Back in December, my friend Minyoung asked me if I would like to write an article for the KNU Times. The KNU Times is the English language magazine written by students at Kyungpook National University, the college where I studied abroad, and Minyoung is the head editor. She said I could write anything about my experience at KNU or in Korea, but that it would be great if it could include some kind of advice or lesson for KNU students. Of course I jumped on the opportunity to write about my experience studying abroad because I love talking about what an amazing time I had, but it took some time to think about what kind of advice I would want to give Korean students. Even though studying abroad was one of the best experiences in my life, giving advice to Korean students required talking more about some of the difficulties of studying abroad in Korea. I felt a little hesitant to talk about those difficulties because I didn’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy my stay in Korea or didn’t like the people I met there, because that certainly wasn’t the case. In the end, I just tried to express my thoughts as honestly as possible, without leaving out the good or the bad of my experience. That’s why the title of my article is “Sometimes Korea is friendly, sometimes Korea is lonely”. Instead of rambling on about it, I’ll just put the text of the article below, along with photos of the magazine issue cover and my article. The issue was published just a day or two ago.
The article reads as follows:
As a foreigner living in Korea, some days you feel like you are surrounded by friends. Most Korean people are incredibly hospitable and willing to help out a lost foreigner struggling to accomplish everyday tasks in an unfamiliar country. Of course, there are good and bad people, friendly and unfriendly people, wherever you go, no matter the country. Not every single Korean person is helpful and nice, and there are plenty of friendly Americans. But I found that during my year studying as an exchange student at KNU, people were always willing to help me and I made many friends. Some helped me transport my over-packed bags brought all the way from the U.S. to and from my dorm. Others helped me exchange a damaged bag and haggle for a lower price on a pair of shoes downtown. One even rushed over from North Gate to the Bokhyeon Intersection at a moment’s notice to rescue me and another exchange student trying and failing to rent a Wi-Fi egg using our mediocre Korean language skills.
I also made friends with whom I became very close. Some opened their homes to me, where their families fed me delicious homemade food. Others took me to their favorite spots in Daegu, like trendy coffee shops they had just found, or restaurants they had been going to since they were children. But it’s not just about helping and giving—I became close with these people because we could talk with each other and relate on a deeper level. Despite cultural differences, we were able to connect, person to person. Many of the Korean people I met had a warm kindness or comfortable easygoingness that made it easy to feel close with them after we broke the initial awkwardness of first encounters. I find it is easier to first break the ice and begin talking with an American than with a Korean, but in my experience it is more difficult and takes longer to feel truly close with an American friend than with a Korean friend. Within a year of life at KNU, I had made numerous friends that I now sorely miss.
That being said, there are some days in Korea when a foreigner feels like they are all alone. Many foreigners arrive knowing nobody. Breaking the ice with people you don’t know can be difficult in the U.S., but it was even harder in Korea. People never suddenly strike up a conversation with a stranger in a café. No one talks to each other in classes unless they already knew each other. I met one of my first Korean friends in the dorm elevator—I started making small talk because I recognized her from class, although we had never spoken before. After I began talking to her, she was so excited to get to know me and I was so happy to have found a new friend, but she told me later a Korean student would never have said anything despite recognizing a mutual classmate. But in general, I found it hard to make friends with the local students during my first semester at KNU, so I mostly hung out with the other exchange students. Then, after the end of the semester, all of my exchange student friends went back home and I was suddenly alone for winter break. I spent most days by myself, feeling lonely and missing my friends and family at home. I’m thankful for the couple of friends I made during the first semester, who occasionally met with me during the break and introduced me to their other friends, so that by the time my second semester began I wasn’t feeling quite so lonely anymore.
My Korean speaking skills improved drastically during my second semester at KNU, which helped me to make many more Korean friends and grow closer with existing ones. I think that making the effort to educate myself about Korean culture and speak the language, especially since it is not a very common language to learn, encouraged my friends to think of me less as a “foreign friend” and more as simply a “friend.” Even so, I could never quite shake the feeling that I was just a visiting guest. It was certainly true—I was just a visitor, an exchange student. But that feeling can give you a sense of loneliness that lurks in the back of your mind and makes you feel very out-of-place if you let it. Korea is a relatively small and very homogeneous country, and in some ways it feels as if the Korean nation is all one big family. As a foreigner, no matter how well you speak Korean, you cannot be a part of that family. You can be a welcomed guest, a beloved friend, but you cannot be a family member. When a grandma on the bus hands you a candy from her bag and calls you pretty, you may feel like family for a moment, but another grandma in the market overcharging you simply after looking at your face reminds you that you are not. Hearing the surprise in people’s voices as they say, “Wow, your Korean is so good! 어머, 한국말 잘하시네요!”, while a nice compliment, was an almost daily reminder that I was not a part of the “family.” And you can’t pretend you are, because they know just by looking at you.
Despite this feeling, I had an amazing time at KNU and even began to think of Daegu as my home away from home. I am itching to go back. Even though I didn’t feel like a part of the big Korean family, maybe there is still a part of me that thinks in the future I might be able to join. At the very least, I feel like part of a close circle of friends. This is why I want to encourage KNU students to reach out to exchange students they see on campus, especially those in their classes. I spent nearly a whole semester in Korea with almost no Korean friends because I could not build up the courage to break the thick silence in my classrooms and talk to my classmates. I know it can be hard to approach someone first—I struggle to do it as well. But I tried anyway: when I came back to my home university, I tried much harder to befriend and help the exchange students coming from KNU, because I knew what it felt like to be lonely abroad. Remember that exchange students are guests in a foreign country who most likely know very few people. I can’t speak for every single exchange student in Korea, but based on my own personal experience, most of them want to get to know Korean students. They don’t care if your English isn’t flawless, in the same way you don’t care if they can’t speak perfect Korean. They will be grateful you reached out first, and you might help them begin to forget a bit of the loneliness that comes with living far from home.