AMONG THE skyscrapers, palaces and Korean BBQ restaurants that surround the streets of Seoul, it is impossible not to notice the abundance of couples, either holding hands, wearing eerily similar clothes, or sharing a perfectly-marketed sweet at a café. This is all part of a trend that can be found across the city, with items that are specifically designed to be shared with your significant other. Clothing stores offer matching clothing pieces, from shoes to couple rings that commemorate 100 days of a relationship.
Korea’s couple culture features not only outward displays of relationship status, but also celebrations of romantic holidays like Valentine’s Day and White Day, when women and men respectively give gifts to their significant other to celebrate their love. Apps like Between allow pairs to mark how many days they have been together and to remember important events. The key to Korean couple culture is many romantic gestures that show other people that you are in a relationship.
Couple culture is a well-defined and important part of romance here in Seoul, but it is obvious that couple culture is not all that there is to romance, or even love, for that matter. Love and romance carry varying definitions and these distinctions become even more poignant when examining them in the context of global cultures.
Love around the world
Seoul does a good job at creating its own brand of purchasable romance, but other places, publications, and pop culture icons also do a lot of work with shaping ideas of romance and love. Paris, “The City of Love,” is a place that heavily shapes the European ideas of what love and romance connote. Wine, romantic walks on the Seine, and an old city charm are just a few of the things that gave Paris the reputation of “The City of Love.” However, the Parisian myth of love, and romance at that, is a far cry from the Korean couple culture that dominates the streets of Seoul and agendas of couples in the city. The presentations of love and romance differ from place to place.
Another example is the New York Times Modern Love Essay contest. Each year the publication asks readers to write their best essay on modern love. One particular essay, You May Want to Marry My Husband, tells the heart-wrenching story of an American woman with a terminal illness who makes the preemptive choice to seek out a new partner for her soon-to-be alone husband. You May Want to Marry My Husband tells its readers that modern love can be defined by the actions and care that one has for the other. While this concept does not come in the form of couple packages or romantic French wine tastings, love and romance still exist in varying definitions in every society.
The gravity of romance
Romance is often thought of as something that is related to love, but does not exist exclusively in the presence of love. In terms of couple culture, romance may seem silly, but it in fact could be an important part of maintaining a relationship. In a conversation with Elena Hoffman (Jr., Dept. of Business Admin., Exchange) and her boyfriend Daniel Chang (Class of 2012, Dept. of Electrical and Electronic Engin., Yonsei Univ.), the pair opened up about their personal views on the distinction and intersection of love and romance.
There was no disagreement when the pair was asked if there was a difference between love and romance—both agreed that there are quite a few differences. However, when asked what exactly distinguishes the concepts, Chang and Hoffman held slightly different views.
Chang told The Yonsei Annals, “I personally think that romance is somewhat less serious than love. I think that romance is the part that comes before a serious relationship. After romance comes the love where you not only have affection for your partner, but also have responsibility and respect.”
Hoffman said she mostly agreed with Chang’s view on the subject, but she expressed that romance is not as light of a matter as Chang said.
“I don’t necessarily think romance is less serious than love because it’s still a necessary step to make someone feel loved, but I do think that love is more of the point or ultimate goal of romance,” Hoffman said.
Romance is defined by you and your partner, and is a necessary first step to love for many couples. Overarching themes and ideals can set out the some guidelines for romance. While they are by no means exhaustive and/or foolproof, they can act as the spark that may lead to a more serious love.
Although in Korea romance is significant in the context of love, there is an existing opinion that it can be forced at times. On the topic of these two concepts, Jun Hee-ju (Sr., Dept. of Biotech, Yonsei Univ.) commented that they might not be as contrasting to each other, since for her “[romance and love go] together, but maybe romance is a subconcept of love.” Jun added, “If you love someone, I think romance goes together.”
