Dating Culture

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byYi Kwang-Su

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 appear at this time.

Until the 1980s, dates were considered grossly personal luxuries for college students and young lovers. It is difficult to understand from today’s perspective, but the absolute priority of the times, especially for college students, was the democracy movement, and dates were considered shameful secrets. The greatest difference between the 1980s and 90s in terms of date scenes in literature was this: a large number of writers who were in their 20s in the 1980s began reminiscing about the private desires and lives that were sacrificed for the sake of the grand narrative of the times. Youn Dae-Nyeong, Kim Young-ha, and Eun Heekyung, writers who were in their 30s in the 1990s, portrayed free, casual romantic relationships. “Cool” and “sophisticated” sum up the romantic relationships of 1990s Korean literature.

Dates in Youn Dae-Nyeong’s novels can come off as dry and snappy for this reason. A short story collection that epitomizes the sensibilities of Korea in the 1990s, Sweetfish Correspondence, includes surreal dates with women who’ve just come of age or superficial dates that involve no emotional connection whatsoever. The title story, “Sweetfish Correspondence” is about a couple who have impulsive sex on their first date, and then later meet in Myeongdong for a movie, “pork cutlet or ‘beef steak’ for dinner, beer, and then, at a loss as to what to do next, get a room at an inn where they focus on dry sex.” They “quietly come out of the movie theatre, walk past Eujiro-3-ga, past Paik Hospital, and cross the pedestrian overpass to Myeongdong, and slowly, slowly walk up the street past Myeongdong Cathedral” without purpose.

Lovers in novels from the 1990s experience the irony of growing close quickly but never attain true emotional intimacy. Things progress faster and relationships are lighter, but individuals become lonely and as isolated as islands. Eun Heekyung first introduced female narrators in such relationships who are direct and to the point about their preferences. This new trend began with Eun’s first short story collection, Talking to Strangers, which illustrated a new 1990s sensibility towards romance.

“A Special, Exceptional Couple,” a story from the collection, shows us a relationship from beginning to end—from the first date to the end where all passion is gone—through an objective, controlled gaze. This gaze is particularly effective in a date scene using an objective point of view:

“What kind of tea do you want?” asked the man when the young owner of the café walked over to their table to take their order.

“You still don’t know what I like?”

“Coffee, right?”

“What kind of coffee? If you have any interest in me, you should know that much.”

Evidently, the conversation reveals that the couple has lost passion for one another. This scene also show how dates in the 1990s usually took place in coffee shops characteristic of the era where servers took orders at tables, which is different from most large franchise coffee shops more common today.


Dates, Perhaps Far Too Common

In this way, dating culture has changed through the course of time. Another example of this is: “I’ll be holding a rolled-up copy of The Hankyoreh in front of Winner’s Burger near the K University gate.” This is not a secret code among spies but a way of spotting your blind date. These kinds of dates might sound unusual, and surprising to find out that such blind dates were very common at a time when online chatting often led to real life meetings. At least in the 2000s, when the novel Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2000) was published, online chatting and blind dates were considered a sophisticated way of meeting new people and thus were very popular.

The two people in Marriage Is a Crazy Thing meet through a friend and make a pact to keep their relationship strictly sexual. They first meet for tea and then move their date to Gangnam for drinks, and their innocent date turns into a hedonistic romp. As soon as the woman says, “It doesn’t matter if we grab a cab or get a room,” this date with the possibility of marriage in mind quickly turns into a friends-with-benefits arrangement. The dates of the 1960s where men “handed over” their women to friends in fear of an unwanted pregnancy, evolved into dates of the 2000s where couples have sex on their first dates. In Korean literature today, dates no longer imply serious meetings with marriage or purity in mind.

The fact that drinking is always a part of dating in Korean literature speaks to the levity of romantic encounters. What characters do on dates can also function as status symbols: The posh “slowly read the wine list” and order wine from the “sommelier” (“Romantic Love and Society,” 2002) while impoverished young couples split a coffee bought at a convenience store. Today, “Shall we go get another drink somewhere?” (My Wife Got Married, 2006) is a code for “Let’s keep this date going a little longer.” These days, the term date is no longer one of confusion and innuendo.


  5. Romantic Love and Society
Jeong Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 252p, ISBN 9788932014487

6. Marriage Is a Crazy Thing
Lee Mankyo, Minumsa Publishing Group
2000, 284p, ISBN 8937403455

7. My Wife Got Married
Park Hyun-wook, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2013, 384p, ISBN 9788954620239