Monday, February 18, 2008

Travelogue #26: My Rocky Introduction to Korean Dating

I didn't come to Korea to date Korean women. Two months ago, I explained the reasons why I wasn't inclined to break down cultural barriers for hubba-hubba affection.

But that was before Ji-Yeon. I won't use her real name because I don't want to get her fired.

Ji-Yeon works with me. She's a Korean teacher at my hagwon. Currently, she's taking a breather from undergraduate studies at an elite university, one that just so happens to reside in the northeastern United States. In other words,she's a young Korean woman in tune with American ways and whims. And movies. She can talk Cloverfield or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

And she's pretty damn cute.

I asked her to lunch in early January. "Like, with everybody?" she wondered, curious if it was a co-worker-wide invitation. "No, uh, no." I motioned uncertainly with my hands. You and me, my hands said. You and me.

"Oh," she replied. "Where did you want to eat?"

We lunched at a U.S.-style sandwich shop. I nibbled my burger and asked her questions. She answered them politely, but kept her arms crossed tightly over her chest. I tried to shrug off her negative body language, but I instead smiled a little too much, hoping that the glint off my teeth would magically drop her arms to her sides. At ease, soldier. At ease.

Though my arm-dropping magic failed, she at least was still talking. She remarked on how odd it was that she was the only Korean in the restaurant. I hadn't noticed that earlier, but as I Iooked around the interior of the cafe, I saw a smattering of very white faces. Probably Canadians. "Hm, yeah, you're right, " I said, "does that make you feel... uncomfortable or anything or is it cool?" She said she's fine with it, that she found it interesting was all. I found it interesting too. After all, we were in Bundang, not Nova Scotia.

"What did you talk about at lunch?" my friend asked me. He wanted a recap. Was it a bad sign that I had to struggle to conjure the details beyond body language? Perhaps, but Ji-Yeon had nevertheless intrigued me enough to schedule a second lunch.

And a third. And a fourth. She began to open up...a little. She told me about the draining stress of flying back and forth between Korea and the States. She told me about how she dropped (destroyed) the cake at her dad's birthday celebration. I learned that her father loved sushi. During that fourth lunch, we commiserated over the confusion of curry: what exactly is it, and are we eating it already?

But at work we were strangers. She'd barely look at my direction. I had heard through the grapevine that Korean teachers were forbidden to date American teachers, but I figured the rule was a piece of common-sense advice rather than stern doctrine. Besides, Ji-Yeon and I were only meeting for lunch; it's not like we were necking under the bleachers.

After that fourth lunch, I suggested that we meet for dinner. We decided on Italian. She said that sounded fine,and since I paid for the latest meal, she would cover the next one. We were talking in specifics, places and times. I was confident dinner would happen.

In the taxi I asked for her number. I didn't have a cell phone, and she didn't have a pen. There was silence. The temperature changed in the cab, or at least that's how it felt to me. I blamed myself for breaking the 21st century code of number exchange: I didn't have a cell phone. God, I really needed a cell phone.

Back at work,she scribbled down her digits, and three days later, I bought a cell. After months of dude-get-a-phone ribbing from my buddies, it took a girl to finally make me break.

I called that morning.

"Yo-buh-say-yo?" she answered.

"Hi Ji-yeon," I said slowly, my way of announcing that I don't speak no Korean. "It's Alex...from work."

I joked about how I finally joined the cell phone revolution....and then I popped the question: "Would you want get some dinner tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night?" she responded, "I'm going to my grandmother's for the weekend."

That feeling of temperature-change in the cab came back to me. I felt like she wanted to get off the phone. "What time would work better for you?"

"Next week," she said swiftly.


"Um," she said, "I'll call you Monday...or Sunday."

Okay. At least we were back to specifics, right? She'd call Monday or Sunday. That's what she said. If she weren't interested, she wouldn't use specifics, would she?

Would she?

She didn't call on Sunday. She didn't call on Monday. I sent a casual text message, lowering the stakes from dinner to an offer of lunch. No response.

