Korea: The land of freaky, funny love
Korea is one of the world’s best places to spend Valentine’s Day.
Customs and venues range from the sickeningly sweet (matching T-shirts) to the freakish and covert (love hotels) to the grandly romantic (event cafés).
Here are some of Korea’s most curious dating and mating customs and venues.
1. Love hotels
Korea's love motels (there were an estimated 32,433 of them in Seoul alone as of 2006), from the cheap and cheesy to the discreet and edgy, offer young couples the best bang for their buck. Especially as many of them charge not by the night but by the hour.
Because many young Koreans traditionally live with their parents until marriage, love motels are particularly cherished as locations for romantic romps for those who simply don't want to wait until marriage.
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They're also beloved because they're cheap and fun. As such they're a good option for travelers who seek inexpensive alternative lodging -- something over-the-top and exciting.
Of course, however platonic your relationship with your travel buddy may be, it's likely that they'll make assumptions. It is a love hotel after all. But don't be offended by the free condoms; they give those to everybody.
Hotel Chezlee, rates start at ₩60,000 a night; 1591-8 Seocho 3-dong, Seocho-gu (서초구 서초3동 1591-8); +82 581 9200~2; www.chezleepalace.com
2. Valentine's Day's evil twin(s)
In Korea, as it is in Japan, Valentine's Day is solely the female's responsibility. Women confess their love or woo their sweethearts with chocolates and dinner dates.
Valentine's Day is also only one of many romantic holidays. White Day, when men give candy to their beloveds, falls on March 14.
And if you think anniversaries are difficult to remember, try remembering the 100th, 200th, 300th, and 1,000th days of your relationship -- all these are dutifully celebrated by many Korean couples.
3. Blind dating
In Korea, blind dating does not have the negative connotation (your grandmother setting you up with her knitting club partner's toady nephew) it might have in the West. Here, it's serious business.
Well, it doesn't have to be serious, but it's definitely a booming one -- arranged marriages may be rare, but arranged dates are a perfectly acceptable, and even preferable, way of a finding a partner.
There are two kinds of blind dates. There is the "mee-ting," or a group blind date with no strings, lots of alcohol, and general hilarity. Usually the domain of university students, it's a way for them to socialize, network, and get drunk. They can be painfully awkward. But they can also be screamingly funny.
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And then there is the more private "sogeting," with considerably less alcohol, wherein you meet someone through a chain of mutual acquaintances with the understanding that you're both single and looking.
Betty Park, a 28-year-old marketer from Seoul, is currently seeing someone she met through a sogeting. "My impression of him was good from the start," she says, "because he actually called me to set up a time and place. He didn't just text, like so many men do these days."
"Matchmaking has traditionally been considered a virtue in Korea," says Erica Oh, Global Team Manager of Couple.net matchmaking service, on why sogetings are so massively popular in Korea. "It's an advanced, efficient way of meeting someone who is vouched for by someone you know. I foresee it becoming a huge global trend."
4. Matching looks
It's not enough that they're holding hands or publically cooing at each other. Some couples need to make it really clear: they belong to each other. Once kept to honeymoons, now Korean couples often don matching looks on dates as well -- and the best part is, they do it without a hint of irony.
What do they match? Everything from baseball caps, T-shirts, hoodies, backpacks, and sneakers to all of the above.
But Min Jun, a 24-year-old political science student, says it's not always as "together" as it appears.
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"I want to speak up on behalf of the guys," he says. "Usually guys hate wearing matching stuff. But we're usually pressured into it by our girlfriends. One day, when my girlfriend wanted us to wear matching T-shirts for a casual Saturday date, I said no. But she became huffy and refused to negotiate. So I was forced to go along with it."
But maybe that's what makes it all the more romantic: doing ridiculous things in the name of love.
Funny Love (matching couple T-shirts), K-111 #1, Western Dom B-dong, 867 Janghang-dong, Ilsandong-gu, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do (경기도 고양시 일산동구 장항동 867 웨스턴돔 B동 K-111-1호); +82 70 4235 3537; www.funnylove.co.kr
5. Bag holding
On the streets of Seoul and other major Korean cities, it's common to spot men holding their girlfriends' purses. Not just while their girlfriends are using the ladies' room, but also when they're walking down the street or window shopping.
