Dating Culture

Dates and Dating: Unexplored Emotional Territory

In the English vernacular, the word “to date” means “to go out with someone with whom one is romantically interested.” But the word deiteu (date) in Korean has a slightly different meaning: “two people meeting with the intention of pursuing a romantic relationship.” In other words, “dating” in Korean has more long-term overtones. Dating is the step before a relationship becomes serious, the stage full of tension and curiosity. It is notable that Koreans have opted to stick with this borrowed term to describe romantic relationships rather than finding a Korean equivalent. When the term was first incorporated into the Korean vernacular, the romantic nature of a relationship was emphasized by using deiteu, as opposed to “seeing someone” or “being together.” The foreignness of the word also made the word fashionable and less sexually charged. It became a more sophisticated alternative to traditional taboos concerning courtship.

For instance, dating in Korean literature was depicted in Yi Kwang-Su’s Heartlessness (1917) as such: “Hyeong-sik and Seon-hyeong, after being engaged for a long time, finally confirm their love for one another.” There are very few scenes that qualify as date scenes in

Yi's novel. A date is a romantic meeting of two people at a specific time and place, but for Hyeong-sik and Seon-hyeong, dates were not important. In fact, the very idea of love is so foreign that Seon-hyeong has difficulty distinguishing between love in the Christian sense and the love that Hyeong-sik professes. It was probably impossible for these two characters to wrap their minds around the concept of a date or even courtship.

On the other hand, writer Lee Hyoseok’s very modern and sophisticated lifestyle has led to detailed scenes of real dates. Most of us know Lee Hyoseok as the nature-loving author of “When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom.” Close examination of his short story, however, will reveal that he was cultivating an image that was anything but rustic. Lee preferred a breakfast that included coffee and cheese, and liked to shop at department stores. In his short story, “Heart’s Design,” a date scene reflects the lifestyle he preferred. Yura and the first person narrator make coffee by “pouring mocha powder in the percolator” and go to concerts. They hop on a train to go see the sea in autumn. They listen to jazz at a shop selling instruments, and pick out ties at a department store.

In the early 1900s, deiteu and reobeu (love) were embarrassing cultural concepts that could only be mentioned using the original foreign term. In expressions such as “Y reobeu me” (“Fainthearted” by Kim Dongin) or “expressed reobeu for a distant cousin but was rejected” (“Suicide Note” by Kim Dongin) we sense the hesitation of expressing love or romantic relationships through the intimacy of the native language because naming these feelings and relationships in Korean would make them much more sensual and specific.


  1. Winter Wanderer (2 vols.)
Choi Inho, Yolimwon Publishing Co.
2005, 402p, ISBN 8970634800 (Vol.1)

2. Fantasy Notebook
Kim Seungok
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2004, 398p, ISBN 8982818685
3. Talking to Strangers
Eun Heekyung
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1996, 360p, ISBN 8982810242

4. Sweetfish Correspondence
Youn Dae-Nyeong
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 428p, ISBN 9788954610612


Between Deiteu and Dating

It was a long time before dating was depicted in Korean literature as a meeting between two equals. For example, Kim Seungok’s novels from the 1960s consider dates a threat to women’s “pre-marital purity” and spiritual cleanliness. A dating scene between two college students in Kim Seungok’s Fantasy Notebook is one such example: Seonae and the narrator are on a date “one evening in May, on the Mapo embankment at dusk.” Seonae is all smiles and in a good mood while the narrator cannot get a word out as he holds Seonae’s hand and sobs. Before long, the tables turn. Seonae sobs, saying, “I started my cycle, so I’m not pregnant." From today’s perspective the scene may seem ridiculous, but in 1962 when this story was written, sexual relationships were depicted as absolutely dangerous for women. In Fantasy Notebook, the narrator goes so far as to “hand over” his girlfriend to another friend in order to shirk responsibility. In the larger context of the story, dating is just another urban contrast to the idyllic rural hometown, but it is notable that city lovers represent broken relationships. The term deiteu is devoid of faith in genuine human relationships. In the end, Seonae takes her own life and the story about her suicide is printed in the papers under the headline, “Pessimistic College Girl Commits Suicide.”

Only in the 1980s was dating recognized in Korean literature as a gateway to a romantic relationship. The innocent date depicted in “Winter Wanderer” by Choi Inho was considered the ideal romantic relationship among young people back then. Still, date scenes in literature functioned as no more than minor stepping stones to innocent love rather than as major, pivotal scenes. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that date scenes came into their own in literature. Date scenes narrated from a woman’s perspective first started to ap...