With a recent roundtable on K-drama cliches, as well as the conclusion of dramas such as Mimi and I Need Romance 3, First Love seems to be a topic that surfaces no matter where you look. Whether it is a K-drama storyline or a mere interview question, it’s difficult to veer far from the First Love territory.
While this is not a theme specific to the Korean culture, I believe that this fixation on First Love is much more present in Asian society as compared to Western society. As a movie or drama troupe, both schools of media utilize it in one way or another, although the Western counterpart seem to use it slightly more sparingly, whereas every K-drama always seem to include some extent of a plot deviation into First Love territory.
In interviews, it’s not uncommon for Korean celebrities to be asked a question such as ‘When was your first love?’ or ‘What was your first love like?’. It’s practically an issue that a Korean celebrity is bound to encounter at some point in his or her career, whereas it would be nigh impossible to see such a question surface in the Western hemisphere.
So what exactly does First Love represent? First Love (첫사랑) is defined as the first time that you ever had feelings for a certain someone, whether mutual or unrequited. It’s the first time that you ever had your heart beat a little faster, and your brain function a little more irrationally, at the mere sight of your first love. You would do anything and everything, just to get a second glance from this special someone. Because it’s your first experience at falling head-over-heels in love, you go out of your way to impress this particular individual, even verging on the border of ridiculousness. It can take place at any age, ranging from elementary school to university. But the common thread that ties all first loves together, is the innocence, pure and unprejudiced nature of it.
And this is exactly the reason why Asian culture puts a much stronger emphasis on the First Love. Asian culture, being a much more traditional culture, takes pride in its conservativeness, as opposed to the more liberal Western culture. The accepted view is that Asians prefer their partners to have had fewer exes, and it reflects better on the individual to have dabbled in a smaller number of relationships. As this social stigma might be slowly evolving with the influence of Western culture, this stereotype is still deeply ingrained in Asian culture, even if an increasing number of youths no longer subscribe to this belief.
The obsession with First Love is not a recent phenomena, so it makes sense that it would have arisen from older, more traditional beliefs, in contrary to the current way of life. It’s similar to how being a virgin is still held in esteem, but the practice with growing popularity amongst the younger generation is still pre-marital sex.
Hence, even if Korean culture is slowly becoming more liberal, the idea of innocence, untaintedness, and cuteness is still strongly prevalent. It can be compared to how aegyo and cute concepts used to be the go-to image for girl groups, but only recently did sexy and badass concepts start catching on with the audience. In fact, in some cases, the sexy image actually has brought the group more success than their previous cute concepts, although this is more due to the saturation of the aegyo market. Case in point: Girls’ Day. That said, the demand for a innocent and cute concept will never really die out. Suzy hit the jackpot with the title Nation’s First Love and thus became the CF queen of Korea. Former Nation’s Little Sister, IU, also gained famed through her innocent image, until her scandal with Eunhyuk dethroned her, and caused a significant decrease in her popularity. Compare this to Western pop culture, where you would be hard-pressed to find a artiste that is successful based on merely a cute image. Sexy and fierce artistes such as Rihanna and Katy Perry are what it takes to make it big in the industry.
This leads me to believe that first love prevails in both cultures for different reasons. In the Western culture, first love is used to describe a love-at-first-sight fairytale that remains as a goal for idealistic people. However, in the Asian culture, first love is a ‘thing’ because of its representation of innocence and purity. Your first love is when you are not sullied by any previous harrowing relationship experience. Your impression and expression of love is still incredibly unjaded and naive, and you would go the extra mile (or ten) for this person. This obsession with the First Love can be likened to the obsession with aegyo — we all want to know what it’s like when so-and-so behaves in a cute and innocent manner, even if it might be an act. And also based on an individual’s First Love experience, we tend to form some sort of judgement of how the person was like, before being tainted by the pain of love. Is he the jealous type, or the self-sacrificial type?
Because it’s the first, it truly expresses our unbiased opinion of love. Because it’s the first, we would go all in, and all out. Because it’s the first, it will remain etched in our memory forever. Everyone is sure to have had a First Love experience, and perhaps that’s why it’s a theme that will never really die out.[Images via Mnet, MBC, SBS]