Dating A Korean Guy
As a major K-pop fan, I pursued the dream of immersing myself in Korean culture by temporarily migrating to Korea when I was just 19 years old. For the next 8.5 years, I pursued Korean language studies and completed my Bachelor’s degree before entering the workforce. From attending BTS concerts to cycling along the Han River, I did pretty much everything to live like a local.
But one thing I never planned for was dating a Korean man. While it was something that wasn’t on my agenda, the experience gave me an insight into the reality of what it was like – contrary to what we see portrayed in K-dramas.
Korean man as the “ideal” boyfriend
Names like Park SeoJoon, Song Kang, and Cha EunWoo are no strangers to K-drama and K-pop fans. Oftentimes, they play the role of the handsome yet enigmatic male lead who we can’t help but fantasise about as our own boyfriends IRL. It is hard not to be smitten by these oppas when their characters possess all the qualities of what makes an “ideal” boyfriend: handsome, tall, stylish, caring and charming.
Ever since Hallyu took off, the notion of an “oppa” became more understood in Asian culture as a nickname for a Korean male with a hint of romantic interest. Yet, the original meaning of “oppa” is what a younger female would use to address an older brother.
It’d be a lie if I said I had never fantasised about dating one myself, because after all, K-pop was one of the reasons why I went to Korea. While my admiration for the former INFINITE member, Hoya, was something I only took half-seriously, I wouldn’t have imagined I would actually date a Korean guy. Until it happened.
How we met and got together
With my ex-boyfriend after a dance performance
I met my Korean ex-boyfriend during my first year in university when we both joined our school’s dance team. At first, he was just a normal batchmate but we got closer through a performance later on.
He was good at dancing and I was amazed by the fact that he could speak English and even a little Chinese, skills he developed from studying at an international school overseas. Naturally, I started finding myself attracted to him. Back then, my Korean was not the best and it was nice to know someone who spoke the same language as me.
Together with friends from our dance team
We began to hang out with just the two of us more often, such as heading to a cafe after school to complete our assignments ‒ akin to cafe scenes in K-dramas.
The most memorable time was when he walked me back to the dormitory where I was staying. K-drama fans would know that Korea has many hills and unfortunately, my school’s dormitory was located right on top of a hill too. I definitely gave him brownie points for his efforts and that was when I realised, we were becoming more than friends.
I could still remember that it was the end of the semester when he confessed to me. It wasn’t the most romantic confession since it took place in a dark alley beside McDonalds. Despite it not meeting K-drama levels of flowers or a handwritten letter, I still agreed to be his girlfriend.
Since it was the first relationship for both of us, everything felt fresh and confusing at the same time. “When do I start sending kissy face emojis?” and “How should I change his label on my phone?” were just examples of questions I began to ask myself. But things began to flow naturally and I decided to take things easy.
He was a year younger than me and didn’t really have the looks of a K-pop idol, so I wasn’t exactly hitting the oppa jackpot. Putting the age factor aside, I noticed how he seemed more open-minded and always ready to try out new things as compared to other locals his age, which made me fall for him.
Since I was a year older than him, a typical Korean relationship would have him calling me “noona” ‒ an older sister in Korean. However, we agreed on calling each other by our names and it felt like I was dating a same-aged friend instead. To us, age and seniority didn’t matter.
The dating phase
Photos of my ex-boyfriend and me on various dates
We began dating like any other normal couple and indeed, there were moments when I felt like the female lead of a university-themed K-Drama like Gangnam Beauty.
After classes, we would hang out in school, occasionally bumping into friends and getting teased by them. On days when we had dance practice, we would squeeze in time with each other during supper or through a short chat before returning home.
We fulfilled so many typical Korean dating fantasies. For example, we went to Namsan Tower, which is a famous spot for couples to “secure” their love with padlocks. We didn’t follow the hype and get padlocks but it did remind me of the scene in My Love From The Star with Kim SooHyun and Jeon JiHyun.
Among the many dates that we went on, my favourite was when we decided to have a picnic by the Han River with fried chicken obviously. I got to enjoy the river breeze and hang out with my favourite person.
We also went to many exhibits, visited various themed cafes, and explored places even he’d never been to in Seoul. Most of the time we went dutch as back then, we were still poor university students. But while our wallets might have been close to empty, our hearts were full.
Being a “Korean” couple and cultural differences
Many interracial couples would usually find themselves having language barriers and cultural differences, and we were no exception. As mentioned earlier, I was rather lucky as my ex-boyfriend could speak fluent English. Yet most of the time, we communicated in Korean.
There was no specific reason behind the choice of language, but it was the best of both worlds. Simple questions over text like “ja?” ‒ aka “are you sleeping?” in Korean ‒ gave me more heart fluttering moments than I’d expected. On the other hand, I would switch to English when I couldn’t express myself, such as the times when we got into arguments. Interestingly, he would argue back in English too.
Soon enough, I found myself adapting to the Korean dating culture as well.
