Finding your Tribe in Korea: How to Make Friends in Daegu

Over the past eight years, my journey of getting to know a different culture and immersing myself in Korean traditions has proven to be an eye-opening and rewarding experience. During my time in South Korea, I’ve had the good fortune of making some wonderful Korean friends. However, amidst these connections, I’ve observed the existence of certain cultural barriers that sometimes make it challenging to forge deeper connections. It’s quite surprising that despite having a few close friendships, my exposure to Korean weddings has been limited to just one, visits to Korean homes have been infrequent, and meeting a Korean husband has been a rarity.

making Korean friends- road trip accidental friend

Friends in South Korea are plentiful, but to create a bond, you need to ‘Daegu’-deeper

Over the past 8 years, my journey of getting to know a different culture, immersing myself in Korean traditions, has proven to be an eye-opening and rewarding experience. During my time in South Korea, I’ve had the good fortune of making some wonderful Korean friends. However, amidst these connections, I’ve observed the existence of certain cultural barriers that sometimes make it challenging to forge deeper connections. It’s quite surprising that despite having a few close friendships, my exposure to Korean weddings has been limited to just one, visits to Korean homes have been infrequent, and meeting a Korean husband has been a rarity. I’m not entirely sure what this pattern signifies, but now that I’m back in the United States, I’m curious to explore and understand these cultural dynamics more thoroughly.

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What Does This Mean?

This brings us to some important questions: How can shared experiences during these events foster closeness that created apermanent connection? And will the friendships continue after I’ve returned home? And finally, can we move forward and continue our friendship now that technology is the only way we can communicate?

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful because I really care about the people I met in South Korea. Experiencing traditions and celebrations is a wonderful way to understand and appreciate a culture. I’ve been fortunate to call South Korea my home off and on for nearly a decade, and during that time, I’ve had the pleasure of making some incredible friends. However, I’ve found that there are certain cultural boundaries that are more challenging to cross. For instance, I have only been invited to one wedding in all these years.

This might seem surprising considering the number of friendships I’ve cultivated here. In many other cultures, including American culture, friends and extended networks are typically included in such occasions. Similarly, I’ve also noticed that I haven’t had many opportunities to meet the families of my Korean friends. Or been invited into their homes.

Acts of Kindness is a blog post about the kindness I’ve received while traveling.

Cultural Differences

In contrast, back here in America, it’s quite common to meet friends’ families or visit their homes. We often share holiday celebrations and special occasions with our Korean friends. We open up our homes for Thanksgiving dinners, Fourth of July barbecues, and more. This is not to say that one approach is better than the other. But it does highlight some of the cultural differences between the two societies. It’s also a reminder of the challenges that can come with fostering deeper connections in a different cultural context.

It might be less common to be invited to family homes or events. There are still ample opportunities to experience Korean traditions and celebrations. From participating in public festivities during Seollal or Chuseok, to exploring local traditions and customs together, these shared experiences can be incredibly bonding. Moreover, it’s essential to remember that every friendship is unique. Just because certain aspects of cultural integration seem more challenging, it doesn’t mean deep, meaningful connections aren’t being formed. Sometimes, it’s in the day-to-day sharing of experiences, joys, and challenges that the most significant bonds are forged.

Navigating cultural diversity requires a delicate balance of sensitivity and respect. It involves acknowledging the differences, understanding them, and fostering an environment where these differences are celebrated rather than merely tolerated.

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Black in South Korea

Communicating my True Self

Being a black woman in South Korea, I’ve faced unique challenges. When it comes to expressing my identity and experiences to my Korean friends. There have been instances where my friends have struggled to understand the complexities of my experiences, and I’ve noticed discomfort on their faces when I’ve tried to explain my life as a black woman.

This has led to a predicament where I’ve felt the need to hold back certain aspects of my cultural and racial identity. The effect of this is that I don’t get to fully develop friendships with my true self. Many important facets of my personal nature aren’t included in the friendships I have with my Korean girlfriends.

As a result, this has been a significant barrier to achieving the depth of friendship that I desire, and it’s a challenge that many people in cross-cultural friendships may face. So, how can we show sensitivity towards cultural differences and make sure that everyone feels comfortable being their authentic selves? One of the major hurdles in building deep and lasting friendships between people from different linguistic backgrounds is overcoming language barriers. And recently, a Korean friend canceled an outing with me and another black friend because she assumed we would talk about race.


This becomes even more evident when neither party is comfortable speaking exclusively in the other’s language, as is often the case with my Korean friends and myself. Even the simplest nuances can be missed, leading to confusion and misunderstandings.

A prime example happened just last week when I had to explain the concept of ‘teasing’ to a Korean friend. It took a good five minutes for me to convey that the person teasing her wasn’t actually angry with her. This is a common playful behavior in American culture, but it can easily be misunderstood if you’re not familiar with the cultural context.

Overcoming language barriers is not just about understanding words and phrases. It’s about understanding cultural contexts, emotions, and unspoken rules that are often tied to language. It can be a challenging process, but it’s also an enriching one that can bring you closer to your friends and their culture.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Language barriers can be a significant challenge in building deep and meaningful relationships across cultures. This becomes especially problematic when neither party is fully comfortable speaking exclusively in the other’s language. I’ve experienced this firsthand with my Korean friends, where even the most basic nuances can be misinterpreted or completely missed.

