“Three words and eight letters. Say it, and I am yours.” These are lines from the popular American TV show, Gossip Girl, which airs on the CWTV channel in the U.S. Blair, one of the main characters, said those words to her ex-boyfriend Chuck, to urge him to say “I love you.”
Saying “I love you” is a universal expression of affection in countries around the world. However, in terms of the context and appropriateness of the “L word”, the degree of meaningfulness depends on the cultural characteristics of each country. The attitude toward the word “love” in Korea is distinctively different from that of North America: Koreans regard the L word casually in a romantic relationship, whereas North Americans take it more seriously.
When a couple is in a romantic relationship, Koreans tend to use the word, “love,” more often and easily, whereas people in North America do not. According to a survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal, more than 70 percent of the Hanyangians who responded said they believed that saying the L word was natural for a couple, even though they had just started dating. Gu Mi-hyang, a Sophomore in the Department of Policy Science at Hanyang University (HYU) commented, “Of course, it does not mean we, Koreans, underestimate love or the hearts of people who are in romantic relationships. It just means that Koreans including me are willing to express ourselves when it comes to showing our affections in romantic relationships.”
On the other hand, people in North America think twice before saying “I love you.” Lauren Ukleya, an American student majoring in Community and Public Health at the University of Central Oklahoma, commented, “Saying the L word is a big deal in the American culture. Love is regarded highly and not used casually in a romantic sense. Saying it too early can lead to an early break-up, and hesitating over saying the word too long may anger your partner.”
Variations of the L Word; Love and Sarang
The different attitudes toward the L word come from different language cultures between Korea and North America. Since the word “Love” in a romantic relationship has a strong meaning in North America, people bring up the word only when they are in a serious relationship. Ken Eckert, a Canadian Professor in the Department of English and Culture at HYU explained, “On one hand, we freely use the word ‘love’ with objects?saying that you love oranges would sound ridiculous in Spanish or many European languages?and yet we are quite guarded and shy about saying ‘I love you’ to people. I think that in the context of personal romantic relationships, ‘love’ is a pretty strong word in comparison to ‘Sarang’ in Korean. In fact, in English when we say ‘make love’ the word can be so intimate as to mean having sex.”
On the contrary, Koreans have a comprehensive concept and yet abstract image of the word love, which as just mentioned is “Sarang” in Korean. The meaning of the word in terms of romantic relationships refers to physical intimacy while meaning emotional intimacy in other relationships. Kim Da-bin, a Sophomore in the Department of Policy Science at HYU said, “I think the word, Sarang, has a wide range of meanings compared to ‘Love’ in English. In English when someone says ‘sharing love’; the word can imply having sex in romantic relationship but also mean true love for others. Therefore, I think the word Sarang in Korean is not as strong as the word love in English.
The Distinction Between Physical and Emotional Love
Such different meanings of the word love can be seen as coming from the cultural background and contexts of where they are used. Specifically, there is a distinctive reference to the use of the word love to refer to a physical relationship versus an emotional one. For instance, while people in North America see clear differences between a physical and an emotional relationship, people in Korea do not. “Since physical love and mental love are different, most people in the U.S. do not identify sexual intimacy or even lovemaking with emotional love. Therefore, if someone enjoys one-night-stands, he or she cannot be blamed as cheaters undedicated to their true love,” explained Kate Heckward, an American student from Texas A&M University.
The different perspectives on physical and emotional love can also be seen from the differing religious norms of each culture. Under the strict Protestantism tradition of asceticism and Catholic tradition of celibacy, people in North America, where most are Christians, were required to abstain from physical pleasures such as sex, but urged to love everyone emotionally. “The difference between the West and East lies in the West’s Christian tradition of celibacy which permits ‘mental’ love but not ‘physical’ love for the opposite gender,” Professor Eckert explained.
On the other hand, Korean culture is based on Confucianism, where there was prohibition on the discussion on sexual relationships since the Chosun Dynasty in Korea. Thus the line between physical and emotional relationships became ambiguous. Gu said, “Even though there are some open discussions on sexual relationships in the media these days, Koreans are likely to be less open about discussing sex. They are likely to be prudent in their conduct related to such relationships, as in the old Confucian saying in Korea ‘Namnyeochilsebodongsuck,’ which means a boy and a girl should not be together after they are seven years old. Therefore, I think such a taboo could have affected the perceptions of love since then, many have not been distinguishing between physical and emotional love.”
Misunderstanding of Love in Other Cultures
Many Koreans tend to misunderstand North American love under the misconception that their concept of love is based on sex. However, the different characteristics of love between Korea and North America are not due to varying degrees of openness of sexual culture, but from the separation between physical and emotional love. North Americans appear more sexually liberal because some pursue physical relationships separate from emotional relationships, while Koreans pursue both at the same time.
Still, it is difficult to argue that Koreans still as conservative about sexual relationships nowadays compared with the past. Professor Eckert said, “In every country in the world I have been in, there is a belief that people in other countries are more sexually liberal. Be aware that Korean statistics have a reputation for underreporting sexual behavior in Korean university-age students, and Westerners tend to be very skeptical of Koreans who claim the ‘purity’ of their young people. Love hotels and DVD rooms where young couples go when they want to be intimate exist for a reason.”
All in all, pursuing true love is universal, although the degree and means of expression may be different. “There are still plenty of people who want to find that one special person in their lives in North America, like Koreans do. Most people just want to have a positive romantic relationship and not to be lonely. Dating can be casual or serious. Sex can be casual or serious. Even marriage can be casual or serious. People are very different all across the world,” said Ukleya.