Tips for Making Friends in Korea

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Have you recently moved to Korea for work or school and are you looking to build your community? Here are some of my personal tips for making friends in South Korea. Hold onto your hats because this isn’t short but it may be helpful.

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My View of Friendship

Like all my posts providing ‘advice’, I like to first share my experience with the topic being discussed. For example, much of my childhood was spent in isolation with only my family for most of the year. I also liked living very isolated, and I don’t have an intrinsic desire to have friends.

Interestingly, such an extremely isolated life taught me the value of strong relationships and community. I saw that strong friendships provided added meaning and support in difficult times. Our rural community took care of each other even when we hated each other’s stupid faces. When I moved into society, I also learned the value of community when serving within a larger social system. So, even though I don’t often think, “I wish I had friends so I’m not lonely,” I do make friendship a priority.

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After my move to the city as a kid, I also learned the incredible amount of hard work and emotional labor it takes to create a community as an outsider within society. I couldn’t just expect to fit in or get invited to things. I had to study society and where I could fit into it. Great lessons for moving abroad.

Additionally, since I would MUCH rather live alone than spend any amount of time around people that I don’t like, I have to be intentional about building community. I make building a community filled with people who share my values a priority even when I want to be alone. I see community as something very active that I build, foster, and maintain over time.

Realities of Adult Friendships

Also, let’s begin this post with some real talk about the realities of adult friendships. Yes, it’s easy to blame the difficulties related to developing friendships on a things like a new country or culture that’s not your own. The ‘other’ in our lives is always a great scapegoat for our own trauma. Also, there will be increased ‘cultural dissonance’ in a new country which makes building relationships feel especially overwhelming.

That said, the truth is that finding adult friendships isn’t easy no matter where you live in the world. Even in your home country, if you move to a new city to start a new job it’s incredibly lonely. Just go on TikTok or Instagram for a hot minute, and you will find folks all over the world struggling to find meaningful relationships.

In fact, my tips for making friends in South Korea are the same tips I used in my home country. That’s because of the following facts about adulthood friendships never change no matter where you live.

Friendship and Community Changes with Time

If you find yourself staying in South Korea, you will find that your relationships may ebb and flow with time. You will have periods when your community is small and times when it’s huge. It’s important to stay emotionally flexible and in the moment.

Personally, I have my core group of friends in Korea that I’ve known for over a decade and then I have friends that rotate every 3-5 years. It’s ok that some friends come and go. That’s very healthy and normal. I’m sure that if you think back to your life at home, your core relationships changed pretty often. Maybe your longest relationship was 2-3 years because of changes in school, work, or family life.

Jobs Make Friendships Hard

Finding the time around work to make friends can be challenging. After work you want to sleep or watch Netflix, not put emotional energy into meeting new people.

Money Makes Friendships Hard

As an adult, sometimes it’s hard to find friendships that fit into your financial goals. You may find that some people simply cost too much to be friends with.

Communication with New People is Hard

It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting to build new connections. Each time we change friend groups it’s hard to uncover ‘hidden culture’ or differences in how we use language. It’s exhausting to stay present and aware of our words and personally accountable for our behavior. We all want to be able to just relax.

About My Experience Making Friends in South Korea

When I moved to South Korea in 2011 the online commentary promised me solitude, loneliness, and isolation. It sounded like my dream come true, and I chose Korea to be alone. South Korea seemed to have all the benefits of living in a society (like public transportation and not having to kill my own food) with the social isolation that I love. I could not have been more excited to move to a country where making friends would be next to impossible. I was like a kid at Christmas.

However, I failed miserably at being alone from the start.

How I Failed At Being Lonely

I actively avoided making friends in South Korea. I didn’t race to foreigner meetups, language exchanges, or bar crawls. In fact, I wasn’t even friendly to people on the street or co-workers, and I didn’t join Facebook groups (which is funny to think about now). I literally looked up how people made friends in South Korea and, then, avoided those things.

Lance and I met at a random Thai restaurant in Daejeon in 2011. He was eating alone and we asked him to join our group. Now he is married to Ovy, and we all share a big house so we can live nice while saving money.

