Korea and the Reluctant Expat Male

Richard is an American writer from that faction of the men’s liberation movement which is informed by feminism and is critical of the restraints a patriarchal society imposes on men. In 1988-89 he was teaching in Seoul at an English language school which catered primarily to adult students, including a large number of businessmen. The school encouraged socializing between teachers and students after class. Their comments are typical.

Richard’s story

Recently I went out with some students for a drink, and one of the men said, “Maybe this question is too personal, but when you need a woman, where do you go?”

“Nowhere.”

“What do you mean? There are places you can go.”

“Yes, I know.” I rolled off a list of places in Seoul. He was impressed.

I said, “In the States the attitude about paying for sex is very different than here. But even if I didn’t have a problem with it because of my culture, I would have an ethical problem with it because I believe the social situation in which these places exist is wrong.” I gave him the whole line.

“But it’s the women’s job. In Korea you need places like that because women aren’t allowed to have sex before they are married, and men need it.”

It was not the time or the place to launch into a discussion of female sexuality. A female student and some older men students were sitting at the table. I said, “That may be true. I understand that this is a job. But if the job is so necessary, why do they have to kidnap women to do it, why do they have to force women to do it, why are the women so poorly paid, why are they social outcasts? If the job is so necessary, sex workers should be given social standing like teachers or doctors. My opinion might be different if the situation were different and there were similar places for women. If I went there I would contribute to a bad situation.”

He kept saying, “But in Korea you can. Korea is a paradise for men.”

“Yes, I know, but I’m not interested in that kind of paradise.”

He was very surprised. Apparently his American business customers were only interested in going to room salons or room cafes or Miari [a street filled with brothels] to play with Korean women.

“How do you endure?”

“Well, it’s not really all that difficult, although it’s frustrating and lonely sometimes.”

“Because I will pay for you if you want to go to such a place.”

“Well, thank you very much, but I’m really not interested.”

I go out to clubs with him occasionally, and he tries to get me to slow dance with a Korean woman. Slow dancing is considered so intimate that afterwards there’s always the question of what happens next. So I say, “I don’t want to dance like that with anybody I don’t know.”

“But you’re an American. You can dance with anyone you want.” Of course this attitude is part of the problem.

I have a student who’s a lot brighter and a lot more “liberated” than she lets on in class. She also knows a lot more about people than the other Korean women I’ve met. I said to her, “I’m really curious about what women think of shows in adult discos and places like that.”

“Well, of course I don’t like them, but…” and she gave me the same argument, that they were necessary in Korea. Then she said, “But some sociologists think the difference in men’s and women’s sexual needs is only social, that it’s not inherent.”

I told her that’s what’s been established in the States over the last twenty to thirty years, after the most recent period of the women’s movement started. Then I mentioned that a Korean woman gets some of the little power she has from the current situation. “You want to sleep with me, you have to marry me and provide me with a home.” She immediately changed the subject.

I’ve had several encounters with Korean sexual mores since I’ve been here. There have been other, stranger episodes. During my second or third week in Seoul I was walking down one of the main streets. It was a late afternoon, on a Saturday, and the street was crowded. A woman was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and as I walked by, she said something to me in English. I was so surprised I turned around and said, “What?”

“I love you, I love you.” She took her first two fingers and moved them in and out of her mouth, miming a blow job. I just assumed she was a hooker. I have since found out that she might not have been someone who hooks all the time. She might only have been very hungry. I turned around and walked away, but she caught up with me.

“Are you alone? Where are you going?”

I was looking for the Kyobo Bookstore, but I said, “I’m just walking.”

She took my arm, put it around her shoulder, put her arm around my waist, and said, “We will walk together.”

I got loose and moved away. “No, we won’t. Please go away.”

“Nooo. Plu-ease go a-way-ay.” She was taunting me, nudging me toward the shops with her hips. “Plu-ease go a-way-y. Boom-boom. All night fuckee. All night fuckee.” This went on for the entire twenty minutes she followed me. Then she started quoting popular songs, like “Everybody needs somebody sometime.”

Eventually I turned around and headed back, just walking, trying to get rid of her. She suggested that we go to Pagoda Park. Then she said, “Are you a soldier?” When I said no, her entire manner changed immediately. I found out later that many people assume a single Western man walking alone is a soldier on the make.

