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[Weekender] Cupid’s arrows target Korea’s college campuses

A couple reunites at the completion ceremony after a five-week basic military training course held at the Republic of Korea Army Training Center in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province. (Yonhap)
A couple reunites at the completion ceremony after a five-week basic military training course held at the Republic of Korea Army Training Center in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province. (Yonhap)

After a resounding shout emanating from a bunch of shaved heads echoes across the grounds of the military training camp in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, the camp is suddenly filled with sobs and sniffles. With short good-bye hugs, the men march back to their squads.

Since all able-bodied Korean men over 19 years old are required to serve in the military, enlistment represents a crossroads for many couples.

There are even terms for young men and women in such a situation: “combat boots” and “rubber shoes,” respectively referring to a serviceman and his girlfriend.

Accordingly, there are numerous online communities for these “rubber shoes,” through which they commiserate with each other’s pain and share tips for enduring the long waits.  Instead of lovey-dovey late-night calls, the girls often send parcels of sweets and letters embellished with hearts and photos. Despite these enormous efforts, only a few couples ride out the storm. For the vast majority, the love gradually fades and ends up in agony.

Koreans often use the term “wearing rubber shoes (or combat shoes) backwards” to refer to a person who has a change of heart during the service term.

A 21-year-old college student with a buzz cut breathed out a deep sigh, ground his cigar butt into the ground and plodded across the rain-sodden university campus in Seoul. The sorrowful young man surnamed Yoon had been dumped a few weeks prior by his beloved girlfriend who allegedly formed a relationship with an older student from college soon after his enlistment.

“We were once known to be lovebirds,” said Yoon, with a bitter smile. Yet, his 10-month romance eventually turned to a nightmare, as well as a broken friendship.

A student couple spends time together at a library in Seoul’s Hanyang University. (Kim Young-joon)
A student couple spends time together at a library in Seoul’s Hanyang University. (Kim Young-joon)

Group blind dates still prevalent on campus

“You can do whatever you want after getting into a university” is something seemingly everyone with a Korean mom has heard at least once in their lifetime; this is an inducement for Korea’s high school students to endure loads of work and exams until their long-awaited exodus to the world of freedom: campus life.

Referred to as a “meeting,” group blind dates have been a fantasy and a rite-of-passage for freshmen in Korea through the decades. Unlike traditional blind dates usually set up by parents, these meetings are somewhat casual and less serious; they are often regarded as a fun night out with drinking and games. “I’m glad I’m not a ‘motae-solo’ (a person who has never had a date) anymore,” said Choi Joon-seok, a 24-year-old student at Seoul’s Hanyang University who found the love of his life in a meeting a few months ago, heralding the end of his lifelong loneliness.

It all starts when a man in dire need of romance begs one of his friends -- usually of the same gender -- to arrange a meeting for him, Choi explained. Then this matchmaking buddy calls up his female friend to ask if she could gather up those interested. Each matchmaker then invites everyone into a group chat room to set the date and venue -- these singles usually meet up at pubs in Seoul’s Sinchon or Gangnam -- and at last, they meet up.

Sitting across from complete strangers, the groups, usually composed of four to five from each gender, start drinking games before an awkward silence engulfs the table.

“From the ‘Noonchi game,’ which requires quick wit, to the ‘Frying Pan game’ where you can test your rhythmic sense, you name it; there are tons of options,” said Choi, listing off games that are in vogue among college students these days. “If you lose, the rule is simple: you have to drink a shot or else you can opt for a ’black knight,’ through which you can pick out a person to take the drink for you in exchange for a favor of his (or her) choice,” said the young man, hinting that this is how he could win his partner’s heart.

Once the ice is broken with some drinks, there comes the part Choi refers as “the most nerve-racking part” -- the love-seekers move onto fixing up the partners of the day. In the past, women would secretly take any item from their purses and let the men choose one of the items, which would then determine the pairs. 

Things have changed, though, giving birth to a novel new method. First, the members are assigned single-digit numbers and coins are gathered. One by one, each person, usually starting with a woman, draws a coin randomly and secretly checks the year on the coin -- the last digit of which indicates the match. If the person is satisfied with the choice, his or her game ends there. If not, the coin goes back in the pile, another drink goes down the hatch and he or she will try again next round. The process continues until all the attendees are happy with their partners.

From this point on, the matched pairs sit side-by-side and carry on with more drinking and games. If they like, they might exchange contact information before the extraordinary mating ritual comes to an end. Choi got his girlfriend’s number right before the group dispersed and sent a “good night” text, through which the two commenced their sweet romance.

Things have changed over the decades, but Sinchon’s pubs are still packed with these unique meetings -- probably because these meetings remain the hopeful fantasies of youngsters, as a rite-of-passage for freshmen and as a faint hope for long-sought desires.

By Ko Ji-seon(