Korean Jeong Yu-Seon (left) married Singaporean Vincent Kuang (right) in Singapore three months ago. Image: Jeong Yu-Seon
When Singaporean Vincent Kuang first met Ms Jeong Yu-Seon here last January through mutual friends, he had little interest in Korean culture.
“I knew nothing about Running Man (a popular South Korean variety programme) and did not watch K-dramas,” says the 31-year-old engineer.
He also never had the desire to date a Korean, although he confesses that, in his younger days as a big fan of Japanese culture, “I wanted to marry a Japanese woman”.
“But it doesn’t matter now,” he deadpans, having married Ms Jeong in March after dating for a year. “Connection is more important.”
Many here are into K-pop, K-dramas and K-cosmetics. Yet, most Singaporeans in K-marriages will say Korean culture was not a factor in choosing their mates.
Korean cultural experts say such Singaporean-Korean unions have increased in recent years, although their observations are anecdotal.
This likelihood is statistically supported, however, by the estimated number of Koreans living in Singapore. Mr Yoon Jaewoong, press and culture counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore, suggests that this figure has “increased from around 20,000 to around 25,000 in the last five years”.
Dr Sun Jung, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, says that the increase in Korean-Singaporean marriages here is in line with the increase in trans-national marriages globally, thanks to globalisation and the increased trans-national flows of people and culture.
“People have easier access and increased familiarity today to foreign cultures and people, and are ready to embrace foreignness,” says Dr Jung.
Of the five couples that SundayLife! spoke to, one met while both parties were studying overseas in the United States, one met while the Korean other half was holidaying alone here, and the rest met because their Korean other halves were working here.
Mr Yoon suggests that Singaporean men may be attracted to Korean women because of their “elegant looks, fashion sense, and their motherly and caring nature as portrayed in dramas and films”.
Bank employee Jermyn Chua, 31, agrees with that. He says he was drawn to his Korean wife’s “homely, domesticated nature”. “She could cook and seemed like she could run the household well,” he says.
Mr Kuang, however, only partially agrees with Mr Yoon’s suggestion. On his first encounter with Ms Jeong, a manager at Korean barbecue restaurant chain Ju Shin Jung in Singapore, he says: “She looked feminine but was intimidating. She spoke in a very authoritative manner, like a boss.”
Laughing, Ms Jeong, 35, says her work in a managerial position for the past nine years – five in Korea and four here – calls for her to be a “strong lady”.
“I’m glad my husband knows me for who I am, beyond my position at work,” she says.
Ms Seo Ji Yun, who teaches Korean at the Singapore Management University, suggests that Korean women may be attracted to Singaporean men because they are “more gentlemanly, less chauvinistic and more homely”.
Mr Chua’s wife, Ms Choi Jung Mi, 32, says those qualities did stand out in him.
“He was very respectful, considerate, and I felt that he did not just expect me to follow all his instructions,” says Ms Choi, who works in Samsung Electronics here.
While Mr Kuang’s wife Ms Jeong agrees that her husband is caring, she was initially disappointed that he was unromantic.
To which he says: “Korean dramas often portray the men as romantic, treating the girls like princesses and speaking to them in poetic sentences. I’m an engineer. I’m not a romantic guy.”
He has softened his stance, however, because: “My wife came up with the rule that I have to say ‘I love you’ to her every day.”
Besides the usual personality clashes and disparate expectations that married couples have to deal with, the Korean-Singaporean couples say there are cultural differences to overcome.
Some Korean partners faced parental opposition to their choice of spouse. Koreans “live in a very homogeneous society and there is usually a strong preference to marry someone from the same culture”, says Ms Seo (pictured on the right with her Singaporean husband Jason Chang).
Some of the couples also had to overcome the language barrier – trying to connect despite the Korean spouse’s limited English vocabulary.
The problem is exacerbated when they have to live with Singaporean Chinese in-laws, some of whom understand only Mandarin.
But in the case of Ms Choi and Mr Chua, Singlish was the issue.
She initially could not understand his English at all because of Mr Chua’s “strong Singlish accent”.
Who manages the family’s money is another potential sticking point. Dr Jung says that in Korea, the women usually hold the purse strings, whether they work or not.
This practice could be “uncomfortable” for Singaporean men, who are used to holding on to economic power as breadwinners, she says.