“What are you doing in Korea?”

“I’m a teacher.”

Then she started offering to help me find my way around Korea. She suggested we go to a coffee shop and talk. I said no. I was afraid to get on the subway for fear she would follow me. Finally, as we were walking through a crowded of people, she gently touched the small of my back for a second—as if to communicate something—and then left me alone.

I went to a place called something like Seoul Deck Disco with a couple of my students. The floor is so packed there’s hardly any room to dance. This was right around the [1988] Olympics. Because I was the only Westerner in the place, I was an immediate sensation. They had live music, and the singer said in Korean, “Let’s give a nice round of applause to the big Westerner on the dance floor.” All of a sudden all of these people were standing around me in a circle applauding, which was kind of nice. When the music started again all the people in the circle started to dance with me. People do everything except slow dancing in groups, they move from group to group, there’s no dancing with partners only.

A woman said, “Hello, my name is Gisu Kim, and I’m very pleased to meet you.” We talked despite the crowd and the disco music blasting, and we danced. Just before the slow music came on, I got ready to leave the dance floor.

Slow dancing is called “brucing,” from English “blues” or “blues dancing.” The music is songs like “Love Me Tender.” To “bruce” is quite a sought-after privilege. When the music comes on, the men will try to find a partner, and the women will run for cover because they would look like “loose women” if they acted like they wanted to dance.

Apparently one of my students talked to one of Gisu’s friends, and the student took me by the arm, Gisu’s friend took her by the arm, and we were slow dancing. So I danced with Gisu, which meant getting quite a few stares by the other couples on the floor, and the singer said in Korean, “Why doesn’t the big Westerner kiss his Korean girlfriend?” I didn’t know this. It was explained to me later.

Gisu looked up at me and asked, “Do you speak Korean?” When I said no, she grumbled a little. She pressed herself up against me. I thought this was a little strange from what I had heard about Korean women, but later I found out that it wasn’t unusual given that I’m an American. Then she asked me for my phone number.

I was concerned that she might be looking for an American husband, a ticket to the States, so instead of my home number I gave her the one at the school. She called, we went out, and I really enjoyed it. As she bought me dinner—yes, there was a real role reversal here—she said, “My father said we should enjoy ourselves.” “Enjoy” is often a Korean euphemism for sex. I knew that, but I acted as if I couldn’t understand her accent. It was pretty clear that she wanted to sleep with me.

“Are you married?”

“No, but I have a girlfriend in America.”

“Do you love your girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to marry your girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“When I go home.”

“Do your parents know you sleep with your girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

She wanted to come to my apartment, but I wasn’t in the mood for that, so we went dancing again. Toward the end of the evening, she wrapped her arms around me and nuzzled up against my chest while we danced.

I saw her again, and then again. I didn’t know at the time that if a Korean woman comes to a man’s apartment it means she intends to sleep with him, but nothing happened. Then I saw her at Chusok, the traditional Korean holiday.

She met me at the YMCA. She was wearing a hanbok, the traditional costume. I was wearing jeans. Boy, did we get stared at coming back on the subway. She came to my apartment, and I made lunch for us. She was amazed that I could make tuna fish sandwiches, that I did my own laundry, that I swept my own floor, and that I enjoyed living alone.

Then she initiated—what did you call it in high school, petting? It was very nice. I made the mistake in acting reflexively, as if she were a Westerner and saying, “Look, what are we doing? How far are we going to take this?” I learned later that in this country you never talk about this. If you do, she has to admit that she wants sex, and she loses face. But we did talk, and I found out that she was only twenty-one and a virgin. She said she didn’t want sex because I have a girlfriend and because she didn’t want to lose her virginity. Apparently, what I should have done, as I found out later, was to agree completely. That way, if we should happen to be swept up in the passion of the moment at some later date, we could say we couldn’t help it and her face would be saved.

Gisu was extremely curious about sex, but she couldn’t behave like this with a Korean man because odds are very good that she would be called a slut. On the other hand, she couldn’t be Western with me. We had to play all these face-saving games. The next time she saw me, she said, “Do you love me?”

“Well, I like you very much, but I don’t love you.”

