Coming into this experience, I wasn’t sure how it’d go making friends. What can you expect? You hear there’s a large expat community in Seoul, but unless you know the right people or you go to the bars in the foreigner districts, it’s hard to really break in. Would we leave this place with a large group of international friends as some do or would our experience deliver a lighter yield than that? To begin, it’s much easier if you are working in the country you go to, and my own experiences teaching EFL reflect that. If you are just backpacking or working as a digital nomad, you might have to be more creative. But the first obvious thing to do is to…
1) Try Making Friends at Orientation
During orientation, we met others who had come to teach. Most were a few years younger than us having just graduated college. But others were about our age. They all had different experiences coming in, and both Danny and I were surprised by how quickly we made friends with them. While you won’t click 100% with everyone, by the 6th day, we had already spent time talking about the weird things our bodies could do. I knew then that I would stay close to at least a few in the group. Here were two that stuck out.
Here Are Two Friends We’ve Made
Our orientation roommate rocks. When you live in the same room as someone, you have to make certain concessions, but this guy was so easy-going. We would talk late into the night about philosophy, literature, religion, or stupid nonsense. By the middle of the second week, we were sharing our favorite movies (because by God, it’s a problem if you haven’t seen Mrs. Doubtfire). Not only that, but he’s been our guide here as he speaks Korean. He has become a good friend, and staying in touch wouldn’t be that horrible.
This girl is an elementary school teacher in the States. She’s done this before, but she decided to come back for a change of pace. These past two weeks, we found out how outgoing, level-headed, and quick-witted she was. The way she viewed the world was refreshing. I think she and I share this need to find something positive in our experiences and to grow through them. Sadly, she’s been placed about an hour away from us, but we’re planning on meeting up once in a while to explore Seoul.
So as you see, orientation buddies are your best bet early on since you spend a lot of time with them. Cross your fingers to have a good bunch! However, if this doesn’t go your way, there’s always…
2) Make a Good Impression on Your Coworkers
I cannot stress this enough. Though you will bond strongly with your orientation group, it’s your coworkers that you’ll see repeatedly as soon as your job begins. You will be with them at work day in and day out, and they can make your life wonderful or not depending on how much they like you. Friends who’ve gone abroad have told me great stories about how their coworkers became best friends that they’ll continue to talk to when they return home. Maybe you might even get an international contact and be able to visit them in the future at their home!
Here’s a tip. It’s always a good idea to bring a small gift for them when you meet for the first or second time as a show of good will. The generosity will go a long way and they may reciprocate the favor later on. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to get to know people between classes. You can try to walk to work together if you live nearby or even grab a bite after classes. But maybe…
3) If You Have Adult Students, Start Making Friends with Them
I was cornered at my new school by a Korean couple very eager to practice their English; in the process, I realized that I was actually quite enjoying talking to them, and (I figure) they thought the same since they kept me after work for over 25 minutes talking about our different interests. This little anecdote shows how easy it is to become friends with students who maybe aren’t even your own students. Suggest getting some coffee together or a small meal, and don’t be surprised if they want to treat you.
Update: During the first six months I was in Korea, I went out to coffee with students multiple times every month. I also found students I genuinely enjoyed spending time with and made more effort to grab dinner with them on occasion. Nowadays, I see one particular group at least once every two months for a special dinner, one such being our time at Noryangjin Fish Market eating “live” octopus, an awesome experience. I’ve even been to one’s home, and meeting his family as such a treat. I’ll always remember that dinner. The locals in your country will want to meet you; they will want to spend time getting to know you, and likewise, you should want to get to know them. Spend time investing in adult students and you will be surprised how much they give back in friendship.
But what if you don’t have adult students? Maybe you should…
4) Use Popular Phone Apps like Tinder or Meetup
I know that Tinder is colloquially known around the USA as a classier way for people to vent their sexual frustrations. Even so, Tinder and other apps that allow you to meet people are potential avenues for making friends with other expatriates (and locals!) as long as you are clear upfront in your bio what your intentions are. One of the teachers at our hagwon‘s main campus used Tinder successfully to meet the group she hangs out with regularly now, for instance. Not everyone is looking to get laid.
Other options include the app and website, Meetup. Think about it this way. You’ll be able to connect with others who like similar things as you. You may even meet locals who can show you new areas of your country. You might be nervous about going and not enjoying yourself. But you never know if you’ll meet a great friend, too. At the end of the day, loneliness can be a great motivator, but if you want something a little more organized…
5) Try Out a Few Travel Groups through Facebook
Looking forward, Danny and I want to do so much in Korea. Some activities need large groups to mitigate the costs. As such, signing up with a travel group or agency makes good sense. Plus, you can potentially make good friends either if you continue using the service or if you keep in touch with those you meet.
At first, I worried that I wouldn’t know where to find these groups, but they began popping up into my Facebook feed after only a few days in country. A few services come specifically to mind, though I haven’t tried them out myself. Nonetheless, I have friends who have, and from what I see on the groups’ pages, their activities look like excellent fun. For Korea, check out WinK Travels, BangawoYo Tours, Goh Travel Korea, or Trazy for instance! Each of these provides itineraries and plans every week for hopeful students of Korea to get out of their neighborhood and meet new people while doing interesting things. Eventually, we plan to go hiking at Seoraksan with one of these groups, and I hope we can make a few contacts. Even if you are not going to Korea, groups like this exist for your use and service. Take advantage of them!
Living Abroad Will Be Lonely for an Expat (Sometimes)
Expat life is a different beast. Walking around, knowing Danny is elsewhere is strange. I don’t have my partner in crime to chat with as I wander the streets. While I have enjoyed meeting my new coworkers, they seem preoccupied, which makes sense. I can’t assume they’ll go out of their ways to befriend me. I need to reach out to them, too. Even so, in moments like these, after an incredibly exciting first two weeks, Korea is a lonely place. You’re wading in a sea of people with whom you can’t speak a word. It all seems a bit existential. The important thing to remember is that you have to step outside of your comfort zone and force yourself to meet new people. You must actually live your life here.
It’s so easy to hole yourself up talking to your family and friends back home, trying to get by on that alone, but that life will not be a happy one, I’m afraid. Make sure to meet real flesh-and-blood people too. Don’t assume that this is me feeling sad. Yes, I have had sad moments here. But I think that’s a natural part of the growing process going somewhere completely new. I look forward to all the excitement that’s ahead, too. And let’s be honest, though making friends is daunting, there’s so much more ahead to be thrilled about.
What About You?
What was it like meeting people when you arrived in your new country? Or, if you’re on your way, what are you most worried about? Please let me know in the comments below your experiences making friends, and follow me on social media! I love reaching out and meeting new people, especially if you’re coming to Korea!