Valentines Day is celebrated in Western countries as a time when lovers give sweets, cards, and other gifts to each other, spend a romantic dinner together, and enjoy each others’ company. Originally devoted to Saint Valentine’s, it has become an annual bonanza for commercial establishments, and prices for heart-tugging frivolities double in the days leading to this romantic event.
For Asian countries, however, whose non-Christian population do not recognize Saint Valentines, February 14 has become an exercise of cultural mitosis, as different countries have different ways in assimilating a new tradition. From social curiosity to odd adaptation to outright resistance to saying “I Love You“, take time to find out how different eastern nations take on this day of romance.
Let’s start with India, who pretty much treat Valentine’s Day the same way as western countries do. On the days prior to February 14, cards, chocolates, candies, stuffed toys, balloons, and flowers are in high demand, and are exchanged between couples and sweethearts. There is a movement, however, among political hard-liners that view Valentine’s Day as an unnecessary cultural import. Some groups aggressively repel this social incursion by burning down booths which sell Valentine cards in campuses and threatening to smear the faces of those who display affection in public places.
This counter-movement is also gaining ground in neighboring Sri Lanka. The Buddhist monks of Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya have started protesting the observance of Valentines Day, claiming it is against traditional Sinhalese beliefs. They believe romantic love is only after marriage and is especially not displayed publicly. As such, the influential JSS will hold Adishtana and Ashirwada prayers and call on the youth to love their country and the government forces who battle the rebel group Tamil Tigers.
In Vietnam, the mood is one of curiosity and gradual acceptance, as once-strict mores against youthful romance is slackening as the country opens up to global markets and ideas. Celebrity scandals of the sexual kind have stirred up less controversy as of late, with local actors and actresses still getting roles and endorsements instead of outright banning from show business. In fact, the burgeoning interest in Valentines Day have sparked a revival of traditional festivals dedicated to love, such as Le Hoi Trao Duyen (Exchange Love Festivals). This festival is celebrated in mountain communities by singing folk love songs.
The Japanese have long held a distinct approach to Valentine’s Day, as it is the women who give chocolates to male acquaintances. Female office workers buy boxes of chocolates to distribute among male colleagues at work. In exchange, the men folk give white chocolates in turn on March 14, which is called White Day. In any case, the holiday that most resembles Valentines Day in Japan is Christmas Day, when lovers spend time enjoying the snow, giving gifts, and having dinner together.
The Koreans borrowed Japan’s treatment of Valentine’s Day and White Day and ran with it. They first expanded the special days to April 14, calling it Black Day. On this day, girls who didn’t get chocolates on White Day gather together in Chinese restaurants and eat Jachangmyeong – black noodles. This reflects the mood among singles on this day of unloved sorrow. Furthermore, more informal special days have cropped up. January 14 has become Diary Day, when boys and girls exchange diaries; May 14 is Rose Day, a mutual exchange of roses; June 14 is Yellow Day, an exchange of teddy bears, and July 14 is Kiss Day. One fears what happens when this trend envelops for the rest of the months, and what happens nine months after December 14.
In Singapore, where the hectic, money-driven lifestyle leave citizens little time for romance, let alone marriage and children, the birthrate has fallen below the number needed for the population to replenish itself. An anxious government has encouraged a reversal of this trend by giving financial incentives for families and an active support of romantic interludes. All this effort culminates on February 14, when Romancing Singapore goes into full bloom. The event goes all out to support dating among the population and it is no surprise that the private sector has fully embraced it. The activity to watch is “Love in a Capsule“, when all 24 pods of the Singapore Flyer is outfitted so that couples can enjoy a romantic moment on board the world’s tallest observation wheel. Movie marathons, shopping sprees, and treasure hunts all give couples every opportunity the chance to realize that all the wealth and success in the world means nothing if there’s no one to share it with.
Finally, Hong Kong has recently adopted the Finnish tradition of wife-carrying, a contest that originated back when bandits abducted women from unsuspecting villages for marital purposes. In the contest, husbands carry their spouses fireman-style, piggyback, or “Estonian Carry” (upside-down, with the legs draped over the shoulders) while traversing obstacles and picking up roses floating in heart-shaped pools. The festivities are further as couples dress in superhero costumes and wedding garments while competing. Those who aren’t competing may romance over a thrilling helicopter ride over Hong Kong Island or dine in the many fine establishments overlooking Victoria Bay.
As you can see, Valentine’s Day brings out how different cultures view romantic love in their societies. So wherever you are and whoever you’re with, have a sweet Valentine’s Day.