It's not the sheepish "let me hold this for one minute while you dig through your pockets for your lip gloss" kind of holding. On the contrary, men carry the pinkest and furriest of female purses with complete acceptance during the course of the entire night out.
But is this chivalry or chauvinism? You can argue that it's sexist for both parties: to the woman, for assuming that she's too weak to hold her own purse, and to the man, for the pressure put on him to hold the woman's purse -- women's purses aren't always as light as they appear.
Or perhaps we're all mistaken and he's simply carrying a murse.
6. Grand romantic gestures
For anniversaries, birthdays, and other commemorative days, grand romantic gestures are de rigueur.
While lovebirds in the United States may draw their inspiration from John Hughes films and express their feelings with custom playlists, in Korea the K-drama is the bible of grand romantic gestures. Not to say that the exaggerated K-dramas necessarily reflect reality. But reality can sometimes get as crazy.
Of course, while some couples have graduated this stage and find happiness in mutual restraint, it can be hard to resist peer pressure while others continue to take it to the next level.
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"It should be between two people who love each other, but everyone always asks," says PR Manager Sophia Chong, 25. "What did your boyfriend get you? What did you do for your boyfriend?"
"A lot of girls also plan special 'events,' like playing the piano for their boyfriends," says 23-year-old university student Lee Sin-ae. "It isn't so out of the ordinary here."
Take, for example, 23-year-old university student Park Se-ra, who did exactly that. She was matched in fervor by her boyfriend, university student Yi Won-jin, who arranged a surprise candlelit event for their second anniversary on the campus of their university.
But if this DIY earnestness seems a bit too collegiate, there is an option for the older set with more to splurge: event cafés.
The Love Factory Event Café, which has 10 different locations across the country, is booked days in advance for Valentine's Day and White Day.
"Admittedly, we get more calls on White Day," says manager Kim Cheon-guk. "Because White Day is when men traditionally profess their love for women, and men tend to go for this sort of thing more than women do."
For a price ranging from ₩120,000 to ₩750,000, the Love Factory assists clients in preparing the perfect romantic event for their sweetheart, whether it's to celebrate a proposal, a birthday, an anniversary, or even an amicable break-up.
The Love Factory only accepts one couple at a time, for maximum romantic and dramatic effect. Each event is tailored to fit the couple -- such as, for example, break ups. "We often go off-menu to ensure that the event is right for the client," says Kim.
The "Loving You" package at the Shilla Hotel, +82 2 2230 3310;www.shilla.net
Han River Love Factory Café, Because the space accepts only one couple at a time, and only in 90-minute shifts, reservations are a must; #2705 102-dong Daewoo Trump World 3-cha, 65-230 Hangang-ro 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 용산구 한강로3가 65-230 대우트럼프월드3차102 동 2705호); +82 10 4123 2193; love-factory.kr
7. Compatibility vs. fate
Tarot card readers and fortune tellers are a popular form of entertainment in Korea, and saju tents (fortune-telling tents) are usually frequented by many young people or couples wanting to hear some positive affirmations about their future.
The fun ends when people take it too seriously, which happens far more frequently than might be expected in a country of pragmatism and capitalism.
But this particular kind of superstition is surprisingly prevalent in some circles, and with pretty dire consequences.
"My mom went to see a fortune teller," says 29-year-old Beatrice Park, "who told her that my boyfriend and I were not meant to be." She relayed this information to her boyfriend, who became upset and preemptively ended the relationship.
But not everyone would agree that the consequences are dire. Sometimes they just confirm what you already know.
"I usually go to the fortune teller each year," says Jang Yoo-jin, 24. "The fortune teller told me that if I kept dating him and got married, we would end up getting a divorce and living in separate rooms. So the fortune teller did play a part in my breakup with this person."
And many times it's difficult not to take it seriously -- particularly if you get the wrong tarot card reader. The kind that takes their job really, really seriously. The kind that would never break character.
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"Sure, many of them are just good-natured quacks," says Sang-hee Han, 28, who has experience with both the "right" and the "wrong" kind. "You know you're being swindled, but you're aware of it and that's fine. But occasionally you get a tarot card reader who just freaks you out. They're not just putting on a performance. They have crazy eyes. And they're scarily perceptive, too."
Eros Fortune Café (에로스 사주 카페), Tarot card readings about your romantic future in three different languages: Korean, English and Japanese; 56-77 Daehyeon-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 서대문구 대현동 56-77); +82 2 363 1810; 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
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