Supporting my ex-boyfriend when he had an external dance showcase
Instead of celebrating our relationship in monthsaries like most Singaporeans, we would do it in 100, 200, 300 days and so on ‒ a norm among Korean couples. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s also White Day, Rose Day, and Pepero Day for couples to get together. To me, it was an eye-opener because it seemed as though society in Korea really placed an emphasis on being in a relationship.
There’s nothing wrong with being single, but it truly felt as if you had to be in a relationship to enjoy these special days. Perhaps because of such societal pressure, I noticed many Koreans getting attached as quickly as they would break up.
On top of being a couple, we even downloaded a couple-exclusive app, Between, which is another common occurrence among couples in Korea. It lets you create special albums and note down some of the precious memories made with your other half.
Since we were only in our early twenties, there was no pressure about us getting married. And while I wasn’t formally introduced to his parents, I briefly met them once when they helped me to move out of the school’s dormitory.
Us being tourists at Gardens By The Bay
On the contrary, he stayed with my family when he came to visit me in Singapore during the school holidays. Initially, he was surprised that my parents were cool with him staying at my house and even wondered if it was alright to do so. That was when it hit me that there were definitely some slight cultural differences between us.
That never occurred to me before, since I spent the majority of the relationship with him in Korea. Now that he entered the environment that I grew up in, signs that we were actually two different people began to become clear.
Why we broke up
Visiting my ex-boyfriend when he was in the military
As I began to realise our differences, another calling I had no control over threw our relationship a curveball: the military.
The news of him having to serve his mandatory military service in the air force left me feeling understandably sad. And to make matters worse, he voiced intentions about breaking up with me as he heard many of his friends breaking up with their girlfriends before they entered the army. I was stunned by the reason and thought it was ridiculous. Talk about peer pressure.
I told him that I was really fine with waiting for him and we continued dating. For the next 6 months, I visited him about once every 2 weeks and was excited every time he booked out. In between the visits, I wrote him letters telling him how much I missed him and even made a video of us touring Singapore.
Yet soon enough, I noticed how I was the only one putting in the effort to maintain the relationship. He began to lose interest and I tried everything I could to fight for the relationship. I told him we could try harder to work things out and contacted him whenever he could ‒ matching his free time and prioritising him over my school work.
He apologised and mentioned that he would try to improve too. For a moment, I thought things were getting better but it was just false hope. Not long later, he reverted to his old self and that was when I just couldn’t take it any more. The worst part? Any resolution had to be in the form of text messages since we were physically apart.
In the end, I initiated the break up, concluding our 1.5 years of relationship on a bad note. He did not even try to win me back and agreed with the decision. It felt as if he was waiting for me to end things and it made me wonder if I should have ripped the bandaid off way earlier.
It was only a year after when we saw each other again during a dance team gathering, that I was finally offered some peace. During that time, he asked to speak to me privately and apologised for how he treated me. While the apology was too little too late, it finally gave me closure to move on.
Tips and advice for dating a foreigner
In my first relationship, I was a “foreigner” and I saw how both my ex-boyfriend and I tried to accommodate our differences. I guess when it comes to dating someone from another country, the best thing you can do is make each other feel at home. Don’t be afraid about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying out new things.
Along the way, I also found myself becoming more cautious and sensitive about the things I said or did. I think it is perfectly fine to be yourself in front of your partner but it is also important to err on the side of caution for choices of words.
Looking back, there were occasions when I felt offended by the way my ex-boyfriend joked about certain things. For example, he casually mentioned it was easier for me to enter university as a foreigner. This was because I didn’t have to take the stressful suneng aka Korea high school examination – as portrayed in SKY Castle.
Although it wasn’t his intention to offend me, it sounded as if I didn’t work hard to earn a spot in the university. He didn’t realise how his words could hurt me and other foreign students too. Only after pointing it out to him did he become more cautious too.
I’ve also heard from my other foreign friends that they realised their Korean ex-boyfriends only dated them just because they wanted to “try” how it was like dating a foreigner. Similarly, don’t go around looking to date a Korean man just to satisfy your oppa curiosity. Date someone because of who they genuinely are as a person, and not because of their ethnicity or nationality.
Love Is Universal And Goes Beyond Distance And Cultural Differences
Although my ex-boyfriend and I made up, we no longer keep in touch. Sometimes it still hurts when I see his face pop up on our mutual friends’ social media but other than that, I try not to think about how it ended. Instead, I focus on the other wonderful memories we made.
Through this relationship, I can say for sure that not all Korean men are similar to those portrayed on screen. While some can be really sweet and kind, they’re not everything like Lee SuHo from True Beauty or Lee YoungJun from What’s Wrong Secretary Kim make it out to be. At the end of the day, they are just men, not other-wordly gods.
Instead, we should view foreign partners with open mindedness and that their cultures make them who they are. After all, mutual respect and communication are huge factors when it comes to making a relationship last.
As for “oppas” moving forward, I’ll stick to admiring them from my TV screen.
All images courtesy of the writer.
This article was first published on 6 September 2021 and last updated on 27 November 2023.