Thursday, October 01, 2009

I Love You, Man

Dear Korean,

I'm always puzzled by the issue about the difference of affection among Korean men. I heard that Korean men tend to be touchy to each other without feeling awkward, unlike Western countries that consider anything intimate behavior between guys are 'gay'. Is it true that Korean men are open to intimate behavior towards each other?

Curious

Dear Korean,

Do Korean men have closer friendships with one another than American men have? This is the reason I ask. I am an American male and have become friends with two Korean guys. An expression that they both use frequently over the phone and in e-mails is: "I miss you." An American guy would never say this! There is nothing wrong with this expression, but if an American male friend said it to me, it would sound "a little gay." Obviously these Korean guys don’t mean it that way; they are just being warm and friendly. I've also heard that if a Korean guy has a crisis, people wonder if he will go to his wife for consolation or to his best male friend.

Please let me know what you think -- Do Korean men have closer friendships with one another than American men have?

Steven F.

Dear Korean,

My question has to do with male social behavior in S. Korea. I'm a New Yorker living in Seoul. I'm not much of a social butterfly but I do like to talk to the natives here. I was recently introduced to a rather uncomfortable custom. I met a young man in his 30's who happens to be fellow student at my Taekwon-Do classes. I told him my age for customary reasons and we conversed for some time, but something strange started happening and I didn't know how to adjust. He started putting his arm around me. Yes I know is sounds insignificant, but it was a bit beyond my comfort zone when I socialize with the same sex. I'm guessing this was a sign of acceptance, but it was rather uncomfortable and abrupt. I do like this young man and I don't want to jeopardize whatever potential friendship we can have over this issue. However, like I said, the arm 'thing' is a bit beyond my comfort zone. Can you explain to me the significance behind this behavior in Korean males and should I reciprocate it? Where I come from I don't see much of that kind of behavior displayed among men unless they subscribe to an alternative sexual preference. Maybe if I understood the significance I could adjust more easily.

Allan W.


Dear questioners,

There are two components to the question. First, why do Korean men feel more comfortable being touchy-feely with one another? Second, do Korean men have a deeper level of friendship with one another as a result?

Koreans are definitely more expressive of their same-sex friendship. Like Allan pointed out, a man putting an arm around a male friend is extremely common. Women walk around holding hands with another woman friend. They are perfectly comfortable seeing each other naked (given that’s what people do in public baths, which is a significant part of Korean life). Like Steven said, saying “I miss you” between male friends is common. “Man dates” are also much more common in Korea, without any need for a sporting event being on television.



Nope, nothing to see here.

Why is this? The easy answer is to say: that’s just how Koreans are. Koreans are generally touchier than Americans in same-sex friendship situation. Not as much as Italians or Spaniards who kiss each other on the cheeks, but certainly touchier than Americans. There is really no telling as to why this is the case – it is essentially a historical accident.

The answer that requires more thought is – why aren’t Americans touchier? This is also a question that would require an involved look in history, but there is certainly one of the themes that consistently appears – homophobia. (The questions allude to this as well.) Americans – especially American men – are so deeply afraid of appearing to be homosexual that they go certain lengths to avoid appearing to be sensitive.

The Korean had an experience where the contrast was starkly displayed. He had a chance to visit Las Vegas with several friends from Korea who saw the city for the first time, and several friends from America who saw the city for the first time as well. One of the prime attractions of Las Vegas (aside from rampant gambling, boozing and whoring) is the dancing fountain of Bellagio, an enormous and beautiful set of water jets that sway according to many different pieces of music. In both occasions, because of random events, the Korean found himself with one other male friend watching the fountain – both friends very significant to the Korean, although the friend from Korea had a longer history with him.




As the fountain danced to My Heart Will Go On, the Korean’s two interactions were decidedly different. With the friend from Korea, the conversation was definitely more relaxed. We talked about how beautiful and romantic the fountain was, and rued the fact that we did not have girlfriends to be wowed with the fountain when we showed it to them. With the friend from the U.S., the conversation was mostly centered on the marvelous engineering feat of the water cannons, tempered by periods of awkward silence in between.

