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The Importance and Stress of Korean Valentine's Day

In Korea, Valentine's Day is only the beginning of a three-month-long tradition that culminates with single people eating noodles by themselves.

by Alex Castillo
Feb 13 2015, 12:35pm

The author celebrating his singleness in Korea

Valentine's Day has never held a particular importance for me. As a self-described pansexual with asexual tendencies, with absolutely no (current) desire to be loved by anyone or anything but a cheeseburger, I could really give less than two shits about February 14. That being said, I recognize that it does make some of my friends in relationships quite happy, and my mom usually sends me a box of "I'll always love you even if you die alone and single!" chocolates in the mail, so I don't have any beef with the holiday itself.

That is, until I moved to Korea. One might think that Koreans aren't nearly as invested in Valentine's Day as the Western world is, but one would be wrong. Koreans have fully embraced coupledom, and hell hath no fury like a Korean displeased with his relationship status.

For those unfamiliar with Korea, it's important to note that in the last few decades, their celebration of romance has been stretched out over the course of three months: Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14, but here, only the women buy chocolates and gifts for their lovers. Men reciprocate on March 14, which is called White Day. If a guy buys a gift for the same girl who bought him a gift the month before, then it's basically happily ever after.

If you remain giftless throughout that whole process, you've got April 14, also known as Black Day, to look forward to. That's when singles commiserate together by eating jajangmyeon, or noodles in black bean sauce, while reflecting on on their sad, single lives. There's just a touch of nihilism.

But secretly, lots of singles hope that on Black Day they'll meet someone else who's also single and also eating his or her feelings and fall deeply in love or some shit like that. I'm not sure if this actually happens. The only time I ever made a serious connection over food in Korea was when a member of the Korean mafia drunkenly threw his McDonald's French fries at me, but I suppose love comes in all forms.

Jajangmyeon, the noodles traditionally eaten on Black Day in Korea. Photo by Flickr user Stu Spivack

Anyway, the fact that Valentine's Day essentially lasts a quarter of the year is pretty terrible if you're single. And as any ex-pat with Korean friends or co-workers will tell you, we are not exempt from this romantic scrutiny. At least on Valentine's Day I get a free pass, since only women are expected to buy gifts.

But White Day? Men do not get a free pass on White Day. I remember one particularly awkward conversation, just before my first White Day, with an otherwise nice Korean dude during a language-exchange mixer.

"So why don't you have a girlfriend?"

"Oh, I like being single!" I said, brushing it off.

"But aren't you lonely?"

"Yeah, well, I have a lot of friends, so it's OK."

This was a lie, but a lie important to my argument's credibility. The conversation continued:

"Let me help you find someone."

"No, really, it's OK! I like being alone. Without anybody. By myself. With no company. No humans."

He kind of stared blankly at me.

"Yep, all alone. No girls for me!"

More staring.

"Anyway, I really like kimchi, though!"

This was the end of our potential cross-cultural friendship.

I don't want to give the idea that all Koreans take pleasure in prying through the romantic lives of ex-pats. I'm sure the vast majority of Koreans give zero fucks about our dating lives and are more concerned with whether we're doing a good job teaching their kids English. But it's certainly a glaring cultural difference when your romantic life becomes fair game for casual conversation right along with the latest Kim Jong-un–related drama.

My second White Day in Korea was significantly less uncomfortable—mostly because I had developed the cultural dexterity to lovingly tell my friends and co-workers to fuck off when they pestered me about my relationship status ("Alex, how have you been? Do you have a girlfriend yet? Let's find you a Korean girlfriend!").

But Black Day? Black Day is a holiday I can fully support. Like my single Korean brethren, I've spent my last two Black Days eating noodles just as dark and endless as our solitary, loveless lives. Jajangmyeon has a distinct taste: Made with oil, soybean paste, and meat stock, it's lightly salty with a much hardier flavor and consistency than most noodle dishes in Asia. Jajangmyeon is actually considered "Chinese food" in Korea (much in the same way that orange chicken is Chinese food in America), so those who want to participate in the Black Day festivities have to go to a specialty restaurant. For the singles truly distraught by their lack of a lover, they can always grab a microwavable pack from the convenience store and eat it in the comfort and misery of their own home.

While the noodles are meant to remind Koreans of the sadness of being single, and possibly to exacerbate the urgency to find a partner, I take great pride in the fact that every April 14, the only woman or man I need in my life is the one whipping up some noodles in the back of the restaurant. Because nothing says love like food.

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