This piece was originally written for a local magazine. After requesting the piece, they apparently didn’t want it, so here it is for you the reader on the Interwebs. The names, except for mine which seems like a mistake in retrospect, have been changed to protect the innocent (and the very, very guilty). They know who they are.
Dating whilst living abroad can be an arduous, expensive, and frustrating process. It can also be fun, exciting, adventurous, and all emotions in-between. There are so many rules, nearly all of them unspoken. We are faced with so many options: Do we date other expats? The locals? How do we meet? Online? In a club? What do I want? A long term relationship or a hook up? When should I just ignore my emotional and physical needs and give up? I’ve faced all of these questions over my three years abroad, and I have very few answers to show for the effort. All the same, I’ve decided to share what little I have learned from my own experiences and those of my friends.
When I was living in Japan, fresh out of college, I mostly avoided dating. It wasn’t intentional, mind you, but my options were far more limited than they are now. (That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it). The expat community in Nagasaki was tiny, as was the availability of English-speaking, expat-friendly locals. When I moved back abroad, this time to Korea, I was determined not to relive that lengthy dry-spell. Instead, I jumped into the murky waters of the Korean dating scene. Occasionally, I find myself running away in sheer terror, but I keep returning like a moth to the flame.
Waygook seeking Waygook
Dating other expats is, in theory, probably easier. I have never approached a non-Asian Westerner in Korea and have had to worry about a language barrier. Moreover, most are doing the exact same thing with their lives as me—teaching English to Korean kids.
The downsides are substantial though. First of all, the pickings are slim. The expat community is surprisingly small for a metropolitan area of over 20 million people.
And then there are the issues of time and timing. Many of us expats work strange and conflicting hours. We are scattered throughout the city, thus necessitating lengthy commutes to see a would-be significant other. And foreign teachers are constantly coming and going, with most staying for a year and then splitting, either back to their home country or to a new locale. With this constant ebb and flow, what are the chances of finding someone whose stay coincides with mine and meeting her with plenty of time to develop a relationship? This, of course, assumes that the woman in question even wants a relationship, which often she does not.
Back in September I thought I had met someone special. Mary was smart, had a wicked sense of humor, and was a great cook. After only a few dates she told me that she wanted to be my girlfriend, and I was, quite frankly, thrilled. Finally! My long spell of false-starts, boring first dates, and never-ending headaches had come to an end! I even made the mistake of telling my parents. I had forgotten my cardinal rule: Never tell my parents about a girl. Ever. They just ask too many questions, and it’s too embarrassing and depressing to report back when things go tits-up.
The new relationship status would last exactly eight days. I had a week in the Philippines planned, and we didn’t get many chances to speak during that time. Still, I was getting some unnerving vibes through the Internet. Something wasn’t right, and I feared she was having second thoughts. Upon returning home, I told a friend over a couple glasses of scotch, “I think I’m about to be dumped.” No more than two minutes later, the phone rang. I gave my friend a knowing glance when I saw her name appear on the caller I.D. It was all over for the relationship, and the bottle of scotch was soon to follow.
If Mary is to be believed—and I pretty much never believe what I’m being told during the dumping process—she decided not to renew her contract after all and “didn’t want to get too attached.” C’est la vie.
At least I had a reason to hope for more with Mary. Most of the time, it never gets that far. Take the case of Amy, a smart, young, and energetic sprite of a woman from the States. We had a great first date, ending with an epic make-out session in the back alleys of Seoul at 3 AM on a weeknight.
I was duly excited for a second date, but if the first date was one of the best ever, the second ranks among the worst. Originally, we had planned on a nice romantic dinner, with drinks after. Instead, she invited me to her book club, which was awkward because the two-day notice was not enough time to purchase and read the book. And then the drinking began.
As if I hadn’t made myself look bad enough for having not read the book, I then had this girl all over me after a few glasses of wine. I didn’t know these people, and even if I had wanted to, I had serious doubts about getting invited back at this rate.
To further change our plans, she just wanted to go dancing in Hongdae. I can’t quite fully describe how much I hate clubs to the reader, but trust me, I really hate clubs. There are a great number of things I would rather be doing than dancing in a club, starting with taking an expensive taxi ride home. My “date,” and I’m using that term loosely at this point, kept disappearing for vast swaths of time, only to return later more drunk than before.
