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?
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?
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.
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.
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