Sometimes people ask for my input on various different cultures of which I have little actual knowledge. The other day my female co-worker asked for my opinion about a quandary her friend was in. This friend, a Korean woman in her early 30s, had been walking in Myongdong one day when she was engaged in conversation by a foreign-looking gentleman who said he was new in town and wanted a Korean friend. The two exchanged phone numbers and met for coffee later that week. This man said he was a pilot for Turkish Airlines who typically stayed over in Seoul for a few days each month. He said he was 45; when the friend gave her age of 32, he expressed surprise, saying he thought she was only 16. During this second conversation the man became very straightforward, said he liked her, asked if she liked him too, etc.
This friend knew that my colleague worked with an American and asked her to get my opinion, as a Westerner, of what this man's true intentions might be. "I know Westerners are much more forth-coming and casual than we are," she said. "But is it really common to approach a stranger on the street like that? Do you think he really just wanted a friend, or what?" I explained that I couldn't speak for Turkish culture, or even offer an accurate generalization about American culture, but in the particular part of America I come from such behavior would be considered strange, and I thought her friend should be careful. We puzzled together particularly over the comment about her age. It wouldn't be all that bad for a 40-something man to pick up a 30-something woman, but if he truly thought she was 16, wasn't that a little odd? Or was this simply a clumsy attempt at a compliment?
I've often heard both Koreans and Japanese express the belief that "Westerners" are more casual about relationships and generally feel more free to show affection in public. I've heard two different teachers at my language institute, both of whom claimed to speak with some authority, say that it is common for Americans to greet friends and acquaintances on the street with a kiss. Even after I tried to disabuse them of this notion, they seemed doubtful. "I'm pretty sure I've seen it in movies," they'd say. I've met several people in Japan and Korea who are fans of the TV shows "Friends" and "Sex in the City" and who truly believe that those shows are representative of typical American behavior.
Americans may or may not be more promiscuous in private, but I can state with confidence that Koreans are the grand champions of creative public displays of affection. Kissing in public is still somewhat uncommon, but they make up for it with all sorts of other amorous displays. Particularly in and around the university areas of Seoul, at any time of day or night you can observe young people experimenting with various ways of twining their limbs together, stroking each other's hair, holding each other's faces, gazing soulfully into each other's eyes, struggling to eat one-handed while holding hands across a table, etc. One time in the Krispy Kreme in Daehakno I saw a couple eating donuts and then passing the chewed donut goo mouth-to-mouth, mother-bird-style. Another time, also in Daehakno, I saw a couple preparing to leave a restaurant in mid-winter, the guy standing stock-still with his arms out and patiently allowing his girlfriend to slowly bundle him up - buttoning his coat, adjusting his hat, awkwardly fitting his hands into his mittens, lovingly winding his scarf around his neck. Words simply cannot do justice to the look on this guy's face as he went through this ritualistic display in full view of the entire restaurant.
Sometimes I share tales of the interesting PDA I've seen with Unni. She is always surprised that I even noticed: "I thought you Westerners did worse stuff than that all the time; Westerners are much more casual than Koreans." Unni has been to Europe but not America; like many Koreans, she nods impatiently when I say that American and European cultures are quite different, but she doesn't really take me seriously. I suppose this attitude is only fair considering all the Americans who think Korean and Japanese cultures are basically equivalent.
Much has been written already about Korean permissiveness toward same-sex PDA; how Korean women often walk hand-in-hand or even arm-in-arm down the street, and this is a purely platonic display which should not be interpreted as a sign of greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality. The same seems to apply for Korean men, though strictly in an intoxication context. For instance, I've often seen pairs of businessmen stumbling arm-in-arm toward the subway together after a night of drinking, but have never seen similar behavior from apparently sober men in the light of day.
But just when you think all same-sex affection in Korea can be written off as platonic, you catch a rare glimpse of something more passionate. One very rainy evening last July, while waiting at the bus stop at the north end of Insadong in a throng of people, I saw the two girls standing beside me exchange a quick kiss on the lips under the relative privacy of their umbrella, just before one girl hopped onto her bus and sped away. Holding hands and linking arms are acceptable platonic behavior between friends, but Unni assures me that in Korea, kissing definitely implies a romantic attachment, and observing such a display in public by a same-sex couple is rare indeed.