Finally, she came back trying to whisper things not fit to print in my ear, and she could barely stand without assistance. She knocked another girl’s drink out of her hand. The woman, a rather stout girl (I’m guessing from America), in turn slapped me hard across the face. It was time to get the hell out of there.
Obviously she was far too drunk, and I was trying to do the right thing. After a lengthy process of trying to pump water into her and convincing her to go home, I managed to call a cab for her. I asked Amy to tell the driver where she lived and she responded by staring blankly at me and then muttering something completely undecipherable. I took her back to my place, let her sleep in the bed while I elected to take the futon. In the morning she was mad at me for babysitting her. If there was ever a “damned if you do” scenario, this was it.
I’m not going to attempt to understand things from the female perspective, but I know it has to be worse. “It is absolutely more difficult for expat women,” my friend Jennifer explains, “Far more Western men date Korean women than the other way around…which means that there are simply fewer men available.”
Also, a supposed strength—that so many foreigners have similar backgrounds—is not necessarily a good thing in her view, “You don’t meet nearly as many kinds of people as you would back home. By and large, we’re liberal arts majors who don’t know what to do with our lives.” Jennifer concluded, “It’s a small and shallow pool to draw from. Dating’s rougher here. Few people are interested in growing up, which doesn’t lead to grown-up relationships.”
She has her fair share of horror stories as well. In addition to accidentally dating a married man, who when confronted, assured Jennifer that his wife was “Totally cool with it,” she had one charmer take her to Burger King for their first date. He then made “absurdly sexist” comments in between complaints about his burger having pickles. I hope you’re reading this, Burger Guy, and if you are, please note this is not a good first date.
It doesn’t take too many dates like the ones mentioned above to make me want to run away, screaming down the winding, narrow back alleys of Seoul at the sight of any approaching foreigners. Unfortunately, I’ve had no better luck with Korean woman.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not the one to ask about dating Koreans. I’ve been on several dates, but I’ve failed to really hit it off with any of them. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to date a Korean woman. A great many of them are obviously attractive, and of course they are “exotic” compared to the women I would be likely to date back home. And if they speak English with any degree of fluency, they are also probably well-educated.
There are other obvious advantages to dating the locals. When I meet expats who have developed serious relationships while here, most are between foreigners and Koreans. As previously addressed, it is helpful if at least one of the parties in a relationship isn’t going anywhere for awhile. Also, the sheer number of available Koreans compared to expats is a huge advantage.
My friend Stephen has had the same Korean girlfriend for over two years. For him, dating locals was the only option, “I didn’t date any expats here in Korea; there were plenty of American girls back home. Also, I was instantly attracted to Korean girls when I got to Seoul.”
While my dates with Koreans have not been nearly as bad as with other foreigners, they have been equally strange in other ways.
The language barrier has certainly been a substantial obstacle to overcome. Even with a relatively high-level of English, communication still breaks down when we move past the more basic topics. I went on one date where I think we ran out of things to talk about after about 15 minutes. How do I say, “Longest short date ever” in Korean?
Even if the language barrier is low enough to overcome, there’s still a huge divide between Korean and Western cultures. I was rather taken aback on one occasion when a Korean girl espoused her thoughts about homosexuality. To put it politely, I think my Republican grandparents have a more liberal view on the subject than this woman.
Korean culture can be conservative in unexpected ways, as well. Any expat who has spent a night out in Hongdae or Itaewon will observe the pervasive nightclub culture among Korean youth. As I’ve said, I don’t particularly care for clubs, but for some of my friends who do enjoy a night out, they’ve learned to keep their clubbing habits a secret.
My friend Rob explains, “Clubbing is a big part of my culture, but here in Korea it can be a deal breaker. Some Korean women are fiercely conservative, they see clubs as a home for devil worshippers.”
Rob went on to explain how dates have been stopped dead in their tracks after he revealed that he likes to go out to clubs, “They assume I’m a ‘Playboy.’ Their whole attitude changes and they’ve completely lost interest.”
Along the same lines, Korean women are probably much more likely to judge a date based on fashion. This fact also doesn’t bode well for me, particularly when I pull out my beat-up adjumma phone that might have been cutting-edge about a decade ago. Do I have Kakao talk? I think not.
