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I have been trying to make new Korean friends with little in the way of success. Seems like a lot just want a free English lesson or language exchange. Any advice on the best way to make new friends with Koreans who are not wanting just to be students?

~Friend Finder

Dear Friend Finder,

Ask Leah: Making Real Korean Friends

I have been trying to make new Korean friends with little in the way of success. Seems like a lot just want a free English lesson or language exchange. Any advice on the best way to make new friends with Koreans who are not wanting just to be students?

~Friend Finder

Dear Friend Finder,

There’s no doubt that Korea is an English hungry country.  And they see befriending foreigners as a great way to practice English, and who can blame them?  If you were interested in learning Korean, the idea of a language exchange would more than likely appeal to you as well.  You would probably want to spend time with Koreans, not only to make new friends and learn about the culture, but also to practice Korean.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not suggesting you should learn Korean if it's not of interest to you.  After over four years in Korea, my knowledge of the language includes a mastery of Konglish and a few “survival” phrases limited to eating, traveling, and getting drunk on the weekends. There are a lot of reasons why, unlike expats in other countries, foreigners in Korea don't learn the language, not the least of which is that it's difficult to speak Korean when everyone wants to practice their English all the time. So, again, it's not surprising that the Koreans you're meeting seem to be more interested in the phonetics of what you're saying than the words themselves.  But I digress.

I've found that the best place to make Korean friends is in foreign bars.  Albeit, some Koreans go to foreign bars hoping for free English lessons, but, for the most part, they go because they're interested in foreign cultures and want to make foreign friends and they probably speak English already.  Drinking is a big part of building and maintaining relationships in this culture, so when people go to bars they're looking to be social, make friends, and have a good time.

Just remember that foreign bars in Busan cater to foreigners, so Koreans, to a large extent, are outside of their comfort zone.  Just because they decide to hang out at a foreign bar doesn't mean they know how to approach or befriend foreigners.  It might be up to you to break the ice.

Give it a try.  If it doesn't work, give one of those language exchanges a chance.  You never know; perhaps a better understanding of Korean will help you make new friends in the future and maybe your language exchange will blossom into a life-long friendship.  


I am new to Korea and I keep having problems communicating with my boss.  He seems sincere in his desire to make classes better for the kids but I am just not sure how to work with his late notice on issues or understand cultural differences between us. For example, the other day he asked me to teach a new class, which is fine but I only had one day notice on this and it’s just not gonna work.  Please help.

~Bossman Blues

Dear Bossman Blues,

Even though you're a newbie, I'm sure you're already privy to the famous expat phrase, “it's Korea.” Most foreigners probably find themselves repeating this mantra daily, as it serves to remind us that certain aspects of Korean culture can never be explained nor fully understood, and sometimes it's better not to try. Sharp-elbowed ajamas fighting their way to a seat on the subway? It's Korea. Consuming dangerous quantities of soju and singing karaoke as a way of “bonding” with your boss? It's Korea. Working on Saturdays or when you're deathly ill? It's Korea. Oblivious ajashis expelling gas in the confined space of an elevator? It's Korea. One day notice on a new class? Well, you get the point.

Actually, if you were given a full day's notice on a new class, consider yourself lucky.  For most hagwon teachers, it's more common to hear, “I want you to teach a new class.  It starts in one minute.  Here's the book.  Go now.”  The schedule at my first year hagwon changed on a daily basis, and even though I was forced to sit in my windowless, computerless, fellow-native-speakerless office for about five hours of “prep time” everyday, I never knew how to prepare or what to expect for the following day.  Also, with little or no notice, I was (as most hagwon teachers are) expected to assess the English abilities of new students after 30 seconds of “conversation,” attend meetings (all in Korean), teach the staff, who would then report back to the boss about my “abilities” as a teacher, do voice recordings, give lectures on my native country, and teach classes on specialized subjects for which I was grossly under-qualified.

Even though the limited communication is frustrating, you should also feel lucky that you have a boss that seems to care.  Private education in Korea accounts for about 7 percent of the GDP (7%!!!), which means that parents spend about 25 percent of their income on education for their children. Thus, not surprisingly, many private school directors are businessmen, not educators, looking to capitalize on this hunger for English learning and sometimes we, the teachers, are stuck with bosses who don't care at all.

My only advice is that you employ the good ol' Western method of sitting down with your boss to discuss your concerns, while taking care not to be too direct or critical.  Begin by expressing that you share a common desire to provide the best quality of education, and ask for his advice on how you can work together to achieve this.  

If the moment presents itself, ask if it's possible to receive more notice on new classes or whatnot in the future.  Chances are, he'll tell you that you're receiving as much notice as he is, since, as I said, the whole last minute minute thing is cultural and not just the way of your boss.  Either way, he'll appreciate that you just want to be a better teacher and will probably offer to work with you in the future.  Any other concerns you might have can probably be worked out in a similar way as long as you remain amiable to cultural differences and remember that we're living in their country, not the other way around.

Just don't be surprised if the following day at 8:57 pm, when you're packing up and planning to meet your friends for dinner, your boss informs you that you have a new 9 o'clock class which your 2-10 contract obligates you to teach.  After all, it's Korea.




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One comment

  1. Hi! I’m about to move to Changwon, and this is my first time leaving the United States. I’m anxious about how to make friends, and I have read your article, but I would like to know – what if you don’t like going to bars and drinking in general? Is there another way I can make friends?


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