In fact, I was so against making friends I once met a chatty girl from California on the street in 2011 and immediately told her, “You don’t have to be nice and talk to me.” When she said we needed to be “best friends,” I replied, “I have enough friends.”

Despite all this, she said, “No, we will be best friends. Give me your phone number.” I said, “Are you going to call me? Because if you are going to call me, you can’t have my number.” She said something like, “Just take my number then, in case of an emergency.”

Well, a few weeks later, there was an emergency. This begins my advice for building a community in South Korea.

1. Show Up

California girl (Norma Jean or NJ for short) and I did become BFFs because she showed up. Remember how I took her phone number? Well, I ended up in the hospital with multiple kinds of pneumonia in both lungs after a wild solo trip to one of Korea’s most remote islands during a typhoon.

While in the hospital, I had no local friends and family, and I desperately needed somebody to show up. My Korean co-teachers visited me in the hospital on rotation during working hours, but eventually, the Korean co-teachers all had to go home for the day. When evening hit, I needed something from my home, so I contacted the head foreign teacher at my school (the only phone number I had for a foreign co-worker). She lived about a block from the hospital and my house. I asked for help but she didn’t feel like leaving her house.

The only other phone number I had was NJ’s. I sucked it up and messaged her. NJ showed up within 30 minutes with everything I needed from my house and sat with me through the evening. When she was getting up to leave I said, “Thank you for helping me even though I told you I had enough friends.” She looked at me and said, “If someone far from home needs help, you show up.” She also said something like, “Now, you don’t have a choice. We are best friends.”

If anyone needs you and it’s serious (even if they annoy you to high heaven), show up. Maybe you won’t end up besties like NJ and I, but you did the right thing for your community. Building community isn’t convenient. You show up when someone needs you. It’s like the golden rule of immigrant life.

2. Try Things You Think You Hate

This leads me straight into my next piece of advice, show up for people and try stuff you think you hate. The first time I went to Mudfest I was VERY vocal about the fact that Mudfest was below me, and I NEVER wanted to do it. However, my friends were going to support other friends, and it was a personal request that I attend.

To be clear, I hate everything about the concept of Mudfest. I hate the giant crowds. Lots of drunk folks in one spot piss me off. I hate being super dirty. It’s too noisy. It’s too expensive to rent a room. I hate staying up late. The whole concept of Mudfest is deplorable to me. Every time I see a Mudfest advertisement, I throw up a little in my mouth.

That said, I have loved every Mudfest I have attended. The festival is the absolute best, and I lose my mind with pure delight. When I tell you that I had the best time ever, it would be an understatement. I am up ALL night, covered in all the mud, running around like an idiot. I’m not the only introvert that responds this way to Mudfest. Every non-social person I’ve taken there against their will didn’t want to leave. It’s weird.

I can’t begin to list all the things I HATE doing in other countries that I LOVE doing in Korea. It’s happened so often that now if I see something that I HATE, I immediately go try it. The same activities managed in different ways in different cultures may create very different experiences.

Additionally, that Mudfest trip became the foundation for some decade-long friendships. We stepped outside our comfort zones and showed up to something together. The bonding was immense. People I never thought I could be friends with became decades-long besties that day.

3. Eat Together

Living abroad means that you do many of life’s daily chores alone, especially cooking and eating. After our Mudfest adventures together, I recommended to my new community that we start sharing dinners together in the following ways:

‘Family Dinners’

Family dinners have always been one of my favorite community activities. We would plan who would host dinner, assign ingredients, and help each other cook at each other’s homes to share in the work. It was so fun that we started doing it almost every night. When we all didn’t feel like cooking, we ate out together.

Food Swaps

Family dinners eventually turned into food swaps. At food swaps, we met with people from all over Korea for a potluck and swapped homemade items like beer, pasta, bagels, and more. Once again, some of my best friends for life came from these events. We ate like royalty and built long-lasting relationships.

