Of­fi­cials in Korea play match­maker

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE TRENDS - By SU-HYUN LEE

SEOUL, South Korea — As hope­ful sin­gles at the speed dat­ing event shifted from ta­ble to ta­ble in­tro­duc­ing them­selves, Park Chang-won, a 32-year-old fire­fighter, grew more and more mo­rose.

By the last ta­ble, Mr. Park was ut­ter­ing only his name and age. Then he sank into si­lence.

“It felt awkward from the out­set,” Mr. Park said later, ex­plain­ing that a life­time spent around men — at boys’ schools, the mil­i­tary and now as a fire­man — had made meet­ing women harder.

Any­where else, Mr. Park’s dat­ing woes might have been strictly per­sonal. But in South Korea, fret­ful about plum­met­ing birthrates but still tied to con­ser­va­tive ideas about match­mak­ing, solv­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of the lovelorn has be­come some­thing of a national pri­or­ity. The event Mr. Park at­tended was one of dozens of dat­ing par­ties na­tion­wide spon­sored by an un­likely match­maker: the govern­ment.

In a coun­try where ar­ranged courtships are fad­ing, the Min­istry of Health and Wel­fare be­gan pro­mot­ing the idea of dat­ing par­ties in 2010. Min­istry af­fil­i­ates and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, which can win fi­nan­cial re­wards for ac­tiv­i­ties that pro­mote mar­riage and child­birth, spon­sor most of the par­ties.

There are also on­line dat­ing ser­vices, but many young Kore­ans re­main un­com­fort­able search­ing on their own. Most pre­fer to rely on the com­pa­nies to make the match for them.

The re­sults have been mixed. Korean so­ci­ety is or­ga­nized around group af­fil­i­a­tions, so meet­ing a po­ten­tial spouse with­out for­mal in­tro­duc­tions to merit fam­ily ap­proval is dif­fi­cult.

Un­til the 1980s, young peo­ple re­lied on match­mak­ers and fam­ily con­nec­tions to find spouses, so­ci­ol­o­gists say. Those prac­tices waned as in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion started an ex­o­dus to South Korean cities. Fam­i­lies turned to a grow­ing num­ber of dat­ing ser­vices that per­formed back­ground checks.

But in re­cent years, ur­ban youth ex­posed to the West be­gan to com­plain that even the less for­mal blind dates set up by friends were stress­ful.

The trou­ble with un­ortho­dox ap­proaches like dat­ing par­ties, said Hahm In-hee, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Ewha Wo­mans Univer­sity in Seoul, is that so­ci­ety has not been pre­pared for such a rad­i­cal change.

“Ap­proach­ing or so­cial­iz­ing with some­one you don’t know at all feels very un­fa­mil­iar to Kore­ans,” she said. “It is very awkward to min­gle with some­one with­out know­ing who the other per­son’s par­ents are, where they are from, etc.”

So­cial mores are slowly shift­ing, but those changes do not di­min­ish the need for proper in­tro­duc­tions for se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ships.

So far, sev­eral young peo­ple said, the govern­ment par­ties have proved the best mix of old and new. Lo­cal of­fi­cials per­form thor­ough back­ground checks, match­maker-style, but once ev­ery­one is checked, of­fi­cials en­cour­age min­gling.

That is lit­tle com­fort for Mr. Park from the speed dat­ing party.

In the end, he aban­doned all cau­tion when the or­ga­niz­ers asked if any­one would pub­licly iden­tify the per­son they most wanted to meet. He pointed to a woman with an in­fec­tious grin whom he re­spected for not try­ing to hide her braces, then knelt to present her with a bou­quet pro­vided by the party plan­ners.

She cov­ered her face with her hands and re­fused to give him her phone num­ber. Later, she and her friends left with a group of young men. Mr. Park was not in­vited.

“I guess I will con­tinue the in­tro­duc­tion thing through friends,” he said later. “But I think pray­ing is the only an­swer.”

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