Is language barrier really an issue when it comes to dating?
I’m hiking Achasan Mountain looking out over a panoramic view of Seoul. Crisp air, sunshine on my face. “Annyong haseyo,” a gentleman says in passing.
“Annyong haseyo,” I answer.
He stops and smiles. He’s so pleased that I answered…and in Korean!
The problem is, he immediately begins talking a mile a minute in his native language. “Sorry,” I say, giving the palms up I-have-no-idea-what-you-just-said gesture. “English.” I feel apologetic. After all, I am living in his country.
He reaches his hand toward mine. He’s actually quite cute. Mid thirties, I’d guess. Thick black hair, of course. Black-brown eyes and there’s a soulful tenderness about them. Chiseled jaw. Strong, athletic body. Not bad.
I reach out to shake his hand at which point he clasps my hand in both of his. Ooh, his hands are so strong and warm. He smiles.
“Mogoyo,” he says slowly pantomiming his intention. He points to himself then to me. He points down the mountain then pats his stomach. He lifts his hand in front of his mouth pretending to eat with chopsticks then drink from a glass. “Umshik,” he says.
For a moment, I’m tempted.
Then my mind jumps to the reality of the situation. This man speaks no English and I speak survival Korean, six phrases to be exact: annyong haseyo (hello); kamsa hamnida (thank you); mian hamnida (sorry); sille hamnida (excuse me); annyong kaseyo (good bye); and olma yeyo (how much is it?). As you can see, I have the annyongs and aseyos and amnidas down pat.
But this won’t get us far in creating conversation. As sweet as he seems, I’m not really interested in spending an afternoon smiling and nodding through painfully awkward silences and pantomime over galbi and kimchi just to be on a date and feel like someone likes me.
“Sorry,” I say, pointing to my watch. “Must go home.”
“Ah,” he breathes, looking heartbroken. He lifts his hands to my face with a look of admiration then moves them in the form of an hourglass. Gosh, he thinks I’m pretty. Would nodding and smiling through lunch really be so painful?
I hold his hands in mine and give him the best goo-goo eyes I can muster. “Mian hamnida,” I say.
And I’m off, down the mountain, turning around briefly to wave. He’s looking my way, his palms nearly touching as if we’re still holding hands.
Is online dating really so bad?
Perhaps I’ll have better luck, I reason, online.
I post my profile information and one of three photos I could find in which both eyes are open and I don’t have rooster hair. I begin my search. The challenge is, searching online profiles requires a decoder ring. Man writes: 5’ 8” tall. Translation: 5’5” with lifts. Man writes: Super easy-going personality. Translation: Passive-aggressive. Family is very important to him? Translation: He lives with his mother. Man writes: Friendship first! Translation: Impotent.
I actually went on a couple of nice dates with men I met online. One was with a Japanese gentleman who comes to Seoul on business quite often. We met. He was nice. His English was okay. He told me, “Look you elegance,” which was sweet. But he also thanked me several times for the opportunity to meet. “It is a privilege to meet you. Thank you for the opportunity.”
The other Korean man I met for lunch said the same thing. Several times. It’s as if there’s a book out there for Asian men who want to get foreign women in the sack and this book instructs them to say over and over again, “It is a privilege to meet you. Thank you for the opportunity.” Both men repeated these sentences in follow-up emails and telephone calls.
Tip to Asian men who want to bed foreign women: Saying the above phrase once is fine. Repeating it over and over just gets creepy. Please use sparingly.
What if you’re just not that into a country’s standard of beauty?
I want to be clear here. I see hundreds of very handsome Korean men. I see them on the subway, in stores, on the sidewalks, in coffee shops. There are many incredibly attractive people in Seoul. And I find many Korean men attractive. However, it’s one thing to recognize attractiveness and another thing to feel attracted. For me, this most likely relates back to the language issue since I tend to feel attracted to men with whom I can connect emotionally and intellectually and this generally requires at least semi-fluent conversation. But there is something else at work; the cultural standard of beauty here doesn’t completely fit with my own.
By comparison, the average Korean man is less rugged-looking than the men I’m used to back home. Some women love this about Korean men. Clean shaven. Mousse-styled hair. Unobtrusive noses. Smooth skin. I grew up in a rural environment where the average man in the grocery store resembled a short lumberjack. In rural upstate New York, the men who surrounded me – the husbands, the fathers, the bread-earners, the protectors – usually worked the land or at least mowed the lawn with a hand mower on weekends. They had callouses, hair sprouting from their ears and stubbly chins. Apparently during my pubescent years, these images of manhood entered my sexual psyche.
So now I tend to be interested in a man whose testosterone is visibly brimming; and I tend not to be interested in a man who has more product in his hair than I do. Give me a protruding Adam’s Apple, some hairy knuckles. I once dated a man who’s so furry that if you entered a ski lodge to find him lying naked on his belly in front of the fireplace, you’d mistake him for a bear skin rug. I don’t need that much visible masculinity, but I do dig it.
Do I really want to be in a relationship right now?
When my niece, Lia, was three years old, she liked the idea of ice cream more than ice cream itself. This made perfect sense to me. Little Lia would see the lines of people at Baskin Robbins, tub upon tub of colorful frozen cream – green Pistachio, blue and yellow Bubble Gum, deep brown Chocolate Fudge, pink Strawberries N Cream. The choices seemed so appetizing and endless. The experience of choosing a flavor and maybe even a topping seemed downright festive. There was so much pleasure potential.
So Lia’s mom would buy her a cup of Cherry Jubilee with chocolate sprinkles and Lia would happily eat a few spoonfuls. And then lose interest.
I get the cultural buy-in. The notion of wanting something because it looks so good…and everyone else wants it…and it seems to satisfy so many.
This brings me back to men. To answer my own question, no, I don’t really want to be in a romantic relationship; not right now. I ended a relationship before moving to Korea happily anticipating more “just me” time. I want the idea of a man in my life. I want the pleasure potential. I don’t want the skid-marked Hanes in my hamper or the soap-on-a-rope in my shower. I don’t want to feel guilty about spending another evening at Taekwondo class when I know he’d rather have me at his place.
Sure, there will be a time again when I want a real relationship. When I meet a man who fits with the woman I am. And I’ll be okay with him gulping Frosted Flakes and milk directly from the cereal bowl and he’ll pretend not to notice when I pluck my eyebrows in front of the microwave while waiting for my Ramen to bubble.
But I think it may be a while.