Sunday, July 25, 2010

Korean men, age and the lingering handshake

I WAS BEGINNING my night out in the usual fashion: sitting outside a convenience store with a bottle of makgeolli. After a few minutes a middle-aged Korean guy nursing a beer approached and gestured could he sit down. He had barely a word of English, but soon started asking me questions the best he could. As is typical in Korea, he wanted to know what age I was.


Age is a very big deal in what is a country highly influenced by Confucianism, especially for the older generation. Essentially, relations are very hierarchical: the older you are, the more deserving of respect you are. The Korean language itself places a great emphasis on how you address elders, with formal and informal ways of saying the same things.

So when I told the guy I was 23 (Koreans count age differently; you are at least one when you are born. Two if you're born during a lunar year.), he laughed gleefully.

"I am older than than you!"

He was, considerably, at 44. It is not unusual for a Korean to triumphantly point out his or her superior age. I was once introduced to a 26-year-old guy who reacted the same way. To a Westerner it is bemusing to say the least.

"Welcome to Korea!" he said. As he spoke, he struggled for the English words, making an "X" with his arms and frowning.

"You are. . .handsome!"

This again. For the second time I'd been called handsome by an older man. I really had it - the sex factor. If only I could get the good ladies of Korea to feel the same way, I thought. Then it got weirder.

"I love you!"

Woah, buddy. You are great too and all but shouldn't we get to the "like" stage first? I imagine he didn't really mean "love", but it was still bloody strange to hear.

One interesting thing about Korean men is that they apparently have a different attitude about what is appropriate interaction and physical contact with other men than the average straight Western male. Shaking someone's hand here, for example, can be quite an uncomfortable experience. Invariably it is a lingering, pawing affair, lasting far longer than any robust, manly handshake should. You'll find yourself shaking hands well into a conversation.

One of the expats at the Korea Herald even told me that one of the older Korean editors will often effectively try to hold his hand while speaking to him. Odd indeed. Girls are big on physical contact with each other as well, in fact much more so (predictably enough). Female friends regularly walk down the street hand-in-hand.

Eventually I had to bid farewell to my new, oddly affectionate friend and go in search of frolics and fun with people a little closer to my own age. The night was young and so was I.

He -- he'd happily point out -- was not.

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