February 16, Eunsaem Lee I see myself as a lively, bright and sociable girl. I love to interact with new people and have no problem making new friends. But somehow, my personality became a problem when I started dating men in South Korea at the age of Many men approached me, expressing an interest in my outgoing personality.
But sooner or later, they started to complain about things that energize my life, what I think are important, like interacting with people and having fun at interesting social gatherings. I thought, is my outgoing personality — which was attractive to them in the beginning — an obstacle to developing a stable relationship? I soon found out that I was not alone. A bunch of my girlfriends had similar worries when dating South Korean men.
But the same guys would get angry when their own girlfriends tried to drink more than one can of beer. They wanted to date a girl who was smart and independent enough to handle her own life, but also dependent enough to respect their choices, rely on them to make decisions, and get advice from them when faced with difficulties.
You can see this contradictory expectation in female heroines of many K-dramas. She should be resilient but needs to be rescued when hardship arises. I thought it more a fantasy of men who craved unequal power relations with their girlfriends than a reality.
As a young woman, I kept wondering about how I should act, and how much of myself I should show men. In struggling, I sometimes found myself trying to do naesung and aegyo. Aegyo and naesung are two modes of behavior young women are expected to engage in when dealing with men.
Naesung on the other hand is acting coy, not being outright honest. Both terms are rarely used to prescribe how men should behave.
Then in my late 20s, I met someone. He was in finance, in his first job after college. I had already been working for several years by then. We dated over a year.
For a long time, he never commented on my social gatherings or asked me to see him as my sole source of emotional support. He gave me space — and he gave himself space. He was considerate, and accepting. Then a miracle happened. I found myself voluntarily doing the so-called girlish actions, especially aegyo. I acted like a cute baby, even without trying. I was in love, of course, but what was happening to me? Many of my friends started to point out that I had changed a lot.
I stopped going on different social gatherings because I wanted to be like him — being considerate and focusing on our relationship. Through him, I learned relationship is like a mirror that reflects one another, because I realized it was he who had first engaged in some form of aegyo. Gradually, I started to feel that maybe naesung and aegyo in reality had been a part of my nature all along. Maybe I was finally enjoying a moment of repose, showing who I really am, in a safe space free from conventional definitions of gender roles.
I finally had an answer to the question I had first posed in my early twenties: My outgoing personality, which attracted men, was not an obstacle to developing stable relationships. I had never been the problem; I was fine the way I was in my entirety, whether independent, outgoing or girlish, and I could express myself fully if I was given space, without judgment. Maybe I had been trying to prove something, in this society where people expect girls to be quiet and submissive.
I had doubts about whether I was good enough a girlfriend to him considering that I was keen on remaining an outgoing, independent woman. The more we talked about our future, the more afraid I became that I might not be his perfect life partner.
Dating him, and others before that, has allowed me to see my self-contradictions and insecurities. I am self-conscious of my independence and womanhood.
All the people I have met at school, at workplaces, even at home have influenced me. I learned that I need to fight my own expectations for myself, too. I no longer categorize this activity as a womanly activity. I also recognize that so-called girlish behaviors like aegyo and naesung are not the preserve of women. Men can do these things just as well as women. The revelations on my part may be uncomfortable for some South Koreans to bear. But I must thank the South Korean men I have dated — even those who have been so critical of me — for leading me down this path of self-discovery.
And I look forward to meeting the next man who will help me learn more about who I truly am.