Sunday, November 25, 2007


Long before PDA came to mean "personal digital assistant," it meant "public display(s) of affection" to those of us who went through junior high and high school in the 1980s. "No PDA!" was the much-mocked war cry of harried faculty trying to enforce what many saw as a silly and unjust rule.

I've been teaching a content-based syllabus to my students that uses "Three's Company" as the jumping-off point for grammar, vocabulary, and discussion. Students have a daily homework assignment, which is twofold: (1) they must use five expressions learned in class in sentences, and (2) they must write 1-2 paragraphs (4-5 sentences long) on an assigned topic directly related to the material covered in class. The writing topic this past Monday, based on Episode 7 of "Three's Company," was:

Mrs. Roper is inspired when she sees a young couple kissing. How do you feel when you see such a thing? Are you inspired? Disgusted? Why? Also: how do you feel about public displays of affection?

What follows is a sample of some student thoughts on this topic.

1. (a woman in her 50s)
It depends on the couple's appearance and actions. If they look beautiful, I'm also happy. If not, I'm disgusted.

It's not good for me to see couples who display deep affection like a French kiss. I also think those things should be done in private, not in public space.

2. (a man in his late 20s or early 30s)
Public displays of affection interrupt other people. They can display their affection in private. Such behaviors may have a bad influence on children. I can't understand why people might do that in public. Nobody needs to know how deep their love is. Serious expressions of love make them ugly.

3. (a female undergrad)
In my case, it depends on how intensive their acting. If I saw a young couple who kissed each other very quickly and afterward was so shy, I would think they are so cute, so young. But if a couple kissed very deep in the public place like a museum or something, I think that couple is really rude, impolite, stupid people. Because public places are bad place to do something except their's original intention. Namely, I don't care a young couple kissing anywhere except public places.

However, when I was in Europe, I saw many people kissing their's lover anywhere. In the park, in the museum, in the theater, in the bookstore... It is curious to say, I never felt sickening, embarrassing. I don't know why I didn't feel those feelings, but I thought maybe I was pressed Korea's ideas or fixed ideas.

4. (a female undergrad)
I'm not inspired or disgusted when I see a young couple kissing. It's no concept for me. The kissing of couple is not strange, but public displays of affection is not good if that things give others unpleasant feelings. And it's not free in Korean public emotion not yet. So I think it's not good about excess public displays of affection.

5. (a female undergrad)
If I see a couple kissing in the public place, I'll be disgusted. Because I can't concentrate on my partner in front of me. Unless I eat food with boyfriend, I and my partner might feel awkward mood. And it is not good for children. They might imitate adult's action even though they don't know what they do. So, I think if a couple consider around people, they have to express their love in private place.

6. (a female undergrad)
In Korea, we often say, "If we are kissing our lover, it's romance, but if others are kissing, it's wrong." I also agree. So, I don't like it when I see a young couple kissing. If I see affection of public displays, I will feel disgusted, and shamed. I have some stereotype a little, so I disagree.

7. (a male in his late 30s)
As long as it is not a hardcore one, I think kissing in public is okay to me. However, in front of children, it could be uneducational. Some cafes have somewhat tall couches, for the sake of private kisses between lovers. People don't have to care others' comments or peeping since you cannot be distracted by other people. I suspect displays of affection should be done by people's appropriate discretion.

I sometimes wonder why I feel as though I'm in some straitlaced Muslim country. I do think, however, that things are slowly changing here, especially when I think back to public conduct in the 1990s. What's always amazed me is that Koreans see nothing wrong with making complete asses of themselves while drunk-- no one feels disgusted, embarrassed, or ashamed. Get into brawls, scream in the streets, engage in some gleeful projectile vomiting-- but kissing!? Heaven forfend! It's a major accomplishment that kissing can now be seen on Korean soap operas. Meanwhile, in the States, we're wondering how much ass crack and cleavage we can show, and off to the side is Europe, a continent that long ago approved of TV nudity, laughing hysterically at us and our over-puritanical ways.

Speaking of straitlaced Muslim countries, did you hear that Syria just cut off access to Facebook? The claim is that it's being done for political reasons, but I'm pretty sure the Syrian government is also worried about things hormonal.



Anonymous said...

I’d be interested in what they say about housewives and their boyfriends heading off to love hotels in droves. ‘Hey, they’re married, right? Just not to each other.’

annika said...

i used to not care about pda's. but recently i happened upon a romantic couple that went way beyond the bounds of public decency.

luckily, i had my camera with me.

Anonymous said...

