Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and I was asked to write an article about romance and couple customs in South Korea. As I am terminally single in Seoul, and I am a blogger, I was sorting through some of the emails and comments I get from my Korean culture blog, and I started to think about my romantic experiences in Korea, and what foreign girls experience when they initiate romantic relationships with Korean men. I would estimate that of all the emails and comments I have received on my blog over the past three years, 80% are submitted by foreign girls (South American, European, African, South-East Asian) who are hoping I can offer them tips on how to instigate a romance with a Korean man. Many of these girls are Kpop fans; girls who, like me, developed a mild to extreme infatuation with Korean pop music and Korean dramas. When I first arrived in South Korea in 2009, I arrived as a first wave Kpop pilgrim, and I won’t deny that I was perhaps of the same persuasion; consumed by the idea of the mythical men of East Asia. It occurred to me only recently, that while my original interest in East Asian culture was sincere on the surface (as I tried to approach my consumption of Korean culture in a highly systematic manner) I have now come to think that my cultural interest was also highly fetishist and perhaps an objectification of young Korean men.
Reading through 3 years’ worth of comments on my blog (some of which have been deleted), a pattern appears to emerge;
“Hello LuiginaKorea !!! I like Korean music!!! Especially Super Junior!!! Can you tell me where to find a Korean boyfriend?”
“LuiginaKorea! 안녕하세요!! I love K dramas! How do I meet Korean guys?”
“LuiginaKorea!! Coffee Prince is my favourite!! Do Korean guys like Thai girls?”
Tanned smooth skin, dark hair and dark eyes. While trying to study a culture it is difficult to know if one is fetishizing that culture, or innocently developing a curiosity in that culture. Thinking back on my experiences dating Korean men in my earlier years in Seoul, it is hard to know if I was exploiting these individuals, as a way to get closer to Korean culture. Coming from a small rural town in central Australia, I had virtually 0 exposure to East Asian men in my childhood and youth, and this potentially sowed the seeds for fetishism/my fixation on East Asian stereotypes. Naturally, all foreign girls have impossible standards that they expect normal, everyday Korean men to meet, as the internet is saturated with smooth, perfectly manicured and highly stylized Korean boys from K dramas and Kpop videos. Many girls outside of Korea, including myself (way back in the day…) are fooled into believing that this (heavily edited and glossy version of a Korean male) is the norm for the South Korean male. Unattractive South Korean men do not exist in internet land.
After much contemplation, I have teased out the 4 (primary) kinds of East Asian male identity stereotypes that lead to the fetishization of East Asian men:
The Kpop Idol
Korean pop male idols (known as “idols” due to their religious-like following of fangirls) are immortal Prince-like dancing machines. They seemingly never age and never develop wrinkles, they are slim and lean for decades and decades (see Rain) without variations in weight or muscle mass, and they can bend their bodies like pretzels while wearing pants that are tighter than scuba suits. Hairless slim physiques, sparkly eyes, infinitely airbrushed bodies and impossibly sharp dance moves, backflips, frontflips. Can any real Korean man be as blissfully polished as any member of EXO or BEAST?
The animated movie Mulan by Disney was released when I was 13 years old, and it coincided with the beginning of my awkward teenage years in Australia. Mulan somehow managed to sexualize the legend of the Chinese heroine Hua Mulan, and presented Chinese and Mongolian men as physically superior, sword skilled, dark-maned horse riding warriors. This spilled over into an enduring and misguided fascination with long haired, horse riding East Asian warriors which lasted for years. Of course, during my first trip to China in 2004, I was almost shocked to find that modern Chinese men generally have short dark hair and do not ride horses through mountains.
The gangster/mafia theme features heavily in some of the most memorable Hong Kong, Korean, and Japanese movies of the modern era. Quite accidentally, for a non-Asian audience, these gangster/mafia characters appear highly glamorized, with their full body dragon tattoos, gold chains, and tailored grey suits. It is more than likely that actual members of the Yakuza and Korean mafia are overweight, scarred, and unwashed in real life, but in the cinema East Asian gangsters are provocative, dangerous, intimidating, badass.
Bruce Lee perhaps laid the groundwork for the stereotype of East Asian men possessing extreme proficiency in martial arts. I also, at some point, obsessed over the imagery of East Asian men backflipping off of walls, high kicking, and stowing nunchucks in some hidden crevice. In ninja/karate/fight movies, the Asian male character is often portrayed shirtless (alternatively, with a torn shirt), with an oiled-up torso, and (perhaps more often than not) samurai swords. Asian martial arts characters are often portrayed as one-dimensional, leaving them more open to sexual objectification than other super heroes or action characters. While James Bond and Iron Man have their character traits and personal story felt out through plot lines and dialogue, Asian fight characters in movies are all body and no dialogue. When I first arrived in Korea I targeted the Korean boys who spoke the least amount of English. This was partly because I wanted to improve my Korean language skills, but the bigger part was that I wanted to project my (heavily stereotyped) image of an East Asian man (ie high-kicking, Kpop dancing, cosmetic wearing vampires) onto these individuals. None of these Korean boys owned nunchucks, or danced in cling wrap pants, which was quite a letdown.
Understandably, it is hard to be romantically involved with someone and separate them cleanly from their culture (you can, however, attempt to remove that individual from the stereotype you constructed for them). Two people express themselves according to the languages they use to communicate, their hand gestures, the activities they enjoy, and the food they consume together; all of which is shaped by the culture they were raised in. As my interest in Kpop started to wane due to over-exposure in Korea, I realized that my fixation on Korean men also started to wane, which made me ponder whether perhaps I had been interacting with Korean men not primarily based on their individual personalities, but due to their dark hair, dark eyes, smooth olive skin, and perceived Mongolian archery talents. When I had maintained long term relationships with Korean men, I was disappointed that they did not ride horses and invade neighbouring countries like the Mongols of the 13th century, nor did they have much competence in mixed martial arts like Bruce Lee, and they were not particularly good at doing handstands in neon pants like the members of Shinee. I found Korean men to be much like the men of Europe, Australia, and North America: fairly typical living and breathing male specimens with the same hang-ups and the same faults as men of any other country. A Korean male accountant dances just like an American male accountant. Simply being Korean does not enhance their street fighting techniques or their group dancing skills.