How to Make Korean Friends, and Foreign Friends, in Seoul
And Other South Korean Cities
Seoul is a great place to work, but sometimes meeting people can be hard sometimes. Especially when you’re teaching English in Korea, things like cultural differences, program placement (you may be with EPIK, and end up in a rural school) can make finding friends more difficult than you’re used to. Not just cultural factors, but also the amount of expats in your neighborhood, and the nightlife scene, can have a huge affect on your social life.
I spent three years teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Making Korean friends can be an excellent experience, and there are plenty of expats to meet in Seoul too. If you look in the wrong places or take the wrong approach, making friends in Korea will be harder than you expect. I’m not expert on the social scene and nightlife in Seoul, but I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned to help making Korean friends easier for expats living there.
Korea is a VERY Group Oriented Society. And I do Mean VERY.
Cultures across the world have their own ways of socializing and making friends, and Korea is no different. When I first started living in Korea, one of the first things I tried doing is going to a “Western Style” bar in Gangnam (which is great for nightlife in Seoul). I figured I could go there on my own and strike up a conversation with some strangers, and enjoy some of Seoul’s nightlife.
I found out that it would have been extremely awkward to do that - since the supposedly “Western style” bar I went to had completely separate seating for everyone, and no bar stool or place to mingle. All of the Koreans and English speaking expats alike were in their own groups of friends with seemingly no interest in talking to anyone else. Needless to say, Seoul's nightlife was different from what I was expecting.
Hanging out in other places at the time - such as Starbucks, other cafes, and restaurants - I quickly realized that it was almost impossible to find a Korean sitting alone in public. If I saw a Korean person sitting alone, they were almost certainly waiting for a friend, who would show up not too much later.
People in the USA have a reputation for chatting up strangers easily. Even in Boston, where I’m from and where people are supposedly colder towards others, it wasn’t uncommon to see this. You’ve likely heard that Asians are more group oriented than in the West - make that times 10 for Korea. Korea is a much more group oriented society than even its neighbors, such as Japan or Taiwan.
In large Asian cities like Tokyo or Taipei, making friends was not hard. It wasn’t awkward to strike up conversations with strangers - whether during the day or enjoying the city's nightlife. In Tokyo, one person even started a conversation with me in English at a cafe, and invited me to lunch with their family the next day. People in Tokyo bars will introduce you to their friends. On the other hand, the vast majority of Korean nightlife is not focused on mingling, but rather socializing with your friends only.
Now that’s not to say you can never have a friendly chat Korean strangers - I certainly have many times, and made some friends this way. But it’s just not as common, and it’s good to keep in mind that you’ll probably encounter some resistance when trying to talk to strangers in Korea. Part of this is xenophobia, admittedly - even Seoul is not as cosmopolitan as a city like Hong Kong - but Koreans are also like this with each other, so don’t jump to conclusions if someone doesn’t seem interested in talking with you. Also while people in Seoul generally speak good English, sometimes lack of confidence in their English level will make locals less than receptive to you.
Where to Make Friends in Seoul
So if South Korea doesn’t have the same mingling nightlife culture as its neighbors or the West, how do you make Korean friends? A lot of the standard advice you’ll find about meeting new friends applies here, absolutely. It’s not hard to find special interest groups where you can meet English speaking Koreans and expats, especially in Seoul. Outside of Seoul, in smaller Korean cities, it’s harder but not impossible.
If you’re in the Seoul area, one of the best things to do is to join a Toastmasters club. Toastmasters has been expanding rapidly in that part of Korea for the past several years now; there are clubs every day of the week, most of which are English speaking. Next you can try Meetup.com, which is more focused towards expats who work in South Korea, but is still good for meeting some Korean friends. Lastly you can try things like language exchanges (for meeting Koreans) or taking classes to meet fellow expats.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are some nightlife spots in Seoul where you can mingle with strangers. The obvious choice for TRUE Western style bars would be Itaewon, which is Seoul’s foreign district. American soldiers, ESL teachers, and foreign professionals frequent Itaewon, and its nightlife is more suited to mingling. It’s also one of the most interesting attractions in Korea, as it gives you a look at a different side of Seoul.
Some college areas - like Hongdae, which has some of the best nightlife in Seoul - as well as Sinchon and Hyehwa - will have places where you can easily meet young Koreans. For Busan, try Haeundae, which has a high concentration of bars for English speakers. Other large Korean cities do not have the same kind of nightlife options as these two, focusing mainly on Korean style nightlife establishments and restaurants.
Living as an expat can be a challenging but rewarding experience - but few people make it without good friends and a support network. While Korea has its difficulties, you can easily meet friends through the country's nightlife and joining special interest clubs.
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