Annika: The nerve of that couple! They're no better than animals! I think that photograph might be too obscene for even Kevin's blog.

As for how I feel about PDAs, well, I'm originally from New York, and I've come across couples in Central Park doing the nasty, so a little kissing doesn't really faze me.

I found the first comment most amusing: if they're good-looking, great! If not, bad! I just don't understand how some people can be so shallow. At least she was honest, though (on the other hand, she probably doesn't even realize that such an attitude might be considered something to be ashamed of).

Kevin Kim said...



So in the wild, it's eat or be eaten, eh?

Great to hear from you. Hope all's well.


Anonymous said...

I've heard the "straitlaced Koreans" argument before, but it seems to fly in the face of all of the couples I've seen kissing in the street, on the subway, etc. I suspect it's an example of things changing when no one was really paying attention.

Honestly, "traditional values" in general are bourgeois values. They're the values espoused by an urban middle class. Throughout history these values have flown in the face of the way things are among the lower classes, and particularly the rural classes. I doubt its any different in Korea, though I would gladly change my mind if someone produced evidence.

Kevin Kim said...


I agree that things are changing in Korea-- that would be consistent with what I wrote above-- but I don't see nearly the PDA here that I've seen in the States since my childhood, whether that be on TV, on the streets, in public places, etc. Korea still has a long way to go on that front, although I may be speaking as a cultural imperialist (or so a Korean might say). After all, who's to say that PDA is objectively a good thing?

You're probably right about traditional values being bourgeois, though an argument can be made that richer families often maintain more traditional attitudes about who can marry whom, whether or to what degree the different classes can intermingle, etc. A good topic for discussion, but one I'd have to research before commenting further.

Side note-- many of my students, when confronted with the PDA question in class, immediately asked, "Are we talking about PDA in the daytime or at night?" Most of them felt that PDA was all right under cover of darkness.

What I found interesting, though, was that the above writing samples were written before we had the in-class discussion about PDA. The overall consistency of the answers-- which were written privately and independently in individual journals-- speaks volumes about the Korean vision of public morality.

Not to say that the espoused morality is always the same as the practiced morality: using Muslim countries as an example again, I've heard stories from Westerners who've lived in Muslim countries to the effect that precepts are violated left and right in those countries. The larger point, I suppose, is that this is a complicated issue.


Anonymous said...

Do you mind if I toss some almost random data points at you?

I was just reading Bruce Cumings NORTH KOREA: ANOTHER COUNTRY and the PDA conversation reminded me of a passage that seemed kind of weirdly irrelevant to me:

"Another reason for close mother-son relations is that the North continues to adhere to traditional social norms about what's good for young people. They go to schools segregated by sex, dating and holding hands were frowned upon until recently, and thus out-of-wedlock pregnancies are very rare. If it nonetheless happens, the infant is given up to the state and treated like other orphans -- warmly. The result is that "most North Korean males forego sex entirely until their late 20s or early 30s," and so, presumably, do women. I once witnessed a group of Korean adults dancing sedately in a park, accompanied by an accordion. A few years later, I was strolling through Edinburgh and saw exactly the same thing. But, of course, in twenty-first-century America what North Koreans and Scots like to do for recreation would seem hopelessly outdated."

Cumings, p. 173.

So I searched the internet.

In the 90s teen pregnancy rates in Scotland averaged around 70 per 1000 women aged 16-19.

In the US it was apparently between 116 and 87 per 1000 women between 15-19.

Obviously, you cannot underestimate the sexiness of accordians.

But I'll shoot myself in the foot on that point: 2002 showed 3 births per 1000 women 15-19 in South Korea. 2 births per 1000 in North Korea. I would wonder what the (technically illegal in south korea) abortion rate is.

A study of college students in Busan found HPV in 15.2% of women and 8.7% of men.

"Young women in South Korea start having penetrative sexual intercourse relatively late (median age, 18 years), but, once they begin, HPV prevalence quickly rises to levels comparable with those found in university students in the United States and in northern Europe."

This is why I am skeptical about the "no PDA in Korea" idea.

I guess the proper methodology would be to sit down in the middle of Jongno and count kissing couples.

Also, I would ask about other public displays of affection aside from kissing. Hugging, whining, clinging together, etc. I live in Daehakno and every time I go out I see dozens of nauseatingly into each other couples. I don't mind kissing, but the way they hang on each other makes my gorge rise.

I think I got totally sidetracked about your point. Aren't you glad you filter these comments?

annika said...

Hi Kevin. Monkey number one does look like she's enjoying it though, doesn't she?