Straight Signals, Smoke Signals, Gadar, And THERE IS NOT GAY IN KOREA!!! Yeah, sure.

Gay men sometimes jokingly (and even semi-seriously) refer to their “gaydar”, their ability to sense whether someone is gay. Straight men, on the other hand, tend not to have access to such mystical powers, and anyway, for straight men the tension is all about prclaiming oneself is straight. It’s much easier to read someone else when that person is reacting to one’s implicit, “Hey, by the way, I’m straight.” I don’t really have to do that, because I live in Korea and I have met, maybe, one or two obviously gay men in my several years here. And they weren’t foreigners: I’ve heard of one gay foreigner in the country (or two, though one happens to be a lesbian; she also happens to be a wonderful writer by the way), but in general, well, Korea’s a bad place to meet other gay people, so the foreigner gay population here seems to be pretty small.

I think in Korea being gay, for most gay men, probably means being in a secret club and you don’t let anything on until the other guy starts the first step (of a very complicated) proverbial “secret handshake”. You just assume everyone is straight, unless you’re in the nation’s only secret gay bar or something. (And yes, there is at least one gay bar around Itaewon. I’ve walked past it in my searches for Halal food shops with better selection of curry spices.) It’s got signs declaring, “Why Not?” with two male-signs linked, and the subtitle: “Male Meet Market!”

But anyway, yeah, for us straight guys, there this strange ritual described in this well-written article over at The Black Table. I have noticed a variation on it, actually. I have noticed, in Korea, that younger women are often a little tense when they’re around a strange foreign man. They tend to relax, however, when they find out he has a girlfriend. They may get worked up if they hear she’s Korean, and ask a series of questions. But they tend, inevitably, to be more comfortable with a man who is “taken”, as if they take for granted that a man who is “taken” will “behave”. Of course, in my case it’s true: I do behave. But I can imagine a lot of men my age, foreign and Korean alike, would not. It’s funny.

By the way, this reminds me, I’ve only once heard anyone actually say anything negative about foreigners dating Koreans. I’ve seen a lot of funny looks, some rude noises, some nasty gestures, but only once has anyone said anything aloud that I caught. It was a student of mine, a middle-aged woman who advised me that I shouldn’t date Korean women. She said she was “against that sort of thing.” She was fairly outspoken and when I asked her why, she said, “Well, what about when you go back to your country?”

You see this a lot, by the way. Plenty of Koreans assume that, after a certain amount of time, everybody wants to go “home” to his or her “home country”. When I told her I don’t want to go to Canada, she was flabbergasted, and it turned into one of those, “Yes, ma’am, I know Canada’s a good country… and I appreciate it more when I’m not living there myself. I am happier abroad,” kinds of conversations. I could not get the woman to admit that at least sometimes, foreigners dating Koreans might not be a bad thing. I think she’s a nice woman and all, but I do suspect that what seemed to be presented as a logical reason was really just her justification of the position she reached because of basically racist views. I’m not screaming that she’s a racist: she was, as far as I knew, a pretty cool woman, a good mother (I also taught her kid, who was no doubt a psycho child, but a good-natured one), an eager student; she just happened to also be somewhat mediocre politically.

It’s funny. Though I rail at bigotry and racism among people in my own culture, I find it forgivable (though unpalatable) when I encounter it in people like this, people whose backgrounds have afforded them little exposure to foreigners, little exposure to the fact that their own views are bigoted and even racist.

In retrospect, though, I wish I’d pointed out to her the numbers of Koreans who go to live abroad, for a year or in some cases far longer. By her logic, Koreans also shouldn’t date one another until they’re firmly entrenched in the country by a job or some other unquestionable anchor. I wonder what she would have said to that.

2 thoughts on “Straight Signals, Smoke Signals, Gadar, And THERE IS NOT GAY IN KOREA!!! Yeah, sure.

  1. But they tend, inevitably, to be more comfortable with a man who is “taken”, as if they take for granted that a man who is “taken” will “behave”.

    This is hardly a Korean assumption – I make the same assumption (Dan makes fun of me for it.) I think many women do….

    There’s an aspect of comfort to it. Socialization is enough of a juggling act; add “potential sexual content” to the mix and the level of complication doubles. And if you’re not interested, that’s another level of complication you have to deal with. All in all it’s a relief to get a signal that, hey, forget all that stuff, we’re just talking.

    Because you can’t assume it’s just talking until you’ve gotten some kind of signal. Otherwise you end up hurting feelings or you get backed into a corner where you don’t want to be. Experience talking here.

    I wonder if that isn’t partially behind the “straight signals” thing too. Whether because of social conditioning or hormones, it’s usually men who come on too strong. Women don’t have “straight signals” – at least, I’ve never looked for any such thing, and I can’t remember worrying whether the girl I was talking to was straight. You guys are just getting the spillover and finding out how awkward it can be to have to constantly remember that, hey, this guy may want to have sex with you….

    It’s funny. Though I rail at bigotry and racism among people in my own culture, I find it forgivable (though unpalatable) when I encounter it in people like this….

    Yeah. I have the same attitude towards most of the people where I grew up… yes, they’re bigoted; they’re sexist, racist, religiously intolerant, you name it… but it’s not worth arguing over. I dunno. Partially it’s that a lot of ’em are old, and there’s no real point trying to change an attitude that’s been set in stone since before I was born. Partially it’s survival instinct, telling me that hey, if I make a fuss over every little remark, I’m never going to survive in this town.

    But mostly, I think, it’s that it’s a particularly innocent form of bigotry. They’re not trying to put others down, they just haven’t met enough others, and they tend to forget. Many of them will be honestly shocked, and a little embarrassed, when you catch them at it; and most of them will promptly back off. The allowances and apologies are a little insulting in themselves (“Well, aren’t you tough for a girl!”) but they’re well-meant.

    The people that really get under my skin are the smarmy hypocritical bigots who will assure you, smiling, that they’ve got nothing against those people… arg.

  2. Oh, Kat, I didn’t mean it was a particularly Korean thing. It’s just that I find most Korean women are actually intimidated by me (presumably because I am an unknown foreign man) as opposed to most Western women, who don’t talk to me just because they don’t wanna talk to me. Korean women and foreign women of the same age react very differently to unknown men; to Western women (and often men), the stereotypical Korean woman’s reaction often seems more immature, though of course culturally it’s normal and that’s precisely how they’re supposed to behave: slightly shy and reserved and very polite.

    With unknown foreign men, the shyness is usually catapulted to stratospheric heights. Bank tellers giggle and hide their faces, or at best look deeply stressed to be dealing with a white man; you get weird “Come here and fuck me, as if I’d ever touch you you filthy foreigner,” looks from women on the street, too. I think the white man in Korea probably has the same weird DANGER + SEX signification that black men in certain parts of America had earlier in the last century (and perhaps in some places still do).

    All I know is that when I meet young Korean women while traveling, they’re usually quite tense thought still curious and (if I speak Korean to them) willing nervously to talk with me. The mention of a girlfriend, however, usually reduces that tension a great deal.

    And of course there are exceptions to this. The two Seoul women I met in Dharamsala were not at all intimidated by me, but then I spoke in Korean most of the time and they also took off around dinner time in a great hurry. But that time it seemed more like they were fleeing a strange man, than fleeing a strange !!!WHITE!!! man.

    But yes, the “Don’t worry, I have a girlfriend” thing is probably universally effective as a social lubricant between men and women unfamiliar to one another.

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