(Even with the friend from Korea, however, the Korean drew the line at the gondola ride at the Venetian. But that’s the Korean’s American side.)

Then the natural question is – aren’t Korean men afraid of looking like gays? The Korean wishes he could say that Korea is a wonderfully tolerant place in which men are confident enough of their sexuality not to let homophobia get in the way of a healthy bromance. But unfortunately, homophobia is not a factor in Korea for a completely different reason – because gays in Korea are so deeply driven underground, they are not in a position to threaten the majority. So it is more accurate to say that Korean men can push toward their feminine side a lot more closely because being accused of homosexuality is a lot less likely event in Korea. (Although more likely recently.) The Korean’s guess is that even in the future when homosexuality becomes more prominent in Korea, the “markers” by which gays are identified will be significantly different from the markers in the U.S.

The second question is, do Korean men have deeper/more meaningful friendship than American men? It is true that overt expression of one’s emotion is at least one of gauges for the strength of that emotion. This is particularly true if one considers that expression of emotion reinforces the strength of that emotion.



But at the end of the day, there is no definitive way to answer this question, since emotion is not something one can see. One would be hard-pressed to see young men in the American military, for example, and think that they do not necessarily share the same sense of brotherhood as young men in Korean military do. Bromance happens all over the world, and there is no real way of measuring the strength of it.

NOTE: This post only is speaking of same-sex friendship. If you are a woman, and a Korean guy is being touchy, that probably means he is interested in you, and not in a platonic way.

-EDIT 10/5/2009 8:45 p.m.- Commenter Brit made an excellent point that the Korean forgot to mention:

One thing you neglect to mention here in the cultural differences between Americans and Koreans is the value in America over the individual. Some people might want to chalk this up to homophobia, but I see it more like this: Americans are infinitely more protective of their "personal space" and this extends even to our close friendships.

-EDIT 10/9/2009 7:00 p.m.- Excellent example of bromance in Korea: Tablo, member of a hip hop group called Epik High in Korea, spoke about how he burst into tears when he saw an email from Tukutz, fellow member of Epik High who recently began serving his military duty. Both Tablo and Tukutz are dudes.

Got a quesiton or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

16 comments:

  1. I don't think it's just Koreans. I have a lot of Saudi Arabians at my school and they DEFINITELY show bromance! People have asked if they were gay. LMAO!

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  2. The first day I met my two main (female) co-teachers - nay, the first five minutes - they went to great pains to explain to me that holding my hand was "not lesbian", then marched me down the street arm-in-arm. I was aware of the touchy-feely thing, but it was nice of them to try to not freak me out.

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  3. My husband was made uncomfortable by Chinese graduate students at a university he was visiting (in China) -- one guy kept his hand on his knee during the whole dinner and kept leaning in. And tried to go arm in arm while showing him around Beijing.

    I told him he was just irresistible to guys. Or Chinese people.

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  4. Yeah, the issue here is not about Koreans, but about Americans.
    In almost every culture in the world, the kind of behavior described among Korean men here can apply to the majority of cultures in the world.

    The one culture that freaks out when two men are very close to each other is the American one (not only the American one, but mostly the American one).
    That for a bunch of reasons one can relate to Puratism, and it's more or less unconscious homophobia as well as this obsession with sex that makes Americans see sexual things that are not sexual in any way.

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  5. My Korean boyfriend, an American guy friend of mine and I were sitting around talking one night. My friend is in the Air Force and we must have been talking about muscles when my boyfriend grabed my guy friend's thigh and gave it a squeeze. My guy friend and I were so shocked we couldn't believe it, we just cracked up and couldn't stop laughing. To this day, despite trying to explain to him these things between American guys, I don't think he understand what he did wrong... poor guy..

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  6. One thing you neglect to mention here in the cultural differences between Americans and Koreans is the value in America over the individual.

    Some people might want to chalk this up to homophobia, but I see it more like this: Americans are infinitely more protective of their "personal space" and this extends even to our close friendships.