While in her opinion they cannot be separated, Jun did raise the issue about how romance and love have different meanings depending on the culture. To illustrate the fact, she compared the romantic gestures in Korea to those in the USA.
“The most important thing is Korean people love couple items: couple shoes, couple T-shirts, couple necklaces, or couple pens,” Jun said. “But in California, or anywhere else, you cannot find that culture. I wanted to do it with my boyfriend. He’s American. [...] He was like ‘What the hell? Why would you wear the same T-shirts?’”
When asked if these type of gestures such as counting days together and celebrating 100-day anniversaries can help make couples stronger, Jun said, “[It] makes the couple get exhausted really fast because you need to do everything,” Jun said. “[There are] so many things to take care of. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Although she grew up in a society where this behavior is normalized as part of relationships, Jun began to celebrate occasions differently. “Even for a one year anniversary or two year anniversary, I just like to have date night or give him a letter,” Jun said. With all of these patterns, sometimes this kind of culture can be overwhelming, since “it is not that you want to do it but that you have to do it, to make your partner not feel bad,” according to Jun.
While for some people romance does go hand in hand with love, there is no obligation to act in a certain way for romance’s sake, especially given that this concept varies from individual to individual even within a couple.
Long distance longing
But not everyone is tired of the Korean couple culture. The Annals also spoke with Sydney Mcloughin Laewen (Jr., Dept. Political Science and Int. Studies, Exchange) and Elsa Hatakka (Jr., Dept. of Business Admin., Exchange), two exchange students balancing long-distance relationships. The duo were optimistic to engage more with the city’s particular brand of romance. One thing that both agreed on is that if romance is ready to buy, and always around you, then it may be easier to find love.
Mcloughin Laewen told the Annals, “Since I came here I’ve been going to places and thinking, ‘Oh! I would love to do this with my boyfriend!’ I think that they [Korea] sell [romance] as an idea, and it’s easier to fall into the pattern of love and become a couple when these factors help you find that path.”
Couple culture in Seoul can definitely be seen as selling romance, with each holiday and anniversary comes gifts, dates, and outings for the purpose of social media posts—all of which cost money. Mcloughin Laewen brought up the idea of a romantic pattern, that love and romance may just be the technical following of a pattern, a rhythm of love. Some situations are better for jumping into that rhythm, and Seoul may be one of them. Hatakka agreed with Mchloughin Laewen, but was quick to add that buying into romantic ideals may not always lead to love.
“I feel like you can maybe buy love to a certain point to get someone on the hook, but it is not something you can rely on 100% to maintain a relationship. Of course it goes person-to-person. Romance goes with gestures—some people need a lot, others do not,” Hatakka said.
More than just romance
When asked about the differences between romance and love, Adriana Pimentel (Jr., Dept. of Business Admin., Exchange) said, “When couples only depend on the romance, and their relationship gets tested they can easily fall apart. Actions speak louder than words but [actions] can also be really hollow.” Pimentel discussed how romance is the manifestation of the love, and as such, love and romance seem to be closely related yet the latter should not be considered as the sole basis of the relationship.
However, Pimentel was quick to note that love does not have to exist exclusively within the concept of romance. “Love is not only limited to... romantic partners, it can be between family and friends,” Pimentel said. “Romance is very outside—it’s the external thing, like going on a date, or showing physical affection or sweet nothings.”
From her point of view, love does not always come with the romantic factor, as there are many other types of relationships.
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Love and romance are defined by individuals despite societal limitations, which naturally develop differences between people within the same culture. However, it is undebatable that love and romance continuously converge. Romance can be demonstrated in varying ways, as there is more than one way to show one’s feelings, but does not have to exist exclusively in the presence of love.
Despite an overarching ideal of romance and love in Seoul, couples at Yonsei University have the power to pick and choose what type of romance to include in their relationship, and ultimately define love in whatever way they please. For every couple who wears matching ensembles and sips on a couple’s coffee set, there is another having takeout dinner in silence and scrolling through Twitter.