lot easier back home, and there is a whole lot less bowing. Thankfully, things are changing a little and there are a growing number of Korean families that are no so serious about all of the traditional obstacle courses that are frequently put up.
There is another slightly weird component to Korean relationships, and that is the maintenance of the innocence of women. I have to admit I think I slightly prefer the cultural personna of what is attractive in a woman in Korea. Most men really rather like very innocent and cute looking women, and tend not to like the slutty, flirty, and sexy women, or at least they don't show that they do.
This shows in the discussions I have with my class sometimes about which Korean K-Pop stars are the sexiest (yes, we often have these discussions). I always go for Ji Yeon in a group called T-ara, but they always counter this argument with the fact that she used to do online sex chat rooms when she was younger before she was famous. They seem to think that this really diminishes her appeal, to me it makes not one jot of difference.
When some girls mentioned this to me in a Hagwon I used to teach at, I replied with, 'she was probably just poor and desperate at the time, you should feel bad for her and not judge her', their English was great and understood what I said and looked a bit sad and thoughtful about it afterwards.
Anyway, back to my all-boys school, and they mostly choose a K-Pop artist called IU. She is quite young, probably about 20 years old, and probably the smallest, cutest, and sweetest looking girl you can possibly imagine, picture an Asian Little Bo Peep with a big lollipop and you won't be far off the reality. This would be a far cry from an English all-boys high school, where I am sure they would trump the sluttiest and dirtiest looking pop star possible with the biggest breasts.
Consequently, Korean girls have to maintain this outward personna of innocence and sweetness to all around them if the are to be deemed as attractive.
Being little is also a huge advantage, and absolutely not an ounce of fat is allowed, and girls will hear about their weight problem even if it's non-existent.
My wife is often called chubby or fat at work. Any of you reading this who have met my wife might have some difficulty believing this, but it's true. Korean people are also not in the least bit afraid of mentioning things like this to people. Any foreign female teachers that have received horrible comments from their co-workers along these lines should realise that this is just a weird quirk of Korean culture and not feel bad about themselves.
This innocence is sometimes demanded by men in all departments, including in the bedroom. Many men want a woman who is a virgin, this is their ideal.
Korean people are among the most jealous people I have ever met, and it would be wise for most women to lie about any previous relationships and especially if one of these relationships was with a foreign man as this seems to really get Korean men's goat (I wonder why?).
If a Korean woman was to be honest and tell people that she went out with a foreign man once, she might as well set her heart on being a spinster for the rest of the her life. Some women maintain an ultra-conservative manner because of this and will save themselves completely for the man she is going to marry.
My wife has told me stories of friends that haven't even had a proper kiss after three years of a relationship, let alone gone to bed together. Only once a couple is married is kissing and sex permitted among these very prudish couples. Not all couples are like this, but they must at least maintain this illusion to other people. Public displays of affection are rarely seen in, and if they are there are visible signs of disgust for other people. You may see some silly childish behaviour on the streets between couples but hardly ever any kissing and cuddling.
Korean men, however, do not have to show anything but a large wallet and a good job, or at least the illusion of a large wallet and a good job (My trick at home was to leave receipts in my wallet, but in reality moths regularly make a home there).
As I have mentioned before Korean men have possibly the worst manners in the world, Korean women on the other hand are well mannered, sweet, and kind (except when they are working).
Women's patience and politeness can be tested to the limit sometimes, and especially when they are deemed to be single. I can always remember a horrendous old night club in Suncheon that has since closed in which, rather strangely, all the waiters (there was a dancefloor and a seating area) were big, strong guys. This is because men sitting down would ask a waiter to bring girls to their tables. They could be any girl in the club that they fancied. Unless the woman was with a boyfriend, they couldn't refuse this request, and the waiters would sometimes quite forcefully take them by the arm and drag them to the table full of men, where they had to at least be polite and stay there talking for five minutes with spineless and creepy guys slobbering all over them. My wife did inform me, however, that some girls quite like all the attention of these men.
Once married, women have to maintain strict loyalty to their husband, and any affair would be a very serious matter indeed. Men on the other hand are on a slightly slacker leash, and the attitude to men having affairs or ordering a prostitute, for example, is not as harsh (as long as they are not found out).
This is the reason that there are so many 'Love Motels' in almost every city you go to in Korea. There main purpose is to facilitate seedy undercover affairs and sex without anybody finding out. This is why the car parks for these places are covered by a plastic screen and are always indoors, and the receptionists are always behinds an opaque window, where only their hands can be seen.
These places feel so odd and out of character for such a conservative nation when it comes to sex, but to Koreans Love Motels are just a mirage, they don't really exist, and no one talks about them, they might as well be invisible despite their abundence.
Divorce is completely unacceptable and very few couples, no matter how unhappy they are do it. Divorce considerably lowers status, and can taint the children of the family with silly superstitions. For example, my in-laws were quite worried that because my mother and father divorced, I would do the same with their daughter, they thought it might run in the family like some kind of genetic disease.
Below: A typical 'Love Motel' with plastic strips to hide the cars parked in the car park and an entrance area where you don't have to see the receptionist's face, just in case people get recognised and word gets around.
All of this appears to paint Korean women in a very submissive role in relationships, with the men in charge and the women having to put up with disloyalty and mistreatment. This is sometimes the case, but most Korean women are not at all to be trifled with, they can be a terrifying adversary if you get on the wrong side of them.
One gets the feeling that the women usually wear the trousers in relationships. My wife certainly has a little bit of a dragon in her, but fortunately I know how to put out the fire she can blow out from time to time. We are actually quite opposite in many ways and maybe the fire and water analogy works well, we have a strange way of suiting each other, but it works.
I can't comprehend how the average Korean copes in everyday life in relationships, it is all so complicated and unbelievably expensive. No wonder they work so hard, have no vacation time, and never travel. They must need to go to work to have a break from their relationships and to fund them, it all feels like no fun to me.
Thankfully, all my wife demands of me is to love her, treat her well, and see her parents every now and then and be civil to them. No gifts, no money, and she understands (although can become a little irritated, it has to be said) when I ignore what I know about her culture and refuse the etiquette demanded of the average Korean man and son in-law.
More and more Korean couples and families are losing the traditional nonsense that gives so much stress to everyone involved, but are embracing the modern nonsense instead with the ever increasing amount of couple days and intolerably cute lovey-dovey behaviour. This is all an improvement, I guess, and at least provides a touch of amusement and is all quite sweet really.