Two of the Singaporean men SundayLife! spoke to recalled receiving “a cultural shock” when their wives broached this subject with them.
Says Mr Chua: “We decided on having three bank accounts so I could control my money, she could control her money and we would have a joint account to share control together.”
“Differences can be resolved with discussions,” he adds.
It’s not about nationality
Mr Jason Chang, 35, does not know what possessed him to speak to Ms Erin Seo, 33, the day they met in August 2011. “She was sitting alone inside the Liat Towers Starbucks outlet with sunglasses on,” recalls Mr Chang, who works in corporate finance.
“I guessed she was Korean and just felt compelled to approach her. I think I said “annyeong” (Korean for hi) and we started talking.”
Mr Chang says he found her pretty, and although not a fan of K-drama or K-pop at all, he knew K-culture was a big thing here and felt it would be fun to just say hello to her.
Ms Seo, who works for South Korea-based Ssangyong Engineering & Construction here, says his greeting was timely because she needed help to buy a present for a friend. She was here alone on a holiday.
They went shopping for the gift together, and Ms Seo flew back to Korea that night.
“I thought that would be it,” says Mr Chang. “But she texted me when she landed and we carried on chatting from there.”
Two months later, Ms Seo was back in Singapore for a job interview. Mr Chang says he held her hand during this visit, expressed his interest in her and they started dating.
She did not get that job, but was back for another job interview six months later in March 2012. This time, she succeeded in getting a job to teach Korean at a language centre. By then, she had told her parents about Mr Chang, and had showed them his WhatsApp profile picture.
“They were worried. They thought he was a gangster,” says Ms Seo. “He was dressed in a black suit and a black shirt and had a menacing expression.”
In July 2012, Ms Seo’s parents came here for a week-long holiday and their fears about Mr Chang were laid to rest.
“They decided that because of his dark eye circles, he looked more like a panda than a gangster,” says Ms Seo, giggling at the memory.
They wed in October 2012, and Ms Seo moved in to live with Mr Chang’s parents. The couple have no children.
Living with Singaporean in-laws posed some interesting challenges. Ms Seo says some Koreans, like herself, are just not used to drinking tap or boiled water. She drinks bottled water in Korea.
“It’s a habit. So, I would smuggle bottles of water into Jason’s house and drink only in my room, so as to not offend my in-laws in any way,” she says.
She was also not used to having to hang clothes out on poles to dry, being used to drying her clothes indoors at home in Korea.
There was also her preference for using Korean-made products in the kitchen, from cooking ware to utensils.
Because of these preferences, the couple have since moved out and are renting a place in Serangoon.
Ms Seo stresses, however, that she is on good terms with her in-laws.
“My father-in-law loves eating cold noodles. I would prepare that for his supper.”
There are also Singaporean dishes that she has come to enjoy. Listing them on his wife’s behalf, Mr Chang says: “Prawn noodles, curry, prata, and sweet and sour pork.”
Suggest to Ms Seo that he married her because it is trendy now to have a Korean wife, in these hallyu times, and she says it is not true: “Our personalities were compatible and we complement each other. It’s not about nationality.”
She cooks for her Korean man
Singaporean Sim Pei Ling, 28, loves all things Korean, but never saw herself dating a Korean man.
Still, “chemistry” saw her enter a relationship in March with Mr Shin Ryunjae, 30, who works as a ship navigation officer in Singapore.
Korean ship navigation officer Shin Ryunjae was drawn to Singaporean Sim Pei Ling initially because she could speak Korean fluently, and grew even more attracted to her after discovering her personality. Image: Sim Pei Ling
The fashion, beauty and lifestyle blogger became hooked on Korean culture in 2011, after enjoying episodes of Running Man, a Korean variety show. She started taking Korean language classes after that, and is a huge fan of Korean cosmetics and food.
She met Mr Shin during dinner on New Year’s Eve in a Korean restaurant here, and his group of friends followed her group of friends to a bar next door after dinner.
“We did not know them, and I initially felt turned off because they were quite aggressive,” she says. But as drinks flowed, inhibitions disappeared and soon, the whole group was exchanging numbers with one another. Three days after they met, he asked her out.
Mr Shin says he was initially drawn to her as she could speak Korean fluently, but his interest grew after discovering more about her personality.
“She is so honest about everything and always speaks her mind. She is also open about her past relationships,” he says.
