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

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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.

Many men approached me, expressing an interest in my outgoing personality. “I like your optimistic character,” they told me.

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:

“Why do you have so many male friends?”

“Do you really have to go to all those social gatherings? All those parties?”

“Are all those things so important to you?” (Read: “More than me?”)

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. A bunch of my girlfriends had similar worries when dating South Korean men. The biggest source of complaint was the irony of men applying different standards on their female friends and “my girlfriend.”

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. 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.

Then a miracle happened. I found myself voluntarily doing the so-called girlish actions, especially aegyo. (It was harder to do naesung — hard as I tried, it just wasn’t in me). I acted like a cute baby, even without trying. I even gave him hand-made chocolate on Valentine’s Day. I was in love, of course, but what was happening to me?

Many of my friends started to point out that I had changed a lot. I stopped going on different social gatherings because I wanted to be like him — being considerate and focusing on our relationship. Through him, I learned relationship is like a mirror that reflects one another, because I realized it was he who had first engaged in some form of aegyo. (By the way, men’s aegyo is much more attractive, it’s killing!)

Gradually, I started to feel that maybe naesung and aegyo in reality had been a part of my nature all along. Maybe this “me” comes out when I meet a guy who makes me relax, and I don’t have to think too much about what he thinks about me. Maybe I was finally enjoying a moment of repose, showing who I really am, in a safe space free from conventional definitions of gender roles.

I finally had an answer to the question I had first posed in my early twenties: My outgoing personality, which attracted men, was not an obstacle to developing stable relationships. I had never been the problem; I was fine the way I was in my entirety, whether independent, outgoing or girlish, and I could express myself fully if I was given space, without judgment. I just needed to have the right opportunity, and the right man, to let these ‘girlish’ traits show.

I realized that I might have forced myself until then to be this independent, outgoing girl with an “optimistic character,” fixing problems by myself without relying on my man. Maybe I had been trying to prove something, in this society where people expect girls to be quiet and submissive.

It’s been two years since our relationship ended. I wish I could say my realization brought me complete freedom from gender norms or expectations of others, but it didn’t. I had doubts about whether I was good enough a girlfriend to him considering that I was keen on remaining an outgoing, independent woman. The more we talked about our future, the more afraid I became that I might not be his perfect life partner. I kept on worrying about whether I could satisfy his friends or parents’ expectations of a “good woman.”

My fears were not the only reason we parted ways, but they were certainly a factor.

Dating him, and others before that, has allowed me to see my self-contradictions and insecurities. I am self-conscious of my independence and womanhood. I am full of contradictory desires, wanting to be my own self, whatever that may be, but also wanting to meet South Korean society’s standards on what a proper woman should be. All the people I have met at school, at workplaces, even at home have influenced me. It dawns on me that my battle isn’t just about fighting South Korean men’s expectations of how women ought to behave. I learned that I need to fight my own expectations for myself, too.

I’m still learning about how to balance society’s demands on women and my internal traits. However, now I know I don’t need to suppress my ‘girlish’ impulses in trying to be an independent woman. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I am enjoying making chocolate on my own. I no longer categorize this activity as a womanly activity. It’s just a hobby, that’s all. I also recognize that so-called girlish behaviors like aegyo and naesung are not the preserve of women. Men can do these things just as well as women.

The revelations on my part may be uncomfortable for some South Koreans to bear. (They might say making chocolate is a woman’s hobby and men never do aegyo or naesung.) But I must thank the South Korean men I have dated — even those who have been so critical of me — for leading me down this path of self-discovery. And I look forward to meeting the next man who will help me learn more about who I truly am.

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Eunsaem Lee works in the IT sector, and has dated South Korean men for over eight years.