Reader Rei Rei asked a question which I thought deserved a post-length response.
Hi Mrs. Lee! Quick question, I know that Mr. Lee is older than you (was it 6? 5 years?) and I’ve been reading and coming along to try to understand the importance of age and the Confucian hierarchy of Korea. I have read a comment from a woman regarding her friendship with a man, saying that he said if they were in Korea it would be difficult for them to be friends due to their age difference. What I’m curious about is, is it true that it’s harder to become friends (or more) with a person who’s is older than you? How would you go about pursing a romantic relationship in Korea with someone who is older than you?
Let’s tackle the question of the Korean definition of friendship first. In one of my first months in Korea, I came into a low level class on the first day of class and saw two university aged students interacting with each other in a rather familiar and boisterous way. I said to them, ‘Oh, you two already know each other? Are you friends?’ The one student quickly replied in horror, ‘Oh no! We’re not FRIENDS!’ I was rather confused and taken aback. Not only did the students appear to be interacting like friends, I was surprised to hear someone proclaim so readily in front of another that they were NOT friends. It seemed rather rude in English as ‘friend’ is sort of a catch-all phrase. Sure we sometimes use acquaintance, or co-worker, or classmate to describe our relationship with another person, but if someone were to ask us directly in front of another person if we were friends, we would probably reply in the affirmative because that word is broad enough to encompass a wide range of relationships in its general form.
Of course, later as I was learning Korean, I realized that ‘chingu,’ or the Korean word for friend has a very specific meaning in Korean – namely that two people are the same age and at the same level. All other relationships require different relationship titles – older brother, grandmother, aunt, father’s eldest brother (eldest paternal uncle) etc. And each combination of titles requires a specific relationship although for the most part, these relationships boil down to age and sometimes gender. In the ideal, the older person in the relationship is ‘responsible’ for the younger person. This might mean the older person helps the younger with their career in the workplace, or pays for their meal, or makes the decisions of where to hang out, or gives advice etc. In return, the younger person ‘defers to’ or ‘respects’ the older person (I put these in quotation marks because I think the concept of defer or respect is might be changing.)
I saw the ideal of this relationship close up once with another class which included a middle age homemaker and several younger university students and workers. The younger classmates looked to the homemaker for direction, but even in her position she showed a great deal of care and concern for the individual personalities and needs of the younger members, and they in turn looked up to her and seemed to thrive under her direction. If I had to characterize the group dynamics, I would say that they were a harmonious class. It was a great example of how even when there is a hierarchical relationship, there can be a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship for everyone.
Of course, the hierarchy can also produce very dysfunctional relationships if the eldest person is corrupt, means-spirited, power hungry, inappropriate etc. In such cases, the Confucian relationship can lead to abuse, bribery, and all other manner of social ills. Likewise, nowadays there also seems to be a gap between what younger people agree to or pretend to follow in the presence of the older person and what they do in reality. Therefore, like all kinds of relationship, the Confucian ‘friendship’ does not always work. On the other hand, there are times when people have such chemistry as friends that the age gap does not really matter for all intents and purposes. My closest Korean friend is younger than me, and while she sometimes jokes, ‘Ok, we’ll do X because you want to, and you are my older sister,’ we really have a very equal relationship based on give and take. We speak very freely with each other and age is never an issue in making decisions. My husband also has a few female friends from his movie club days in university who are more English ‘friends’ than Korean juniors in that they are very English friendly in terms of how they interact with him. So like all aspects of culture, there are some unique situations where personality, chemistry, or shared experiences alter the expected norms of society.
What this means in terms of how to be friends with Koreans is that Koreans are friends in the general English meaning of the word, but they are much less likely to be chingu. This means that Korean relationships are a little more complex than Canadian ones because you need to know your relation to the person you are interacting with, and each relationship will be different based on your age and status (something Koreans try to avoid for instance in companies, is promoting a younger person to a higher position as this can cause some resentment and confusion). A non Korean coming to Korea for the first time might have some difficulty at first understanding the different dynamics of what it means to be friendly with Koreans because of the hierarchy. However, close relationships are not difficult to develop in Korea once you understand how to situate yourself with others, and being an outsider, it sometimes makes things a little easier because you don’t exist in the hierarchy in the first place and thus have a bit more freedom and flexibility.
Now, how does this relate to romantic relationships? Well of course that Koreans have romantic relationships within the hierarchy or maybe despite the hierarchy, or maybe because of the hierarchy. The question for me though would be how to have an equal partnership in dating or marriage in light of the hierarchy. First, there’s still somewhat the ideal of an older male-younger female relationship just as in the mindset of more ‘traditional’ Westerners. This relationship plays well along age and gender lines. The older male is more established and takes care of the younger female who looks up to and takes direction from him. It’s really the ideal relationship in many cultures that happens to also fit beautifully within the Confucian hierarchy in Korea. In Korea, a woman dating an older man MIGHT mean that she waits for him to make the moves, she follows his direction, and she accepts his unilateral decisions. It sounds unequal, and it may be unequal in some circumstances (anecdotally, it seems to be so for the older generation). However, it can also be balanced out by other factors like wanting to please or impress your partner: for instance, while the older male might be planning and deciding the dates, he has to also think about what his partner really wants and how to impress her. In other words, just like my ‘harmonious’ class, if both partners are considerate of each other, a relationship following the ideal Confucian hierarchy could be quite balanced.
It also seems that every so often there is an article about how women are looking for younger partners, and in an online group I’m in, we had a discussion about the age, and it seemed that a number of women had married men who were the same age or younger than themselves. Therefore, I think in some cases marrying a younger man is a way to balance out the hierarchy and the patriarchy because the man has power based on his gender, but the woman has power based on her age. The other interesting thing is that several women were their husband’s teacher before they started dating. This was my case. My husband is seven years older than me (eight really because of our birthdays), but we met when he was my student. For months while we were obviously dating but saying that we were just hanging out together, he introduced me as his ‘English teacher,’ and I was his ‘English teacher friend’ (English word ‘friend’) to his parents before he told them about our relationship. Now, my husband doesn’t get too excited about age, status, and such outside of his work life, so mostly the dynamics of our relationship are based on his willingness to share decision making and power as well as my assertions that we have a balanced relationship. However, I’ve often wondered if those many months of at least identifying me to others as ‘his teacher’ didn’t also lay a foundation for power dynamics in our relationship. Because of course, Confucianism isn’t just about age and gender but also status, and the teacher is above the student and commands respect.
What this all boils down to is this. Koreans are ‘friends’ with each other and non Koreans, but often ‘friendship’ is a bit more complex and requires individuals to know their place and expectations in relation to others. And romantic relationships are just as easy or hard (depending on your feelings about love!) as in other countries. And most importantly, while the hierarchy exists and has very real implications for interactions with others, the hierarchy is complicated and nuanced and can even be subverted in a way to balance out the power dynamics between individuals. Specifically with regard to Western women married to Korean men, it seems that the happiest couples have subverted the ideal hierarchy in some way which both makes the men, who have been raised with the hierarchy in mind, more open to a little bit different kind of relationship.