I have since discovered that she wanted to hear I loved her to justify whatever physical relationship we had. In the 1950s in the U.S., the games were used to cover up the guilt, but here people feel ashamed if they don’t play them. There’s not so much guilt in the act itself, but the games are an act that must be played out. The pieces finally started falling together in my head.

Then she said she wanted to love me like her father, which I think was just a way of getting me to say I loved her so she could justify having sex with me.

One time when we were fooling around, she indicated that I should take my clothes off. She had watched a sex video at the university so she could find out how to give head. I have since learned that, because things have gone so far it’s going to be hard as hell for me to get out of this relationship. If I tell her I still want to see her, but I want to stop the physical relationship, no matter what I say she’ll hear that in my eyes she’s not even good enough for just sex. If I don’t really feel about her the way she was assuming I did, then she’s done this stuff like any whore would have, and she loses face.

I was told that to break up with her I have to find some suitably tearful reason why we can’t be together anymore, something with all the appropriate melodrama. That will make her happy, even though she may know perfectly well why I’m telling her “fate has intervened to keep us apart.” I can’t see myself doing that. The other thing I could so is to say that my girlfriend found out about us, that she’s very jealous. “I’m sorry, but I can’t risk it.” One of the problems with that story is that she wants to meet Irene when she comes to Korea, and I’ve been advised that I shouldn’t let that happen. Irene wouldn’t mind. We have an open relationship. But Korean women are well known for their jealous scenes.

What’s become really clear to me is that all those ideas about equality and feminism which work perfectly well in the States do not work here. That stuff can tell me there’s something seriously wrong with Korean gender roles and sexual morality, but it doesn’t prepare me to live here as a responsible male. If I wanted to spend several years here, I would have to find some way of living that’s consistent with Confucianism. I have no choice but to be patriarchal here.

I went to Miari in order to experience being in a really patriarchal position. For my thinking and writing I wanted a concrete example to fall back on. There’s no way I could visit a whorehouse in the States and be able to say the same things about it. Here I’m not a full participant in the culture, so I can maintain a certain detachment. Going to a whorehouse doesn’t carry the same stigma here. The people I can go with are different.

Miari is a huge brothel district. It’s the ultimate of prostitution as a tourist industry. There are many different houses. Each house has a different name, and in front of each house there are women sitting wearing a different style of hanbok. You can go there for sex, or you can go there to have women wait on you, put on a show and make you feel like a real man. That’s what my Korean friend and I did. He’d been there before, and he was provided with a woman he had met there previously. The three of us went into a room with a low table with beer and fruit and a space heater. There may have been mats to sit on. I was told that a girl would be sent for me, and I could accept or reject her. I didn’t find her particularly attractive, but I wasn’t about to say, “No, I think she’s ugly. Send her back.” I was interested in the game, but I wasn’t going to play it that much.

I had to sing a song, then the woman with my friend sang a song, and then my friend said to the women in Korean, “Get undressed.” They did, and they sat next to us and waited on us and teased and flirted and fondled. Every so often the woman sitting next to me would pucker her lips at me, and I would oblige and kiss her. The woman with my friend was eighteen years old. She spoke some English and obviously had a fair amount of experience in saying the right things to make you feel like the center of attention. The woman I was with was younger, spoke no English and was obviously scared. I think it was her first time with a foreign customer. She was fascinated by the hair on my chest and arms. I was later told that the reason she fondled me was probably that I wasn’t touching her. That hadn’t occurred to me.

The show girl came out and did all sorts of feats with her vaginal muscles to show how strong and well-controlled they were. Put an egg inside her, took it out, broke it, put it in my beer and gave it to me “for stamina.” She put the handle of a bottle opener in her vagina and opened a bottle of beer with it. She took a long stick, lit it from a burning torch, and lit my friend’s cigarette with it. She inserted a brush and wrote my name with it on a piece of paper. I was really bored.

That was Miari. I have no curiosity left. My enjoyment of the situation was only from superficial learned responses. I did not enjoy it in any significant level of my being. There’s a lot of stuff churning in my head which I can’t even begin to articulate yet.

I think frequently getting a power fix in a place like Miari can do a lot of harm. One of the things I’ve learned here is how complex an emotion loneliness is. Also, on a very shallow level it was sort of nice to be pawed by that hooker who accosted me. But had I participated it might have relieved the loneliness of Irene’s not being here for a half hour or so, but not any longer than that.

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