She calls him “oppa” (“older brother”, a Korean term of endearment between couples) affectionately, and they speak in what they term “Konglish” – a mixture of Korean and English.
She texts him in Korean every day, while he replies in English. He goes for English lessons twice a week after work, in a bid to improve their communication.
Ms Sim says that Mr Shin, like most Korean men, has certain expectations of her in terms of domestic duties.
“He mentioned it would be good for me to learn how to cook,” she says, adding that she does not mind and tries to do so at least once a week for him.
She can make Korean dishes such as kimchi soup, kimchi pancakes and barbecued meat.
“As I grow older, I am becoming more domestically inclined,” she says. “Sometimes, I help him to clean his place too.”
Mr Shin lives in an apartment in the northern part of Singapore. Like other Korean men, he is “very patriotic” and uses only made-in-Korea items, down to his toothpaste and toothbrushes.
A big fan of Korean cosmetics, Ms Sim says she stocks up on a year’s supply of them whenever she heads to Korea, sometimes as often as four times a year.
One of these trips, possibly next year, could see her meeting Mr Shin’s parents. Both sets of parents approve of their relationship, and they have long-term plans together.
Says Ms Sim: “I have even thought of children’s names. They will be in three languages – English, Korean and Mandarin.”
She says people have told her that Mr Shin looks like Kim Jong Kook, one of the stars in Running Man. But that does not heighten her interest in him in any way, she says.
What she remains drawn to is the fact that he is hardworking and can look after her.
Speaking two languages under one roof
Singaporean Amanda Dass promised her Korean husband Yim Ho Bin before they got married that she would become more like a typical Korean wife – especially on the cooking front.
Six years of marriage later, Mr Yim, 36, mutters: “She is still progressing.”
“Progressively getting better,” quips Ms Dass, 30, who works in the visitor services department at a local museum.
“I can understand why he would like to have Korean home-cooked food since he is away from home.”
A family photo of Singaporean Amanda Dass with her Korean husband Yim Ho Bin and their children. Image: ST/ Kua Chee Siong
The couple have reached a compromise where cooking is concerned. Ms Dass cooks non-Korean, basic dishes such as fried rice and other Western fare, and Mr Yim simply buys home ramen, kimchi, and Korean BBQ meats. At times, he also cooks Korean dishes.
Says Ms Dass: “He is actually not so particular about other wifely traits. He helps out with household chores.”
They met while working in a department store here in 2007.
“I wanted to work in Singapore to expose myself to another culture ,” says Mr Yim, who now works as a manager here at Korean barbecue restaurant chain Ju Shin Jung’s West Coast outlet.
He was touched by her patience in trying to understand his halting English.
She says they hit it off very naturally. “He was just a regular guy to me. I wasn’t big on K-pop or anything Korean,” she says.
Mr Yim’s mother, however, was against their romance at first. “She was very shocked,” he says. “Koreans usually do not marry non-Koreans.”
But a face-to-face meeting between Ms Dass and Mrs Yim, now 61 and living in Seoul, soothed the tension.
“My mother found her very respectful and well-behaved,” says Mr Yim.
They wed in 2008 and have two children, Kayden, five, and Kayceeca, two.
Language is the key challenge facing them at the moment. Ms Dass does not speak Korean while Mr Yim sees it as essential for his children to learn the Korean language.
As such, Ms Dass’ language role is to speak to the children in English, while her Chinese mother speaks to them in Mandarin. Ms Dass’ father is Indian.
Mr Yim speaks to his children solely in Korean, and Kayden is further exposed to the language through weekend Korean classes at the Singapore Korean International School, which he has been attending since last year.
His mother also sends the children educational materials from Korea. Both children are most fluent in English, followed by Korean and then Mandarin.
When the children are older, Mr Yim says he wants to join the activities of the Korean community here, so that the children can interact with other Koreans.
Meanwhile, Ms Dass has also been trying to pick up Korean phrases, by watching variety shows on the Korean Broadcasting System TV station. “I sometimes express myself by saying, ‘aigoo’ (oh my in Korean),” she says.
While being Korean is cool in the age of K-pop, Ms Dass recalls their part- Korean family unit used to draw stares when their son was young.
“People would look at my face, then my husband’s face, and then at my son’s face. The skin colours were all different, I guess,” she says.
“It used to be awkward, but now we just smile back and find it amusing. The stares do not affect us anymore.”
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 1, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.