RECENTLY KOREAN society has witnessed many discussions of dating. "Senior dating" has arisen as a social issue, and teenage couples are busy celebrating not only their '100th anniversary' but even their 'two-two-day', which is their 22nd day together. Regardless of generation or age, dating has become an everyday concern for all Koreans, but among them, college students are ones that are expected to date most freely and most passionately. However, are they truly enjoying their love life as much as others believe them to be? Every generation throws a glance of envy towards the young 20s, but you can soon notice that they are, in fact, the ones that are suffering the most from the widespread social discussions of dating.
History of "Free Dating" in Korea
The concept of 'dating' is a modern phenomenon. Marriage is a tradition that has lasted over 5,000 years, but the current form of marriage based on romantic love has a short history of only fifty years. The word 'love' in Korea was generally perceived as filial piety or reverence toward seniors rather than an intimate feeling between men and women. It was only from the 1920s that Koreans started to use the term 'free dating' to refer to the modern concept of love due to rapid modernization and an influx of European values in the colonial period. The modern form of dating slowly occurred among the youths around this time period and they rebelled against traditional values and yearned to choose their own lover, since dating was the only legal outlet to express their desire for a change in society. Still, not everyone could quickly start free dating since numerous controversies surrounding it condemned dating for being too radical. Even so, those who were able to engage in an intimate relationship were called 'modern boys' and 'modern girls'. The controversy continued on for a long time, until the current form of romantic marriage evolved as the general norm of the society about 50 years ago.
Being the symbol of youth and freedom, college students were always the core group involved in modern dating and its development. Even until today, dating is considered as an essential part of college students' life. So-called meeting and sogaeting (blind date) offerings are incessant from their colleagues and senior students. With the development of smart phones and applications, college students can even find their 'one' through apps. The most widely used one is gilhanasayi(Between one road) and currently over twenty universities are registered on this app including Yonsei University, Seoul National University, Korea University, and Ewha women's University. According to the provided statistics, over 3,000 couples have started dating through this app. Moreover, big-scale events are opening to support college students' dating. The most memorable one would be the solodaechup (Great victory of solos) held on Christmas Eve in various locations, including Myongdong, Yeouido, and Daejeon. At the event, over 35 thousand single men and women were given a mission to gather freely and leave with whomever they want. Unfortunately, not many participants achieved their goal in this event due to a low rate of women's participation and the somewhat awkward set-up of men and women running towards each other, yet it clearly revealed the youths' passionate struggle to find their partner. "Cultural and legal restrictions that used to be laid upon Korean high school students are lifted as they enter college. Being able to enjoy adulthood, their expectations of dating become even fuller.” said Jo Hye-jeong (Prof., Dept. of Cultural anthropology.) Likewise, college men and women are willing to jump through fire and water to find “the one.”
The vigorous attempts of college students to date someone are desirable, but problems arise when everything starts to get obsessive. Since dating became an essential part of college students' life, single students get stressed. Words like mo-tae-so-lo (person who has never dated anyone), Cheolbyuknyo (women who will not let guys approach them) are being newly coined and increasing in number. On campus, you would often find playful placards that are written "ooo from ooo major has been mo-tae-so-lo for oooo days". Such widespread mockery toward students that have never been in a relationship has now settled as a cultural trend of "loving for love's sake". The state of being single seems to give an uncomfortable feeling to many college students that they are in an 'abnormal state.' Thus, students desperately search for their potential lovers, not especially because they want to find their true love, but because they cannot stand the pressure anymore. "I saw many of my friends starting relationships as they entered college. Seeing them, I realized that not all of them started dating because they really want to get to know each other, but as a result of peer pressure or being made fun of. These friends of mine had to stand with only the bad memories as soon as the relationship was over." said Kim Song-eun (Soph., Dept. of Business Admin.) Nevertheless, many students are still eager to date someone no matter how abrupt and unnatural a relationship it might bring about. Then why did such a strong focus on dating and relationships occur among them?
Multiple reasons eventually led college students to become obsessed with dating. Among them, the media is one of the strongest factors that enticed people into creating fantasies about dating and love. The 20s of today's society are the first generation to grow up with idols and TV stars. They actively interacted with their idols through the almost fanatical fan clubs and communicated with them through SNS outside of the television screen, and for them, images shown through TV were no longer a faraway Neverland. They began to identify themselves with their idols. What idols do, they have to do it too, which included being popular and receiving attention from others. In the past conservative Korean society, quiet and loyal children were considered as the 'ideal model'. However, the mass influence of TV stars on young, malleable audiences soon made glamorous looks and fame the 'ideal model' among them. Being popular, and being able to attract the ones they are interested in, and ultimately showing their popularity by officially dating someone would equal to realizing their values unconsciously created through the influence of the media.
