We all come from different cultures that influence how we approach relationships. Family and tradition are a big part of Korean relationships. Let's take a closer look at how and why.
Respect Your Elders
One big difference between Korean and Western cultures is the emphasis on respecting your elders: everyone from your grandparents to your work superiors to classmates who are older than you. You show them respect by bowing to them, addressing them a certain way, and doing things like pouring them their drinks or serving them food first.
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This concept comes from Confucianism. According to its teachings, Koreans were to practice filial piety from their childhood to after their parents' deaths. This meant obeying them, living virtuously and shamelessly, and taking care of them if they were sick or injured. These ideas are still engrained in Korea today.
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You'll see grandmas and grandpas (halmeoni, 할머니, and harabeoji, 할아버지) at family gatherings and holidays. Their guidance and approval is asked for everything, and that includes whoever their grandchild dates or marries.
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Another important cultural aspect of Korea is jeong (정). Jeong is a feeling of connection and attachment to certain people, which you show through your words and actions. Since you experience it first from your parents, you're encouraged to keep practicing jeong towards them for the rest of your life.
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For most Koreans, family is their top priority. They'll drop everything to help their relatives or change their lifestyles if their families are displeased. More young people are choosing to live alone, but many Koreans still live with their parents well into adulthood.
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To fulfill their family obligations, children are expected to fill certain roles, such as producing heirs (with preference given to boys). There is added pressure on the oldest son, as traditionally he is the head of the family, and the daughters.
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The children are expected to marry someone with a steady job and clean credentials, preferably from the same culture. Not only will they have a stable household, but they'll also have approval from inside and outside the family circle.
Ahn Min-hyuk asking for Do Bong-soon's hand from her father Do Chil-goo / JTBC via Dramabeans
And while Koreans are becoming more open-minded about interracial relationships, there are still parents who are very traditional. A foreign boyfriend/girlfriend might have a hard time winning them over.
Dating: A Family Affair
Since finding the right partner is crucial for continuing the bloodline, parents might become actively involved in finding someone for their child. One way is by enlisting the services of a matchmaker and arranging a meeting (seon, 선) between the son/daughter and a suitable candidate. Matchmaking is still active in Korea, and some couples will marry a few months after they first meet!
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Another way parents get involved is by scouting out potential suitors from well-to-do families or close friends. They tell the person about their child and convince them to arrange a date. Sometimes it works out and the couple hits it off. Other times, the meeting ends without the couple going any further.
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Once the son/daughter finds a girlfriend/boyfriend (noona, 누나, and oppa, 오빠), they're expected to help getting the person adjusted to their family, including inviting them to activities and events. It's especially crucial if the child is dating a non-Korean who might be unfamiliar with these customs.
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Family and Wedding Traditions
A wedding isn't just two people getting together. It's two families becoming one. So it's no surprise that traditional Korean weddings have special customs reflecting this fact!
The parents play important roles in the ceremony. Like the newlyweds, who wear red (bride) and blue (groom), their mothers have special colors they wear: pastels like purple or pink for the bride's mother; light blue for the groom's.
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The wedding begins with the Jeonanyrye, where the groom presents a gift (kireogi, 기러기) to his mother-in-law. In the old days, they were a pair of live geese. Now, they're hand-carved ducks. The present signifies a promise that the son-in-law will stay with his wife forever, since these birds mate for life.
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The most important part is the pyebaek (폐백). It was traditionally held a few days after the wedding, but nowadays it has been incorporated into the ceremony. The bride is officially introduced to her new household by bowing to her in-laws and serving them tea.
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Then comes the fun part: the groom's parents toss dates and chestnuts from a special table at the couple. The dates represent daughters and the nuts represent sons. The daughter-in-law tries to catch as many as she can in her skirt, since the amount predicts the number of children she'll have.
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The parents influence other aspects of the wedding, including gifts of money to the new couple and the number of guests that are invited. It can be both helpful and stressful having them in charge, so both sides should communicate to avoid misunderstandings!
Advice for New Relationships
You're probably feeling overwhelmed by all this new information. And it's natural, especially if you're from a different country. But you don't have to feel pressured! Here are some tips for a smoother relationship with your oppa's/noona's family:
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Give a good first impression. When you meet your potential in-laws for the first time, make a big effort to be respectful and likeable. Bring them a gift and express interest in their conversations.
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Offer to help the parents. For the daughter, this will mean cooking for supper or Korean holidays like Chuseok. For the son, it may be household repairs or business discussions. Whatever the case, you'll score points with your potential in-laws by assisting them with whatever needs to be done.
Learn Korean words and customs. A traditional Korean family won't be impressed if their child's foreign partner can't speak to them in Korean or doesn't know Korean traditions. By practicing Korean phrases and taking part in traditional rituals, you'll reassure them that the Korean culture will be passed down to the next generation.
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Keep in close contact with everyone. Let your oppa's/noona's parents know if you're traveling with their child or if there's something on your mind. If there's a birthday or special anniversary, send them cards and gifts or, even better, visit them. You'll impress the parents if you remember each special day.
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Be yourself. Easier said than done, you say. But it's just as important as following the previous steps. Be honest with your in-laws and let them get to know you as much as you get to know them. Even if they're not sure of you at first, they'll soon be won over by your sincerity and love towards their child.
These customs might seem restrictive, but Korean parents only want the best for their children. Taking the time to understand where they're coming from and learning these traditions is the key to a happy relationship, with your partner and your new family.
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Is family a big part of your country's dating culture? Tell us in the comments!