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The Love That Some Love to Hate: Aegyo

Does this warm your heart? Or make you sick to your stomach?

aegyo (애교) /āgyō/ (noun): The act of being overly cute [1]

Several Korean friends have asked me how one might translate aegyo into English, and I have never been able to give them a satisfactory one-word response. The easy answer is “cuteness,” but this barely scratches the surface of the complex expression of childish charm and effeminate grace that aegyo actually constitutes. The closest single word to aegyo comprehensible to the average English speaker seems not to be homegrown English at all, but a loan word from Japanese: kawaii, literally 可爱, able to be loved. For many, “kawaii,” unlike simply “cute” or “adorable,” may bring to mind images of pigtailed girls holding up double V signs and grinning like Cheshire cats. This at least more accurately expresses the negative side of aegyo so often reviled by foreigner and Korean alike than does the concept “cute,” but the hitch here is that aegyo is most properly understood as a noun, while 可爱 is usually an adjective in both Japanese and Chinese.

Even though the concept is hard to cleanly translate into English, it can still be understood in its own right through an examination of its composition and usage. The first character ae (爱) means “love,” while the second character gyo (娇) can be applied to a number of concepts, including “beautiful and adorable,” “pamper with affection,” and “precious.” [2]Some semantic mix of “loving” and “precious” might indeed be a correct first step to understanding this term, as a Korean blog [3] and Urban Dictionary [4] alike describe the concept as “a manner of speech or behavior that elicits the favorable interest of others“ and “winsome… ‘generally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence,’” respectively. The origin of the Korean compound word aegyo is unclear, at least to me, but according to the Chinese Wikipedia Băidù Băikē (百度百科), an early mention of the term is found in a 1932 Chinese work by fiction writer Máo Dùn (茅盾, meaning “contradiction,” the pen name of Shĕn Déhóng 沈德鴻) 《字夜(Zì Yè)》 [5] in which a character’s grandmother is described as having “a gaze still so full of radiance and lively movement, each glance shining with infinite wisdom, infinite aegyo.” [6] So it seems that in 1932, at least the Chinese understanding of aegyo justified its use to describe the radiant wisdom of an elder woman, hardly the cutesy affectation with which we might associate it today.

Aegyo is generally understood to be most appropriately expressed by females. Females delicately covering their teeth while they laugh [7]. Females praising their male friends in elaborate language for performing an act that they are seemingly too helpless to do themselves, like opening a soda can [3]. Females with pouting lips and impossibly wide eyes snapping selfies in the coffee shop. And, of course, females begging their oppas for ice cream [8]. Girls, however, hardly have a monopoly on this trait.  Males can and do use it too, and while they generally confine their expressions of aegyo to baby-talk with significant others, a close Korean friend once informed me that she has met a number of Korean males who use aegyo in other contexts as well. Some, she reported, even go as far as to pronounce the conjunction go (고) as the more childish and presumably more endearing gu (구) (a behavior usually restricted to female speech patterns) and reference older female friends as eonni (언니), the Korean title for “big sister” used between females, instead of the ostensibly more gender-appropriate nuna (누나) expected to be used by males (funnily enough, I encountered my first such male on the subway not four hours after this conversation; talk about our propensity to filter out what we do not fully understand). Not only is aegyo not gender-specific, but it is apparently also not the exclusive purview of humans. Type the search term into Naver.com and be prepared for a barrage of puppies [9], kittens [10], rabbits [11], and, my personal favorite, a group of curious wild seals [12] declared to epitomize the elusive trait.

Multiple online sources, foreign and Korean alike, make a distinction between “natural” and “fake” aegyo, with the implication that the latter is somehow less praiseworthy than the former. While I will not deny that aegyo, like any behavioral expression that may call extra attention to oneself, can be abused with an intent to manipulate, the black-and-white distinction between “real” and “fake” aegyo and their respective associations with “good” and “evil” is precisely the kind of misunderstanding that I hope to correct. For even though aegyo can be unnatural and affected, it can still express genuinely benevolent intentions. In other words, not all so-called “fake” aegyo is “bad” aegyo.

As an example, every night my roommate comes home from her office job she walks past my room and emits a high-pitched “Kaelli an-NYEONG!” while striking an extravagant girlish pose that all but beams unicorns and rainbows into the rose-scented air around her. At first, I tended to feel perplexed, and then ever-so-slightly miffed, at this action, for I felt that she was greeting me as though she would a child or house pet rather than the self-aware human adult that I consider myself to be. And, according to some written and filmed material on Korean aegyo, I might have been justified in my frustration. My roommate’s behavior took calculation and effort, and was therefore, affected, artificial—the sort of fake aegyo that others might teach us to revile or mock. But isn’t the calculated effort behind this aegyo its very purpose in our interaction? Even after a grueling twelve-to-fifteen-hour day at the office, my roommate musters up the thought and energy to slip on an exaggerated smile and crow a happy greeting into my room. Should it really matter that this thoughtfulness happens to take the shape of a cloying, childish, fake manner that, all told, probably results more from her natural absorption of the images with which she is daily presented in the media than from any malicious desire to put on a manipulative one-woman show? Her nightly performance is the epitome of so-called “fakeaegyo,” and yet one would not be justified in condemning her for it.

I Dig Culture’s raison d’être is to bring diverse people together in mutual understanding. As such, we do not stop at attempting simply to purvey a body of objective knowledge about various cultures, which may be perniciously interpreted in ways counter to our final goal of human connection. Instead, we strive in addition to unpack and underscore the mutually intelligible logic that stands behind the wildly different cultural practices on which we report. In this way, we hope to provide evidence for our shared humanity rather than just create a spectacle of our surface differences.

We hope that our treatment of the Korean concept aegyo (爱娇) is no exception. As a type of behavior that might stand counter to standards of mature social intercourse in some other countries, it serves as an apt example of a cultural phenomenon that can be, and often is, misunderstood and/or interpreted in an unnecessarily negative light. We hope, therefore, to provide a more positive spin on aegyo, one that highlights the rational and universally comprehensible motivations behind its practice in Korean society.

So we may have a love-hate relationship with aegyo, one that might weigh more heavily toward the latter in the case of those for whom aegyo is an ambiguous and foreign concept. However, as with any human behavior, especially one that might stray so far from one’s own approach to social interaction, it is important to grant others the benefit of the doubt. So whether it is wrapped up in the endearing smile of a shy male friend or a girl in combat boots and a leather miniskirt who drops her cigarette and bottle of soju to emit porcine squeals at her approaching oppa, let’s not forget that an important component of aegyo is 爱, the elicitation and expression of love, an emotion that we can all understand and share.

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Written by 桑凯丽

桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.

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