    Koreans are used to being crammed together on the streets, in the underground, everywhere. They're a group-oriented society as opposed to an individual-oriented society.

    When I lived in Korea I found the concept of personal space to be entirely lacking. Even perfect strangers stand so close to you when talking you can feel their breath on your neck. It's no wonder two close Koreans would be handsy with each other, since the concept of "my" space and "your" space doesn;t exist. It's more a concept of "our" space.

    The Korean, am I interpreting this accurately?

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  7. As a Canadian, I definitely felt awkward many times in Korea when other men got a bit too touchy. A co-worker of mine would put his hand on my leg after a couple of drinks.. it was just friendly but in Canadian, as in American culture there is an unwritten rule that guys just don't touch each other like that unless they are driving to the hoop if you get my drift.
    Physical displays of bromance are only tolerated in sports. In sports you can slap ass, hold hands, and hug it out all you want.
    I also couldn't believe that the high school boys that I taught would hold hands on occasion and snuggle up during movie time. Although it really isn't a big deal, I am conditioned to associate that behaviour with homosexuality.
    Another time at a bar a couple guys from Mexico were getting a bit touchy, what with the cheek kissing and all, and it almost triggered a fight with the Canadians/Americans that were there. While they were just being friendly, you just can't do that to most Canadian/American/ I'd say British guys as well...
    We need our space.

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  8. Brit, excellent point. Can't believe the Korean forgot to mention that. The post is updated to reflect your comment.

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  9. Koreans are way more homosocial than Americans. It's a good thing. More people should be free to express their affection for one another.

    However, it is just as true that while they are more touchy feely that doesn't mean they are less homophobic. Sad, but true.

    Still, i'm jealous of my Korean gay friends who have Korean boyfriends because they can be affectionate in public without raising any eyebrows. However, most don't even dare attempt to do this which is extremely perplexing.

    The homosocial Korean guys sure do throw my gaydar out of whack though.

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  10. This doesn't just happen in Korea, but it also happens in China. It happens in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well, but to a lesser extent since they are somewhat a bit more Westernized and for a longer period of time than Korea was.

    I believe the group mentality of Korean society puts the male relationship at a closer distance than it does in the United States. When you see a guy with his arm around another man in the U.S., more often than not, you actually assume that they are a gay couple. When a Korean person sees two men with an arm around the other dude, he would just assume they were very close friends.

    Koreans are also more free to express their feelings about certain things that are considered touch-feely by American men. Like, your true feelings about a girl or a situation. In the same situation to Americans, you would be called a pussy or to man-up.

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  11. The bromance component is a part of so many cultures...in some it's definitely acceptable but predicated upon age. In excessively individualistic cultures like the American one, I guess, things work a bit differently. However, I've seen that even in the U.S., especially among teenagers, and hispanic teenage boys in particular, snuggling up and even the hand-holding thing is not such a stigma. People in individualistic cultures tend to shun very close relationships, so why do they wonder why they're so lonely all the time?

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  12. Having Korean roommates, widened my eyes. I think also there is one more thing that also links this together. Skinship is so part of Korean culture, my hyungs don't care to display it all the time. To them, I am their little brother. So why can't they show this affection to me? I am their brother and they are mine. In many south American countries, including mine, Brasil, families are very touchy, including uncles and brothers even within same sex. To me, I feel like my hyungs just think of me as their brother.

    On another note, skinship in America between close friends are changing too. I have many guy friends who do skinship when they spend time with each other. I think guys are changing their thoughts more and more these days.

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  13. I know this post is old but since you mentioned Spanish people and I'm Spanish I wanted to clarify what you said.
    WOAH, sorry, at the end this is so damn long. ;A; I just wanted to share a bit of our habbits but ended explaining too long. Feel free to ignore if you don't feel like reading too much.


    In Spain it's pretty common to see girls holding hands or walking arm-in-arm. We are very touchy with each other.

