The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Cool men are hard to find in today’s Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : July 24, 2018 - 16:55

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In Korean society, women often complain about the scarcity of cool guys. They say many Korean men are hot-tempered, get emotional easily or are prone to anger. Among other complaints, when a girlfriend wants to break up, some Korean men do not let go easily.

In O. Henry’s short stories, we can find some admirable guys whom Korean men should benchmark. For example, Jimmy Valentine in “A Retrieved Reformation” is arguably one of the coolest guys in literature. Valentine is a famous safecracker who has recently been released from prison. Soon Valentine resumes bank robberies, employing his extraordinary safecracking skills. Ben Price, the detective who initially sent Valentine to prison, pursues him.

Valentine appears in Elmore, Arkansas, to rob a local bank. However, he falls in love with Annabel Adams who happens to be the daughter of the banker. To marry her, Valentine decides to quit his criminal career once and for all. Assuming a new identity as Ralph Spencer, he opens a shoe store in town and becomes a successful businessman. As a result, he and Adams get engaged.

One day, Valentine drops by the bank with Adams’ family and relatives. While Adams’ father proudly shows them the bank’s new unbreakable safe, one of Adams’ young nieces playfully shuts the other in and accidentally locks the door. No one there can open the safe and the little girl might die of suffocation. Adams pleads with Valentine to do something. Despite knowing that his future will be ruined, Valentine immediately takes out his tools, opens the safe and rescues the little girl. Without any regret or reluctance, Valentine then starts to leave the bank, leaving his dumbfounded fiancee and her family behind.

Meanwhile, Detective Price sneaks into the bank and witnesses the whole scene. When Valentine sees the detective on his way out, he surrenders, “Hello, Ben! Well, let’s go. I don’t know that it makes much difference, now.” To his surprise, however, Price walks away, saying. “Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer. Don’t believe I recognize you.” In this famous story, both Valentine and Price turn out to be cool guys.

In O. Henry’s “One Thousand Dollars,” we encounter another unflappable guy named Gillian. His family lawyer informs young Gillian, who has a lavish lifestyle, that his rich deceased uncle has left him $1,000. The lawyer also instructs Gillian that he is required to submit a receipt for anything he purchases with the inherited money.

Gillian then learns that Miss Hayden, who was in his late uncle’s care, has received a ring and $10 only. Gillian is attracted to her, but his feelings are not reciprocated. Nonetheless, Gillian gives her the $1,000 he has received, saying that a mistake has been found in his uncle’s will.

Later, at the lawyer’s office, Gillian learns that there is a stipulation attached to his uncle’s will: If Gillian spends the money well, he will be given an additional $50,000. If not, Miss Hayden will receive the money instead. Without hesitation, Gillian tears off the receipt, saying that he has spent all the money on gambling, and walks out of the lawyer’s office, whistling happily. He decides to make the woman he adores happy at the cost his reputation and inherited money. Although she does not have feelings for him and will never know what he has done for her, Gillian does not care.

In “Mammon and the Archer,” O. Henry’s cool protagonist is Anthony Rockwell, a self-made millionaire. Unlike him, his son, Richard, does not believe in money. Anthony comes to know that his son has a serious problem; he has fallen in love with a high society girl, but will have only six to eight minutes to propose to her tomorrow while riding a cab together before she leaves for Paris for two years. Richard tells his father, “Dad, this is one tangle that your money can’t unravel. We can’t buy one minute of time with cash.”

However, a miracle happens and Richard has two hours to confess his love to the girl. As a result, they get engaged. It turns out that Anthony paid someone to delay traffic, so his son could have enough time to ask for the girl’s hand in the cab stuck in traffic congestion. Richard will never know what his father did for him.

Just like Richard, young people might assume that they were just lucky or able to do something by themselves. But it might be their parents behind, secretly helping them.

Unfortunately, cool guys are hard to find in today’s Korean society. Indeed, few Korean men are willing to act honorably like Valentine or Gillian in difficult times. Instead, every day we see many Korean men exhibiting egotism, hate and hostility toward those who have different opinions. Watching Korean society, plagued by narrow-minded men who unabashedly display heated accusations, indiscrete abhorrence and political vendettas, we intensely miss good men.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyung Hee Cyber University. He can be reached at -– Ed.