Every 16-year-old girl to 50-year-old woman is in love with a Korean oppa. The word has many definitions, but in this case, it’s a romantic interest. No family lunch is complete without my relatives swooning over an oppa.
In understanding the Korean wave beyond my relatives’ opinions, I interviewed a young Filipina-Korean couple based in Ulsan, Adrienne Kalaw and Yu Cheol, about their almost three-year love story, from how they met, to their engagement, to the wedding and family life.
What I discovered is that in the Korean way of love and relationships, chivalry is not dead. And respect is in the little gestures and acts of service.
‘I wasn’t interested in being in a relationship, but he was cute.’
At the start of the 2018 Northeast Asian heatwave, Adrienne was an international student working in the Korea University Hospital as part of her postgraduate studies. The hospital was manic, with an influx of patients suffering from heat strokes. Yu Cheol, a news reporter, was there to cover the story.
He noticed her in a cafe and thought she looked like Jasmine in the Disney film Aladdin. In Korea, it is not common for men and women to become friends. But, they exchanged their numbers on KakaoTalk, Koreans’ version of Viber. She found him cute, after all.
He wasn’t shy about showing his interest, from pretending to read the palm of her hand, to intertwining his fingers with hers. He even asked, ‘Can I put my arm around you?’ while he opened his umbrella in the middle of the pouring rain.
After two months of chatting, they went on their first date. Adrienne bluntly told him, “We can be friends.” Yu Cheol thought differently. “I knew from the first date” that Adrienne was the one, he recalls.
He wasn’t shy about showing his interest, from pretending to read the palm of her hand, to intertwining his fingers with hers. He even asked, “Can I put my arm around you?” while he opened his umbrella in the middle of the pouring rain. Safe to say, they became more than friends.
‘They told me that he is either crazy or he wants to marry you.’
A month after dating, Yu Cheol brought Adrienne to meet his family in Ulsan during Chuseok, the most significant holiday, known as the Korean Thanksgiving Day. Adrienne asked the residents in the hospital what to expect: “They told me that he is either crazy or he wants to marry you.” Looking back, Yu Cheol expressed that Korean men don’t waste time: “If they don’t like the girl, they won’t meet again.” There are no second dates unless there is a commitment.
In less than a year, Yu Cheol proposed to Adrienne, admitting he had to watch YouTube videos on how to propose. In Korea, the agreement of marriage is more like a boardroom meeting between the two families. Yu Cheol wanted to give Adrienne the proposal she dreamt of, where he organized a night with friends, music and soju.
‘He sang Fly Me to the Moon to 50 of my relatives, and that was it.’
In true Filipino tradition, he met 50 of her relatives right away. And on that day, he played the violin and sang ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ by Frank Sinatra. And that was it, for Adrienne’s family – they approved.
The only hiccup in this whirlwind romance was that Adrienne’s parents didn’t know she had a boyfriend and that she was engaged. In an effort on Yu Cheol’s part, he wrote Adrienne’s mother a six-page letter to apologize. He also flew to the Philippines with Adrienne in 2019 to meet her family and for her mother’s birthday.
In true Filipino tradition, he met 50 of her relatives right away. And on that day, he played the violin and sang Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra. And that was it, for Adrienne’s family — they approved.
They married in 2020 in Jeju, South Korea. And now, they have a baby girl named Amanda. Adrienne said, “When I look at Amanda, I see how she’s a product of our love talaga, kaya she’s really an angel baby.” She reflected on the girl who wasn’t ready for a relationship, “Love has evolved a lot. From being boyfriend and girlfriend to being husband and wife. Love is still a choice every day. Every day, I choose to love Yu Cheol.”
In most K-dramas, there are four typical Korean romantic gestures: piggybacking the woman, having an umbrella always ready on dates, fixing her hair and tying her shoelaces. I asked Yu Cheol about the shoelaces, and he explained, “Sometimes, a girl is wearing a low blouse or a skirt. And it’s really hard for them. So, that’s why guys help with their shoelaces.”
I now understand why teenagers and titas fall in love with Korean oppas. An oppa doesn’t just mean a character in a K-drama, but the art of being a true gentleman. And in this story, Adrienne has fallen in love with her own real-life oppa.