    Less common, a guy and a girl who are just friends arm-in-arm. More unusual, but still acceptable, holding hands. The first thing to think is "Are they a couple?", but saying "Just friends" is perfectly understandable. The man putting the arm around the woman (over the shoulders or the waist) while walking is more like something a couple will do and the woman will probably feel uncomfortable; unless it's for a picture or you're very good friends and the other partie is using you as a place to rest. Yeah, like a wall to lean on. xD It depends on the "personal space tolerance" that person has.

    Kissing on the check and giving hugs woman/woman and woman/man are the usual while saying "hello" or being introduced to someone (the usual is two kisses, one for each check). Even if they are given for no reason to a friend is still okay, if it's clear between the two parties that it's just "friendly skinship to show affection" and both agree.

    What about the male/male relationship? It's more like in the USA.
    - First, most of Spanish man have that "a man is a MAN" on their minds. Yeah, not everyone thinks this way but there's still a bit of "men shouldn't show their feelings". Until not so long there were a lot of sexism and "being seen as a woman" was something VERY bad. (There's still sexism though, despite what may seem from outside...) "Man should be strong, not cry, not be feminine..." What leads us to the next thing.
    - Second, they are afraid of being called "gay". We are a Christian Catholic-based country. And had a dictatorship that ended on 1975. This dictatorship was very Catholic. I mean, the dictator imposed it even at the schools. And, at their POV being gay was an abomination. (But men had some sort of "tolerance" with lesbianism though. I mean, if you don't say it, if you don't show it on public, if you don't... based on a mere "it turns me on".)
    - Third; personal space.

    So between men it's unusual to give kisses, hugs and this kind of things.
    If it's a kiss... a)Gay b)Joking so much
    If it's a hug... a)A moment of extreme happy b)A way to show how much you appreciate something c)Trying to give support d)Gay
    If it's arm over the shoulders... a)Comradeship b)You are plotting something c)Gay

    But gays can go away and demonstrate how they feel without being cruzified by it. Unless you bump into some Catholic conservative that won't approve it. And even say something to you about it.

    Well, that's everything. Wew it take so long... Hope you find it interesting. =)

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    1. I just wanted to make a remark about the male/male relationship, because I'm also from Spain. While it's true, I think it's becoming more aceptable for men, specially in sports like football (soccer), where it doesn't feel weird to see the players hugging each other after scoring a goal or after a defeat.

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  14. Yeah, I noticed Korean men are a bit more open minded about some friendly gestures and even fashion as well, but I never got an impression that they might be gay. And some guys do some gestures just for pure fun, as a joke. Which in Croatia, I saw only between drunken people and punks.

    But still, they don't seem as comfortable as women. It is common that girls, without lesbian tendences, (or with tendences, but as a light joke or provocation) hold each other's hands, hug and kiss each other. Sometimes even touch her friend's breatsts. (This last one I never saw in Korea, but I saw it in my country, Croatia, and sometimes in Japanese cartoons.)

    And another thing I saw only in Korea is --> couples (boy and girl) wearing the same. In Croatia a man will never wear like a girl, no matter she's his girlfriend.
    I think these are two extremes, though... Unisex combinations are common nowadays, so there is nothing sensetional about it. But yet, a couple or two friends wearing the same, it's no fun to me, personally. But, oh well, it's their choice.

    In addition, the homosexual topic in Korea doesn't seem to be so present and so popular as much as it is in Europe, where they have their proud parades and fight for legal merriages and the rights to adopt children.

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  15. Okay Korean, I know there's a lot you're not telling people...like *everything*, lol. No comparison can be made between the East and the West in this regard whatsoever. When it comes to matters of sex we are worlds apart, and how much we touch each other in public has nothing to do with it. You and I both know that there is more contained under the rubric of 'friendship' in Asia than in America and Europe and that Asians *love* to pull it over on people from the west when it comes to sex. There is not a single Asian male that doesn't think about my penis when he sees me...I know you all give each other blowjobs and I've had people admit it to me, although it's not always easy to get to the point where they're telling me the truth. There are two ways to put it: None of you are hypocrites and all of you are perverts. You all become dirty old men to some degree.

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