When you’re living in a country that’s so homogeneous it’s people took note when the foreign population jumped from 1% to 3% it’s easy to feel like you’re fighting a losing battle in terms of “fitting in” with the country and culture around you.
In a bizarre turn of events, one of the hardest things for me about living in Korea has been how hard it is to actually make Korean friends.
I live here, I work here, I have 700 middle school children that I adore who have spent their whole lives here, and I walk around this city day in and day out. But if I wasn’t proactive in finding way’s to be involved I could easily go weeks without ever really engaging with a single person outside of my work place.
(Not including my other foreign friends of course.)
Koreans generally, and this is just my observation, don’t go out of their way to ever talk to strangers. There’s none of that small talk culture like we have in the US. If you’re waiting for the bus next to someone for ten minutes and you make a comment about the weather they’re probably going to look at you with something like uncomfortable confusion on their face. And that even goes for Koreans interacting with Koreans.
Imagine, then, how little foreigners are interacted with. I’m not good at striking up friendships with random people. For those people who are, I’m in awe of you. I, on the other hand, have to really go out of my way to put myself in situations where I could try to meet Koreans in a relatively organic way.
but after a year in this city I finally feel like I’ve found some ways to make that happen. Like whenever I leave for good there will actually be people who notice that I’m gone. Which sounds a little morbid but it’s true.
So if anyone else is struggling with this, I’m sure I’m not the only one, I hope this can be helpful in some way! I’m sure none of this will be mind-blowing new information but I thought I’d just share what has worked for me! And hopefully these apply outside of Korea as well.
1. Play a sport
In my opinion this is absolutely one of the best ways to meet people and get connected with the local community while living in a foreign country. For so many reasons.
First, if you have played a sport for a long time, it will be something that feels familiar in a very unfamiliar place. That in and of itself is huge.
Second, it’s an activity where you can meet and build friendship that doesn’t require a lot of speaking. So even if your local language skills aren’t great or the other members don’t speak your native language you can usually get by pretty fine. Because the fabulous thing about sports is that you earn your merit based on how you play, not on what you say. Which is awesome when your speaking capabilities are limited.
Third, the feeling of being part of a team. This holds true across all cultures and languages. But being able to feel that you are a part of something, that you are on the inside for once rather than the outside, is really important.
This has all been true for me as well. Last year I searched and searched for a group to play volleyball with. I was really hoping for something where the people knew how to play well, not like a class, but didn’t take it too incredibly seriously.
I had all but given up until the end of last year when one of my Korean friends saw something online about a group that met twice a week to practice. I figured I’d just try it out because I was getting pretty desperate and it ended up being exactly what I wanted all along!
The people are awesome, they play really well which forces me to play up and keep getting better, and most importantly they treat me like a person. I’m just someone else there to play a sport we all love, not a foreigner that they need to figure out how to deal with.
It’s helped me feel like I actually have a place in this city, gives me a breath of fresh air twice a week by reminding me that there’s more to my life here than school, it’s been good for my Korean, and I’ve made friends. I could hardly ask for a better situation.
2. Learn the language
I know I know. We all know this. And it’s probably the last thing you want to hear.
Buuuuuuut I thought I’d just take one little tiny bit of your time to encourage you again to try.
I know it’s really hard. It is, that’s the simple truth of it.
But it makes such a difference. My Korean is not that good, it’s like baby conversational and just from studying on my own and practicing with Korean friends. I’m not saying you need to commit all of your time and your entire life to studying the language, or take a class, or spend money on a tutor, I would just encourage you to make an effort. Because people will really respect that.
I’ve had teachers at my school literally say, “I feel so comfortable around you because you can speak Korean!” and “I can see that you’re a good person because of how hard you try to learn our language.”
When you’re able to look a terrified kid in the eyes and tell them, “it’s okay, let’s try again” during a speaking test in their own language, it’s worth it.
When you can gossip about the kids at lunch with the other teachers, it’s worth it.
When the taxi driver is trying to drop you off at the wrong place and you can explain where to go, it’s worth it.
And mostly it’s worth it because you will be able to understand everything you see and hear and experience in a much more personal way.
3. Become a regular customer somewhere
Of all these things, this is probably the easiest to do! All you need to do is just keep showing up somewhere consistently.
The important thing is to choose the right place.
For example there is a cafe close to my house where, during the summer or less busy times of the year, I study at least twice a week. I know the woman who owns it, she knows who I am, knows what I always order, but she has never once asked me anything like, “So, where are you from?” or “What are you dong in Korea?” or “are all those crazy 16-year-olds outside the window screaming “HELLO TEACHER!” your students?”
But I also know people who quickly befriended the employees at their local cafe’s. So it just depends.
One of the cafe’s that I always used to go to recently opened up a new branch across the city and when I went to try it out the guy at the register was like, “Oh! What are you doing here? You always go to the other one!” I honestly didn’t recognize him, but that just goes to show that even though they might recognize you coming in all the time they just might not strike up conversation.
One of our success stories of this though, is my favorite bar in Dunsan. It’s called Common Place and it’s fabulous. You should check it out if you’re living here.
But one of the first times we went there weren’t any tables open so we had to sit up at the tiny bar which is right in front of where they prepare all the food and drinks. When we ordered in Korean they started chatting to us about how we study it and why we’re here and we ended up talking to them for a really long time.
Fast forward to now, about a year later, and were all friends on facebook and instagram and they know about our schools and difficult classes. It’s fun to go there and always be able to see a friendly familiar face.
4. Find a way to creatively engage with where your living
This might not be for everyone but I have found it to be a really good way feel more connected to where I live.
This blog, writing and taking pictures for it, have been a really special way for me to experience this country.
Being creative forces you to try to understand what you’re surrounded by and sometimes that’s the difference between being happy in a new country and struggling.
For other people it might be drawing or dancing or just journaling.
Creating in and of itself it good for you but I think that it can also be really beneficial in feeling connected to the space you’re living in!
Obviously there are many many other ways you can also get involved in your local community but these are the ones that have worked for me! If you have any other tips or suggestions feel free to let us know in the comments!
Thanks as always for reading! ^^