Holidays

Holiday potlucks also became a big part of life. Nothing brings immigrants together like a potluck on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ramadan, or another hometown holiday. We’ve packed 30 people into a studio apartment for a holiday dinner. NJ even made the turkey one year in a toaster oven, and I baked Christmas cookies in a cardboard box on a cooktop. Amazing memories and a lifelong love for others came from these events.

Having friends over for Christmas is one of my favorite things.

4. Create Space In Your Life

Build a life that has space for friendship and community. Everything I’ve mentioned thus far takes planning, time, and energy. To do that you need to have space in your life. You may have to give up something to make the community happen.

Sometimes people will say, “I can’t make friends in Korea.” And then I ask them how they spend their time. Often they will talk about visiting new places every weekend, trying new cafes and restaurants every day, and not having time for attending events. I might say, “How about you come to this event?” and their answer will always be, “I have a trip planned.”

Treating life in South Korea as an extended holiday often makes building the community you need difficult. If you think about living in your home country, did you want to spend every weekend at a tourist spot with friends? Did you make friends back home if you always went somewhere new every day? Most likely not. Instead, you may have visited the same cafes, restaurants, and places which may allow more opportunities to build connections and relationships. To make friends you need repetition in your schedule.

This advice is especially true if you want to build relationships with long-term Korean residents and Korean citizens. Those of us who see Korea as a long-term home build lives here. We have careers, gardens, families, weddings, funerals, and babies’ 100 day parties to attend. Such responsibilities mean we also can’t be traveling every weekend to new places. We often only have the weekends to meet up with friends, so if you are traveling out of town our paths simply won’t cross. It’s not that we don’t like you or want to be friends, we simply don’t cross paths.

So many weddings over the last decade.

It’s ok to prioritize traveling and sightseeing while you are in Korea. Maybe you are only here for a year. However, understand that it may impact your ability to build relationships and community. Please avoid casting judgment on others being “unfriendly” simply because your life choices don’t meld with their life choices. It’s ok that our paths don’t cross. You aren’t a jerk for focusing on travel non-stop and we aren’t jerks for wanting to be home on the weekend with our families.

5. Dig Into Your Hobbies

My longest-lasting relationships come from engaging in learning about hobbies and interests. The more trust and learning involved in the hobby, the more invested we all get in each other as people.

Some of the many hobbies I’ve been heavily involved with while living in Korea include: inline skating, snowboarding, gardening, slow food movement, cooking, blogging, graduate school, language study, app development, website design, hiking, cycling, climbing, camping, social media, etc. Honestly, the list is so long after 12 years. Oh right, and I founded South of Seoul. I forget that part sometimes… finding a volunteer group gives you a very badass group of amazing friends.

Inline skating keeps us young and helps build great friendships.

Additionally, in South Korea adults bond over their shared hobbies. Joining a climbing gym, martial arts studio, etc. usually leads to dinner together, weekend outings, and friends. Such hobbies absolutely require money and time. Making friends through such groups also requires being willing to let people be all up in your business. Depending on your home culture, you may find being part of a hobby group requires more social investment than you feel comfortable with, however, you get friends.

6. Do the Emotional Labor

Remember, just because I am lonely doesn’t mean anyone else owes me their time, attention, or support when I’m not being a safe person. I need to show up to demonstrate that I am a safe person and take responsibility for how I communicate in a multi-lingual and multi-national space. Let’s take a quick look at what that looks like.

We all may get wrapped up in our own pain when reaching out for support from time to time. However, we still need to be healthy when asking others to take a chance on us. When we reach out in public spaces for help from strangers we have to consider how our words may appear when isolated in a multicultural space without context.

Let’s talk about the following example post that often comes up in Facebook groups:

“I’m lonely and depressed. Who wants to be friends. DM me to hangout.”

Posting the above comment might be true but asking others to DM us (a person who has admitted to being possibly emotionally unstable) is not a safe thing. For example, the post above just publically signaled to cults and abusers that your DM’s are open and your mental health is fragile. It’s possible that people who respond to such a post may not be the safest people. In short, the above post is not safe for others or ourselves.