Now that the media knows dating is what sells well, it constantly produces programs such as soap operas, movies and reality TV shows that glamorize the concept of dating. For a time, there was a deluge of dating reality shows in Korea. The programs such as cheon-saeng-yeon-bun (soul mate), star-ui-chin-goo-reul-so-gae-ham-nida (Introducing star's friends) were all matchmaking programs. Dates in such reality shows are often overly beautified and idealized, thus making audiences absorb only the positive, illusory side of dating. For example, in the reality dating TV show Woo-ri-gyeol-hon-hat-a-yo, many star couples' fake marriage life was broadcast. Two people will start their 'marriage' after a fluttering first encounter. Just like real newlyweds, they have a house to live in and their lifestyle will be beautifully portrayed with maybe some trivial problems that will in no time be recovered from. No major conflicts would ever be broadcast, and even departure is always two of them wishing the best for each other. The relationship is obviously fake, but audiences will immerse themselves in the world of the TV couple, and unconsciously believe the embellished conversations and behavior to be real. With the media pouring out only the beautiful aspects of love and dating, people begin to hold exaggerated illusions about dates.
The media not only beautifies dating, but also ridicules the so called 'solo's. Many comedy programs utilize 'solo' as an embarrassing title, thus transplanting a negative image to their audiences about them. In "Gag Concert" in KBS2 which is one of the most popular comedy shows in Korea, a new skit called "An-saeng-gyo-yo" (We cannot make girlfriends), makes fun of the 'laughable but sad' reality of single men. In TV shows such as "Jjack"(Pair), the situation in which dating becomes the primary purpose of life is demonstrated. Jjack promoted a mo-tae-so-lo show in which the participants were all men and women who have never dated before. The show indirectly led the audiences to make observations about mo-tae-so-lo, and after the show was broadcast, negative comments such as "They have awful personalities and looks. I can see why they have never dated anyone until that age" filled the board on blogs and portals. Naming all participants as mo-tae-so-lo certainly made audiences unconsciously create a negative stereotype against them. "College students seem to be forming a culture of viewing ones who cannot date as "'losers' with unattractive looks or an unattractive personality" said Kang Mi-yeon (Prof., Dept. of Sociology), and of course the media has contributed greatly to the creation of such a culture.
Another factor is fundamentally based on Korean society's paradigm shift towards post-modern society. For today's 20s who stood in the middle of a rapid paradigm shift from a modern to a postmodern society, loneliness is an inevitable part of one's life. Past values have become slowly disjointed; pluralism, relativism and individualism are the three terms that typify postmodernist society. As a result of ingrained individualism, interactions between people diminished and an extremely competitive atmosphere arose among Koreans. Traditional forms of relationship such as family also began to falter. Increasing rates of divorce, a growing generation gap, financial crisis etc. are pressures on the family that many college students have gone through during their childhood. To fill this emptiness young people constantly search for a new, intimate relationship that would substitute for what they have lost in their younger ages. "In a society with a great amount of communication gaps, antagonism and competition, young individuals want someone who would accept them entirely as who they are. For a short period of time, two people are deeply in love so that it finally seems that their loved one is completely filling the loneliness inside. They will devote themselves to their partner, but the feeling does not last very long as love naturally wearies." said Jo Hye-jeong, (Prof., Dept. of Dept. of Cultural Anthropology.). College students are searching for a replacement for their lack of affection during childhood through a different relationship apart from their family.
Yet, a big irony exists in this society; dating is encouraged almost forcefully upon college students, but the pressure makes dating even more difficult for them, since the young generation cannot feel free from society's attention. According to a research portal, "Lens", 76 percent of college students answered "yes" to the question 'Have you ever felt other people bothering you or forcing you to be in a relationship while you were single?" When love becomes a duty, the unnatural process of searching for their loved ones eventually hinders a natural formation of intimate love. To college students, a lover provides a special sense of confidence. Whereas love provided by family members or friends are what almost everyone has, not all people have dating partners. The number of one's dating experience or its duration has come to function as a barometer to prove one's attractiveness. For many college students, dating has transformed itself into a measure of competence and capacity. By being in a public relationship, they can free themselves from society's pressure; this is the real 'abnormal state'.