I face another unique challenge when dating Korean women, one that usually arises when I unconsciously pull up my sleeves. Ethnically, I’m an Eastern European Jew, so I’m even furry by white-guy standards. To a Korean girl, the sight of my arm hair is downright shocking.
In this situation, I’ve had dramatically differing reactions. I had one woman—the aforementioned one, with homophobic views—reach across the table and quickly pull my sleeves back down, thereby covering the offending body hair.
On the other hand (or arm, as it were), I had a date get really excited about it. Her eyes grew wide and she also reached across the table, but instead of readjusting my sleeves, she asked if she could feel my arm hair. Sadly, that was probably the highlight of the date. She had just broken up with her previous white boyfriend, so she spent much of the night alternating between sad and crying. The sight of arm hair only briefly distracted her from her grief, but then it only reminded her of the ex, and the waterworks were up and running again shortly.
I certainly won’t rule out Koreans for future dating exploits, but I may first consider spending several hours shaving before the date.
Where did you meet?
This seems to be the first question asked when a relationship is announced. Herein lies the paradox of singles’ life: there are members of one’s preferred gender everywhere, yet they are so difficult to meet. While we meet new people everyday, most of us have had great difficulty meeting someone date-worthy.
Over the years, I’ve become a big believer in online dating. There’s something quasi-scientific about the proceeding, which I greatly admire. At a glance, I can eliminate dozens of profiles based on appearance, political or religious views, or the fact that they don’t like dogs.
Here, I’ve tried Korean Cupid and OK Cupid, with my preference toward the latter. First of all, it’s free, and secondly, it is geared much more toward compatibility, not just looks. That is to say, daters can ignore match information when choosing the hottie of their choice.
Online dating is a good way to meet new people, almost too good. Instead of meeting one person and concentrating on them exclusively, until either becoming involved or no longer see one another, I find myself often dating many people and commiting to none of them. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard, or at least that’s what I tell myself when the girls stop retuning my texts after three dates.
The biggest advantage to online dating, and the reason why I continue to dip into that well, is because of its immediacy. I believe most men, myself included, have been out for a night and thought to themselves, “I’m going to meet someone tonight,” only to come up empty-handed as the bars make their last calls, and the night draws to an end. Online, the potential for meeting Ms. Right or Ms. Right-now is merely a few clicks and keystrokes away. We live in an impatient culture, and I’m as guilty as anyone.
Jennifer has a slightly more pessimistic view of online dating, “[It’s] okay. It’s a decent way to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet in your daily life. The downside, and it’s a pretty big one, is that it’s hard to build something with someone. You meet, you have coffee or beers or whatever, and by the end of the date either you’re expected to want to jump each other’s bones, or you part ways and never see each other again. That’s great if it works, but I rarely feel like I know a man after I’ve watched him drink a coffee.”
Of course, that is not the only method for meeting people, I just happen to be crap at the conventional ways. Clubs aren’t an option for me, and I’ve never had the knack to pull-off a bar pick-up. And every single time I strike up a conversation with someone in a coffee shop or bookstore, she inevitably seems to have a boyfriend.
Right, so it’s online for me, but Rob has some advice for those looking to meet a girl while out and about, “My preferred method is the old gem: language exchange classes. However, yoga, pilates, and the like are good ways to meet women, no guys really attend those classes.”
While it is common wisdom that no one meets “relationship material” at a bar or a club, Stephen did precisely that. “I was with some friends in Itaewon bar-hopping and got pretty drunk—not ‘black-out’ drunk, but pretty hammered. We ended up going to a pretty cool, small place called B1. I was doing my usual shenanigans: drinking a rum and coke, roaming around, dancing awkwardly, and talking to random people, when I stumbled upon 2 girls that had their own small private table.”
One of those girls would be Stephen’s girlfriend, but first he had to call the number she had written neatly on a bar napkin. “I couldn’t find the napkin anywhere,” he explained, “The adjumma who comes into my apartment to clean probably saw the napkin laying around and threw it away. I looked everywhere for it. I finally decided to look in the big trash bag outside. I put on some plastic gloves and went for it. After about 20 minutes searching through muck, I found the napkin a little bumped and bruised, but legible.”
Now, Stephen and his girlfriend are talking about the big M-word and trying to find a way to move back to the States together, where he will never have to worry about the Korean singles’ life ever again. From those about to date, we salute you.