The joy of making friends abroad
Editor’s Note: Paris Norris is a former soldier turned student who is studying in Korea. She is chronicling her time on the peninsula in Stripes Korea and Korea.Stripes.com.
There’s a common saying, “It’s not about where you are or what you’re doing, but who you’re with”, that I think holds true, even more so when abroad.
When I came to Korea, my objectives were clear: I wanted to socialize with Koreans, eat Korean food, drink Korean wine, speak, write, and hear only Korean. I basically wanted to become Korean for five months.
Prior to my arrival, I researched the Korean culture extensively and approached Korea with an open mind and “free” attitude, because in my opinion, the right attitude is the key element for determining your experience abroad. Adventuring alone is intimidating but highly rewarding. Strangers are more prone to approach you when you’re alone, and my mentality about strangers abroad is that they’re completely different from strangers back home.
What is a stranger, but someone whose face you don’t recognize and whose name you have yet to learn? The first stranger I met on my journey abroad, I met before even arriving in Korea. A woman sitting next to me on the plane, named Yumi, was traveling to Japan to visit grandparents she hadn’t seen in 20 years. She and I were two of the seven foreigners aboard the massive aircraft carrying over 60 Koreans and Korean-Americans, headed for their native country.
It was a bit overwhelming to hear chatter in an unfamiliar language, as were the instructions via the intercom, that I welcomed this person sitting in the seat next to me who, although appeared to be of Asian decent, also gave me a friendly smile that signaled the same feeling of relief. Immediately we began to exchange stories of where and why we were going to Korea. When we finally arrived at Incheon airport, we walked hand in hand into the unfamiliar airport as we made our way to customs.
While going through customs, we exchanged Facebook information and then, said our goodbyes. It was then I knew that I wouldn’t be alone in Korea for long. Although Yumi wasn’t the Korean friend I had set out to meet, she was still a stranger going to a strange place, just like me.
You speak English; I speak Korean, kind of…
I spent my first week in Korea at a guesthouse because I arrived in Seoul one week before the semester started and couldn’t check into my dorm at Yonsei University. Also, I was told that staying at guesthouses and hostels are some of the best ways to meet people, because you are forced to interact with the people you are sharing your space with.
I met one girl, Sarah, who had returned to Seoul for her second year of teaching English in Korea. She welcomed me to Korea as if she had lived here her entire life, taking me to ‘see the sites of Seoul’, as she put it, as well as teaching me how to use the Subway and purchasing my first Metro Card.
Staying at the guesthouse was one of the best decisions I could have made, especially considering the mission I had assigned myself of “becoming Korean.” I stayed at ComeInn guesthouse in Hongdae, a popular and lively neighborhood in central Seoul.
The owner, Bobby, welcomed me in the wee hours of the night with a vibrant smile and a washcloth, signaling for me to have a shower (I had been wandering the streets for 2 hours trying to find my way to the guesthouse and was dressed for the cool weather I had encountered in Denver and San Francisco, not Korean summer humidity; hence, I looked as if I had just finished an APFT test with a score of 300.)
I was very lucky to have chosen to stay at ComeInn. Bobby treated me as if I was a guest in his own home, and he continually engaged in conversations with me, because he was “excited to speak English.” He made every effort to insure that I was comfortable and enjoying my time in Korea. I actually attribute many of the relationships I have made with Koreans to Bobby, because many of them I met through him.
Any time I tried to venture out alone, he would always call up a friend to meet me and show me around. That’s one of the greatest qualities I appreciate about Korean people. They like to share their circles of friends, and they almost never do anything alone. So, within my first week in Korea, I had made three Korean friends. I almost couldn’t believe how easy it was, though I felt like I cheated a bit, because I hadn’t had to venture out on my own, which is why I decided to do just that.
Through research, I learned that there are many Koreans who want to speak English, but hardly get the chance because they don’t have many English-speaking friends in Korea. For this reason, there are multitudes of English cafés littered throughout Seoul where Koreans and English speaking people can meet and have language exchange.
I visited the Language Exchange Café, in Hongdae, in search of a native Korean speaker and potential friend. Within five minutes of entering the café and ordering a caramel macchiato, two Korean girls, Shinyoeng and Vita, who were looking to have an English conversation with a native English speaker, approached me. We sipped our drinks and bonded over American music and fashion, and continued our meeting later at a popular flavored beer place called, Sangoo Beer, in Hongdae. Shinyeong and I have since become great friends, and she continues to help me on my quest to “become Korean.”
New best friend
School is one of the easiest places to make friends, especially a university. Most schools, like Yonsei, offer programs, clubs and other organizations with the intended purpose of bringing people together. Yonsei has many clubs to join, two of which are Language Exchange and Mentor’s club. I joined both. Through these programs, not only was I able to meet Koreans, but I was also able to bond with other students from other parts of the world. What’s intriguing to me is that I found myself befriending people who are the complete opposite from my friends back home.
I think that my open mind allowed me to build relationships with these unique people, because I left my friends back home seeking new experiences. I surprised myself with how attached I have become to these people I would have not met otherwise. These improbable friendships I have made seem destined. Be it the time limitations or the adrenaline of being in a foreign land, these friendships were built much faster than the ones I made back home. In fact, I am planning to spend Christmas in Tokyo with two girls I consider to be my some of the best friend’s I’ve ever had.
It’s little twists of fate that make fast friendships worth having. They might only last a day, the entirety of your trip, or even beyond your return home. What’s true about these friendships is that they teach you to look at life through new eyes. In this way, as in many others, they can be life changing.