With dating turning into the barometer of capacity and being “cool,” dating has even become commercialized. For example, some single young men and women pay an unbelievably huge amount of money to get a 'tutor' to learn about how to successfully flirt with and date people they like. There is even a new kind of job that recently was named as "pick-up artists". These are people who are very proud of being able to ask for numerous people's phone numbers on the street and then date them. They create a bond through internet blogs and boast about their experience dating a women they met for the first time, and teach each other the 'skills' efficiently to chase after girls.
Even after successfully starting to date, the competition does not end here. Once college students start dating, they tend to think the relationship has to be 'better' and 'sweeter' than others. Markets are taking advantage of the situation by obliging more and more consumerist anniversaries upon Korean couples. Valentine's day, Peperoday (day to exchange a Korean snack to show affection) all originated from consumerism, but young Koreans can hardly get away from it since it is an important event in which they can show that they are dating someone in a trendy way. Beautiful dating spots that appear in soap operas often become a 'must-go' place for couples. Choi-go-ui-sa-rang (The Best Love), a soap opera broadcast in 2011, was frequently filmed in a Cafe in Pyongchangdong, and even until now, fans of the soap opera visit the place with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Following the so called dating routines that most other couples also follow, the young lovers become contented with the feeling that their love is not falling behind. Through SNS, such a tendency to boast about their relationship is reproduced and amplified. By naturally observing others through SNS, they will unconsciously compare each others' gifts and decide whose is better. "I noticed some of my friends actually judge the value of themselves according to how their girlfriend or boyfriend treats them, especially on tangible gifts that they can boast about through SNS. Although I have never considered dating just for the sake of dating, seeing friends showing off their relationship through the Internet often makes me feel obliged to be in a relationship that others could envy" said (Kim Chae-lin, Soph., UIC, Asian Studies Division).
Regarding the current trend of loving for the sake of love, contrasting views exist. One is that the current trend will continue on in the future, the other is that the current form of dating and relationships will experience an extreme paradigm shift. "As the society is gradually becoming more postmodernist, the desire to design their own life is strengthening, thus young people seek to make decisions based on their identity and desire. Since love is a fundamental feeling for mankind that will not disappear, and the current form of dating has already been fixed as the norm, loving relationships between men and women will continue to exist. As a result, I predict that college students will constantly be immersed in dating," said Kang Mi-yeon (Prof., Dept. of Sociology). As the society opens up to accept difference in a more respectful manner, dating culture can become more dynamic; even so, the basic concept of college student's immersion in relationships might not disappear.
The current society is strongly emphasizing an intimate relationship between two people, and young people's fantasies about the beautified dating is at its peak. "Dating is a form of expressing narcissism, but narcissists cannot maintain a long, healthy relationship, since they will concentrate too much on themselves which hinders the person to consider his or her partner. As a result, relationships will be broken, and young people's fantasies about love will eventually go through a breakdown. At this point, various forms of relationship will appear,” expects Jo Hye-jeong (Prof., Dept. of Dept. of Cultural Anthropology). According to Jo, some will look for an answer to the broken fantasies in a 'community' consisting of more than two people, while some will take a safe road and be under his or her parent's love and protection and stop all attempts to be in a relationship with anyone else. One radical outcome that is shown in the current society is that some of the young generations will declare themselves as celibate. Communal relationships have already appeared in some places in which young men are members of a community that does not believe in marriage, and they all live together without any legal contracts. In Jeonju, Korea, for example, there is a single women's community, "bb," who refuse to marry. Although such phenomena forms only a tiny part of current society, various different ways to replace “love for the sake of love” are emerging slowly.
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Korean society provides an infinite amount of freedom to college students so as to compensate for the harsh time they spent during their high school years struggling to enter college. Among all the freedoms that are given to them, love and dating is the first thing that comes to mind for most students. Some young college students today, however, do not seem to date because they have a partner that they love but rather seems to be desperately finding a partner in order to date. "No matter couple or single, not having a reckless expectation on either side will bring you happiness. Respecting various forms of life, and acknowledging how others choose to live is a much more desirable form of society compared to a society that forces people into a relationship," said Christiane Rosinger, author of "Love is often overvalued"