10 Ways to Make Friends in Korea Part 2: Korean Friends
In Part 1, I talked about general ways people I know have met their friends. For the second part, I asked how they had made Korean friends, as this is generally a lot harder unless you speak Korean and can join a lot of Korean language based groups. While it takes more effort than meeting other foreigners, it’s totally possible if you really want to. However when trying to make Korean friends, there’s some things you need to consider first.
You might meet some friendly ajummas, who knows?
Meeting Korean people
The main problem I have found in making Korean friends is the obvious one – there’s a language barrier. Unless you meet someone who’s fluent (or near fluent) in English or you are fluent in Korean, it’s definitely harder to make a friendship work. I have met a few really nice people, but after meeting a few times, there was just nothing left for us to talk about because we didn’t have enough language to discuss anything more. The other issue with striking up friendships with strangers, Korean or not, is that you’re not necessarily going to have the same interests.
A big one I think, especially for women, is that there are a lot of Korean people just looking to date a foreigner (usually a white foreigner). By no means am I saying all Korean guys are trying to date a white girl, just… that a lot of them are, and I’m speaking from personal experience. Unfortunately, this happens a lot through the language exchange apps. I can’t judge how many Korean women are trying to date white guys though because I’m not part of that equation. Of course there are plenty of foreigners trying to date Koreans too! So if the right two people come together, then that’s great, but if you’re just looking for friends it’s best to make that plain from the get go, or do what I do and just look for friends of your own gender. It makes everything a lot easier.
You also can’t ignore cultural differences! While Korea is modernised and on the outside looks very Western, there are a lot of differences in the way Koreans act with people based on how well they know them and most importantly their age. One of my Korean friends mentioned recently that it’s very hard for her to be friends with an English guy she knows because she’s 23 and he’s 30, so she always feels like she has to speak to him with too much respect to be on his level and be his friend. There’s so much more to this that it could (and probably will) be an entirely separate blog post, so for now just keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to stick to meeting people as close to your age as possible. It will be a lot more comfortable for everyone involved.
7. Adult co-workers and students
Korean co-workers are a mixed bag, as are co-workers anywhere. I have heard from many an EPIK (public school) teacher that none of their co-workers will acknowledge them, let alone have a conversation with them. Then again I know other teachers who have a good relationship with their co-workers. Generally you’re more likely to meet Korean co-workers who’ll want to spend time with you as a friend, at a hagwon (academy). It could be because there’s usually a lot more teachers at a hagwon with a good grasp of English compared to a public school, or it could be the later hours, which often mean you’re together at the school over dinner time. Whatever the reason, from what I have experienced this seems to be true. However as always with co-workers, it’s going to be luck of the draw! You could work for a huge hagwon with lots of co-workers, none of who want to speak with you, or only have one co-worker at a small school who ends up becoming your friend. All you can do it be friendly and polite, encourage your co-workers to speak English with you when possible (it often comes down to shyness) and hope for the best.
It’s normal for teachers to go out with their adult students here, and even to form friendships. It’s very common for classes to go out together for dinner and drinks as a group, and I have talked to some teachers who also became friends with individual students and spent time together outside of class. I know one woman who is still in touch with some of her ex-students, even though she has gone home to America! I don’t teach adults anymore (sadly) so I don’t have any experience with this, the closest I have come is back in New Zealand with my Korean class, when we all went out together for dinner with our Korean teacher. However once during the short time I was teaching an adult class at a company here, one of my students did say he would treat us all to tonkatsu for lunch… instead of class! So unfortunately I had to say no. :p
8. Just saying 안녕하세요 (hello)
This is easier if you live in small town, as you often build up relationships by visiting the same places on a regular basis, or riding the bus with the same people. This is very similar to number 5, except for approaching Koreans it’s helpful if you at least know a little Korean to get the conversation started and break the ice. Usually people here are impressed even if you speak just a tiny bit of Korean, and it will give you something to talk about. While better suited to a small town, this can still work in a bigger city, especially if you are particularly outgoing and can approach people and introduce yourself. Not being very outgoing, the closest I’ve got to this is smiling at Koreans studying English in coffee shops. It’s yet to get me anywhere, but we’ll see what happens!
9. Language exchange (group or app)
By far the easiest way to meet Koreans is through language exchange groups or programs. Of course these are groups for Koreans who are learning English and foreigners who are learning Korean, so it’s not a place to go along just looking for friends. However, if you are interested in learning Korean and go to one of these groups, you can also end up finding friends there too. A good place to search for groups is on Facebook and meetup.com, however as I mentioned in my last post, if you live in a small town it can be hard to find a group. This is where language exchange phone apps and websites can help. They have the same purpose, except you’re usually texting or calling and can easily connect with people living in different cities. I used a popular app called Hellotalk which doesn’t offer multiple or large sized photos in order to keep the app about language and to prevent it turning into a dating app. I found restricting my profile to women only was very effective. I initially met a lot of people through this app and some of them became friends. Not that many though, due to the aforementioned language barrier and a lack of shared interests. I find the amount of interest you get on these apps as a native English speaker living in Korea hard to maintain, so I always end up abandoning them for weeks at a time. However if you’re willing to keep at it and answer a lot of messages, you can really make friends this way (and practice Korean)!
A long time ago I used to use Interpals, which is intended to be a site to find international penpals but is actually full of people using it like a dating site. However good things can come out of it (a story for another day), so it’s worth a look. Recently I’ve tried a new language exchange/friend app called MEEFF – Korean Friends! (apple dl), which is styled off Tinder’s like/dislike model and has fullscreen photos. Needless to say I’m not hopeful about the prospects, but I thought it would be fun to try. You can also filter your profile to only be available to one gender. Or you can do what one girl did and write “NO SEX” as your first line (really wish I’d taken a screenshot now). Very recently, as in literally the same day I am writing this, Conversation Exchange was suggested to me on my post How I have tried to learn Korean. I signed up today and have sent a few messages to some Korean women living in Busan. The cool thing about this one is the fact you search by city, and while you can be penpals and chat, the main purpose is to find someone to meet for a face-to-face exchange – which is exactly what I am looking for.
10. A friend is dating/friends with a Korean person
This is a way a few people I know have ended up with a Korean friend – through a foreigner friend who is dating a Korean person, or through a friend who has a Korean friend that they regularly bring along to hang out with the group. There’s no way for you to make this happen per say, but if your friend brings along a Korean friend, you can make an effort to talk to them and get to know them, and maybe you’ll have made a new friend too. I know it can be quite daunting as the only English speaker in a group of Koreans, and the same goes for a Korean surrounded by people speaking rapid slang-filled English, no matter how good their English level. They can get left behind in a group conversation, so taking the time to talk to them one-on-one will likely be appreciated.
I know I said I was including my story in this post, but I ended up going through and adding a lot more to what I had written and this post became lengthy, so I’m going to write an entirely separate post about my own experiences. It’s probably better like that anyway, as it’s not intended to be a helpful guide like these two are, and it’s just going to be a personal story about how I have experienced friendship as an expat in South Korea. Also in the future you can look forward to an entire post about the cultural differences with communication here in Korea.
I hope this was useful – whether you’re living in Korea now, planning to in the future, or living anywhere else in the world and trying to meet friends from that country. Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments if you have any other suggestions or stories about meeting people and making friends from another country 🙂