I was frustrated, especially considering that our previous lunch had been the most natural, easiest-going time we'd experienced. Or so I thought. I wasn't stupid. If she wasn't calling, if she wasn't texting...that meant she wasn't into it, and that was fine. Game over.

Or was it?

"Korean girls like to be chased," my friend Janet, a Korean-American, told me. "Don't give up. Wait till after vacation, and call again."

"Are you just saying that?" I was skeptical. These sounded like charitable but empty words.

"Trust me," Janet said. "You have to pursue. That's how it works. Try again."

David's Korean-born girlfriend EunJin offered a similar sentiment on Korean women: "They like to play...hard to get."

"So don't give up?"

Don't give up.

I went to China. During the trip's idle moments, I'd think about Ji-Yeon. Was all my talk of temperature shifts imagined? Did I really have a shot with her? If Janet and Eunjin were right, I'd have to come to grips with the fact that the she's just not that into you signs I learned in the United States didn't hold much water in the Korean scene. Time for new expectations. New results.

Hours after I returned to Korea, I called. She didn't pick up the phone. I left a voicemail. I waited. And waited.

She didn't call back.

"How was China?" she asked, her voice straining just a hair, or maybe not. We were standing by the elevators at work, and I was trying to play it cool, as if I never called her in the first place.

"China was good. How was your break."

"Fine, went to my grandmother's."

What was up with this girl and her grandmother? I would chalk it up to a ruse but I heard her tell other people that she was visiting this "grandma" character.

Anyway, I stood there, waiting to see if she was going to mention the calls. She didn't mention anything, and she didn't really look at me either. I had no idea what she was thinking.

I still don't. Could it be job-related? Ji-Yeon is a personal friend of my boss, and I later learned that a couple months ago, an American teacher was required to have a serious conference about his standing in the hagwon because he was dating a Korean employee. That female employee could have been fired if she wasn't voluntarily leaving the academy anyway. Maybe Ji-Yeon didn't want to face the prospect of all that trouble.

Or could it be race-related? Ji-Yeon may have never before dated a non-Korean. Perhaps she saw our previous lunches in a different light than I did. We're just friendly co-workers, she may have thought, so why is this white dude trying so hard to get my phone number?

Or could it be that Ji-Yeon plainly didn't feel a connection with me? I remember the way she crossed her arms, which is the commonly accepted NO sign in Asian countries.

"It doesn't matter, man," David told me, "Pick whatever reason you want."

In typical dating situations, there could be several explanations for why things go south, but when we're talking dating across cultures? The possible reasons, explanations, and justifications multiply. But if the end result is the same, who cares?

I do, and I've chosen the reason why Ji-Yeon bailed on me: she is actually a CIA agent working undercover in Korea. She cannot compromise her identity, and thus, she cannot do Italian for dinner.

Case closed.


Steph said...

I know Britain is not nearly as culturally exotic as Korea, but even I have noticed some weird differences in dating culture here (interesting article about it:;jsessionid=UG233XSKGDHGHQFIQMFSFF4AVCBQ0IV0?xml=/fashion/2008/01/27/st_foreignwomen127.xml&page=1.
Guess it's all part of the learning experience right?

Anonymous said...


I think,the girl is just stupid!

Anonymous said...

Can you say "awkward"? I hate to find myself in situations like this where you have no idea what the other person is thinking.

I say let her chase YOU! I'm sure you're far better looking than she is anyway. : )


Anonymous said...

I'm with JS..
You are the cat's meow

JJ said...

Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

It's kind of weird reading this post knowing the *real* reason she became cold all of a sudden.

//shudders. Hell hath no fury like the scorn of a woman you called out.

3D said...

hey i know you posted this over a year ago, but I am dealing with an almost EXACT situation and I think 'll just move on lol. Thanks for the story.

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha! So funny! "...cannot do Italian for dinner..." I am definitely going to comfort myself with that possible explanation as I navigate the murky cross-cultural dating waters of Korea. Cheers!