Now, let’s look at a post where we’ve done more emotional labor:

“I’ve been busy working and would like to focus on building a community. I have been feeling a little isolated and want to make friends in my area. My work schedule gives me time to meet folks after 7 pm or on weekends. I like reading, traveling, and pizza. Post in the comments if you would like to meetup for dinner on a Tuesday or Thursday after 7pm in the (fill in the blank) area. If these times don’t work for you, please let me know what would work in the comments. I’m looking forward to meeting new friends!”

Notice your feelings with each post. Which of the above posts makes you feel safe? What about the above posts makes you feel safe? Would you like to meet that person? Do you feel empowered to meet that person?

Posting clear information allows others to meet your needs in an informed and emotionally safe way. This leads us to the next point which South of Seoul volunteers often talk about in our blogs, empathy.

7. Have Empathy

Remember that other people around you are scared and lonely, too. We all need other people to help share the emotional labor and take social risks to build community. I always focused on the fact that loneliness is normal when I change cultures. No matter where in the world I live, I’m going to go through the struggle of not fitting in. That’s ok.

Don’t sit around and wait for others to start the party. Create your own meetups and invite people along on your adventures. Sure, nobody might show up the first few times but if you keep planning and demonstrating you are a safe person, people will show up.

Finding friends and building community in a new country is hard. Hold empathy for yourself and all feelings you have. If you need to hate everyone today, that’s ok. If you need to cry a lot, that’s also ok. Spend that time feeling those feelings because that’s part of growing through culture shock. At the same time, it’s important to remember that our feelings are just that, and our own feelings and our own responsibility.

8. Make Your Own Fun

At the end of the day, the tip for making friends in Korea is to create your own fun. Creating fun within a community commonly comes in three different role types: Community Leaders, Community Organizers, and First Followers. Stepping into any one of the previously mentioned roles and strongly owning your place builds beautiful friendships and communities.

Become a Community Leader

Once I realized that I didn’t fit into the current communities in South Korea, I started building my own. I found things I love to do like skating, snowboarding, food swaps, and exploring restaurants close to home and built my own life. You can do this as well. Even as an immigrant or a new ex-pat, you have the right to take up space.

Become a Community Organizer

If you don’t want to create your own groups, then create your own events for things you want to do and invite others. Many group moderators will allow you to post your events in their communities. All you need for an event is a location, an activity, a date, and a time. Keep things simple like meeting up to roller skate.

When posting in groups led by community leaders other than yourself:

  • Have empathy for group moderators, rules, and work. Read all their rules carefully and kindly and clearly ask permission to post if needed. Avoid lashing out if your type of event isn’t allowed.
  • Communicate clearly about the activity plans. Use Naver Maps links and clearly list dates and times.
  • Focus on a hobby or activity rather than just, “Let’s get together.”
  • Show up even if only one other person is going. (This is part of demonstrating you are a safe person)
  • If nobody, comes, share pictures of yourself having fun and plan another event. Eventually, folks start showing up! (This is also part of demonstrating you are a safe person)

Become a First Follower

If you don’t want to be either a Community Leader or a Community Organizer, become a first follower! Be the person that always shows up. Share your photos online and share the cool stuff others are creating. Show how much fun exists in the world and support the Community Leaders and Community Organizers doing the work that you don’t want to do. We all need each other to build dynamic communities.

One of the best videos ever to break down how to create a movement.

A Quick Pep Talk

You can do this. Keep being awesome and open to others, friends will come along. It might take some time to find the right ones and you can do it!

It’s ok not to be ok and ask for help. If you need help managing the loneliness around finding adult friendships, you can also reach out for mental health support. Honestly, finding a therapist to help navigate the overwhelming nature of relocating to a new country is just smart.

Resources for Making Friends

All that said, we all need a foot in the door when it comes to meeting people. Joining local Facebook groups, travel groups, and meetups in your area can help jump-start your social life. I mean, how can you even practice my tips for making friends in South Korea if you can’t even find a spot to meet people, am I right?

Get out there, face your fears, and show up! You got this!