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How To: Make Friends in Korea

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I love and advocate for solo travel, especially by millennials when at all possible, though one does have to recognize the unique barriers to entry that millennials, however, the hardest part of traveling alone is building a support system and a life that has meaningful relationships in it. Once the excitement wears off, being in Korea can be really tough if you don't make friends. Luckily for you, through trial error, I've learned some (almost) foolproof ways to make new friends while you are in Korea. While a few of these tips are generalizable, some of them are Korea-specific. Just remember if you're feeling really lonely, reach out to someone! You'll be surprised how compassionate people are, especially in your time …

Four Months in Busan: The Culture Shock

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I am at home now (the warm one not the cold one), and I am finally able to recap and reflect on my first semester in Busan. I am going back, admittedly with some resistance, but I don't regret going at all. Some of the questions I get most from my loved ones and even my university are the cultural differences between my experiences in Busan and those in the United States. Just as one could never summarize an American experience, I can't really sum up the Korean or even Busan experience. That being said, here are just a few of the cultural differences I've noted since living in Korea.




The Food

   Imagine, a savory breakfast. I don't mean like eggs or bacon, I mean if you lived in the United States and walked into a Korean restaurant for dinner, you would be eating what I eat in the dorms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner: kimchi, white rice, some sort of meat stew, and soup, often with tofu. It's what's provided at every single meal basically no matter where you go and Korean folks attribute kimchi and white rice to their general good health (which is mostly true, but maybe watch how much white rice you're eating and do some delving into Korean diet culture). The flavors from home are practically non-existent, so I mostly enjoy shrimp chips and these great brownie cookie things from GS25 and get fresh mango juice from Juicy. At times, I've been so desperate for things that have that gooey sweetness that I've even resorted to fruit, which if you know me, is a pretty big deal.

   One of my favorite things back home is going to a coffee shop or eating alone. It's a time to catch up on work or phone calls, or maybe just sit in silence or listen to music. While you can absolutely go to a coffee shop on your own, finding restaurants that will have portions for just one person or that will even seat you will be difficult and you may not even get seated. Imagine being hungry and not being able to eat where you want because you're in a new country and don't have any friends yet. It sucks.

The Stares

   Now, we all know that being stared at is a genuine threat to comfort when going to a generally homogenous country. This is really less of an issue in the increasingly diverse Seoul, however, it gets very real in places like Ulsan, Daegu, and of course Busan. I will likely never become a Korea-boo, but I do have to say that in general, the stares are not out of hostility, but rather, the person staring at you just is speculating what you could possibly be doing in Korea. Are you in school? Are you teaching English? If you're on a train or bus, or you're speaking to a friend, then whatever accent you have will spark more curiosity.

   All that being said, I have had photos taken of me and my friends, I have been made fun of in public by Korean men and women, and have even had an older Korea man turn around and ask me "Hotel?" while on an escalator. Although most staring and picture-taking is harmless, just because you are in Korea and these are Koreans doesn't mean that you can't stand up for yourself when you feel really uncomfortable. When the camera comes out and I've already said "no" in English and Korean, I tend to also pull my camera out. We both can play this game, honey.

   It is also of note that a LOT of the time they are truly admiring you. Learn the words for pretty, beautiful, tall, etc. in Korean and you'll see! A lot of the time Korean folks would talk about me and my friend while we were out, they were just saying "So pretty!" or 'So tall!" Still uncomfortable, but better than being called a... well that's a different topic.

My Favorite Parts

   Although at the time of writing this I am less than 30 days away from going back to South Korea and somewhat dreading it, I did like a lot of my experiences in the country. For one, I love-hate the kind of forced cohesion I'd mentioned before. If you want to eat something really good, you have to go with friends, if you want life, in general, to be easier and smooth-sailing for you, you need a group of friends and to regularly socialize with others. This is like a introverts nightmare, but for someone like me, who is extroverted but needs that push (ambivert?) this is an awesome push for me to pursue friendships in Korea.

   The public transport is easy to understand as it is mostly in both Korean and English and once you get your routine down is super simple to follow. I have never in my wee American life experienced actual, real public transportation like buses and trains that work to get you pretty much anywhere you want to go in or around Busan? It's amazing and makes exploring the city a lot easier.

    I can see the warm, soft glow of my favorite GS now. Although eating out is expensive and socially intense, I do really love the variety of snacks and general convenience store culture in Korea. You can buy, make, and eat some ramen, shrimp chips, get a drink and a fresh pastry all at the convenience store and for under $10. Convenience stores are safe havens and beacons of light after a night full of drinking a clubbing. Even better, there are always 2+1 (buy two get one) or 1+1 (buy one get one) discounts on commonly bought items, so if you know you'll be eating more than two bags of shrimp chips (and you will), go ahead a buy a few, why don't ya?



My Least Favorite Parts

   The way that the collectivist culture of Korea influences the school and university system is an annoying shock to the way I understand and navigate my university life, The independence found in university in the United States is nowhere to be found, and the emphasis on attendance and group projects versus independent study and individual work is frustrating, At my university in Korea, if you don't show up to a majority of class meetings in any given course, you will fail, no matter if you've got a perfect score on every single assignment and examination you've been given (something that I found out the hard way, but has since been remedied). This is an understood rule and is apparently commonplace at Korean universities. My experiences with universities in the United States is that attendance requirements are set by each professor and if a professor doesn't require attendance? Best believe that I am not showing up for classes other than reviews for exams and exams themselves. In fact, I don't take courses where the professor requires attendance at my home university, which is a huge privilege considering I go to a massive university and almost every course has multiple professors. While I understand the strong positive correlation between attendance and academic performance (when measured by grade),  my 3.89 GPA (higher science GPA, FYI) and I are evidence that students can absolutely display discipline and perform well in class. 

   I don't want to delve too deeply into this particular topic, but I despise the beauty and diet culture of Korea at all and it has been horribly damaging to the never-ending progress in self-acceptance most women have been going through since pre-adolescence. The women I've encountered in Korea diet so much and wear pounds of makeup in order to be seen as acceptable and put together by their professors and the larger culture. Although this definitely occurs in the United States and globally, I've never seen it on such an extreme, widely-accepted scale and blatant scale.

  I haven't particularly enjoyed my time in Korea, but it is a country that has a special place in my heart and is where I made some really great friends. The culture may be shocking, but the benefits of exposure to difference greatly outweigh the risks of being uncomfortable. My biggest tip for you? Take a deep breath, have compassion for others, and drop your ego off at the airport.

Welcome to 2019 and I'll see you soon
Myaia

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