Practical Experiences in Language

For instance, a simple playful behavior in American culture like ‘teasing’ can be misunderstood in the absence of cultural context. I recall a situation where it took me a good five minutes to explain to a friend that the person teasing her wasn’t genuinely angry. But the nuances don’t just stop at playful banter. Sometimes, the language barrier can pose more significant challenges and frustrations. During a trip to Jeju with my friend Angela, we had a professional photographer with us who didn’t speak any English. Angela, despite her limited language skills, had the task of translating for both of us. However, at times, the task overwhelmed her, leading to moments when she simply shut down and didn’t even try to bridge the language gap. As a foreigner in her homeland, I felt a compounded frustration as she was my linguistic lifeline.

Digital Tools for Connection

Using Technology

Technology, despite being a potential solution, wasn’t an option either, as neither Angela nor the photographer wanted to use it in the moment. It was a stark reminder that overcoming language barriers is not just about understanding words and phrases. It’s also about interpreting cultural contexts, emotions, and unspoken rules that are often tied to language.

In the digital age, maintaining friendships across distances and time differences has become easier. There’s a plethora of apps and platforms that can help keep the communication lines open, bridging gaps, and fostering connections. In my friendship with Kyung Sook, we use technology not just for confirmation of plans, but also for sharing interests such as TV program suggestions. She has taught me how to use Naver, like a local, so I can find cafes and things to do. And setup KakaoTaxi & Coupang to attach to my Korean bank account, and much, much more.

Body Language

Despite the language barrier, I found that body language and subtle gestures worked to some extent. When I expressed my dislike for raw fish, I could tell that our photographer was upset by his body language. There was also a moment when I made a crude remark in response to his joke, which he understood and found amusing. This incident made me suspect that he was downplaying his understanding of English, a behavior I’ve noticed is quite common in cultures that highly value mastery and perfection. Through these experiences, I’ve learned that overcoming language barriers involves more than just learning a new language. It’s about fostering patience, understanding, and openness to different ways of communication. And learning to navigate the complexities of cultural contexts and unspoken rules tied to language. It’s a challenging process, but one that can undoubtedly deepen and enrich cross-cultural friendships.

Finding your Tribes

Hiking and Sculpture Parks

South Korea’s natural landscape, with its mountains covering 70% of the country, provides countless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. The blend of urban and natural environments provides a rich array of experiences, from tranquil parks and botanical gardens to challenging hiking trails. Kyung Sook and I have a shared appreciation for parks, particularly those with sculpture gardens and botanical features. One memorable trip was last winter when we visited the National Arboretum in Sejong. This visit offered a balance between our interests, admiring the diverse indoor and outdoor gardens while enjoying a delicious meal afterward. However, unlike me, Kyung Sook isn’t a fan of more strenuous outdoor activities. She’s the type who complains if there isn’t an elevator in a cafΓ©, let alone if a hiking trail is involved!

Finding My Hiking Tribe

Despite this, my love for hiking hasn’t been dampened. The mountains that cover South Korea offer trails for every ability level, and the view from the top is always worth the effort. Recognizing the potential for shared experiences and the chance to meet like-minded people, I decided to create a hiking group. We gather on Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, and set out to conquer the trails. The group has not only allowed me to explore South Korea’s natural beauty but also provided an avenue to connect with others over a shared passion. It’s a testament to the fact that bonding over shared interests can foster friendships, even in a foreign land.

Embracing Differences

One of the biggest learning opportunities in any cross-cultural friendship is embracing the cultural differences that exist between us. This can be challenging, and it often requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to step out of our comfort zones. Yet, these differences are what make our friendships unique, providing countless opportunities for learning and growth.

Benefits of Being a Foreigner

One of the things I’ve come to understand about my Korean friends is their level of comfort when it comes to sharing personal matters. One would think that, as a foreigner, I might be seen as an outsider. However, the opposite seems to be true. My Korean friends feel they can confide in me about things they might feel uncomfortable discussing with their Korean peers. Take the fellow hiker I met last summer, for example.

On our very first encounter, she openly shared about her plans to divorce her husband, concerns about her children’s health, and her aspirations of leaving her current job to pursue her passion in floral arrangement. This level of openness was shocking at first, but I’ve come to understand it as a form of trust. They see me as someone they can confide in without judgement, a testament to the value of embracing cultural differences in friendships.

Handling Culture Shock

Of course, living in a foreign country comes with its fair share of culture shock. From the language barrier to understanding social norms, it’s a continuous learning experience. But what I’ve found is that these challenges also provide opportunities for growth. They’ve allowed me to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for Korean culture while also helping my Korean friends understand my own. Group invitations, for example, usually serve as an opportunity for my Korean friends to have linguistic backup during our conversations, a clear sign of their efforts to bridge the language gap. On the other hand, a solo invitation often indicates that they want to share something personal, a practice that seemed alien to me initially but is now something I deeply appreciate.

Turning Differences into Strengths

Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of these friendships is how our differences have become our strengths. The openness and trust that have developed between us have only strengthened our bonds, allowing us to navigate our cultural differences with grace and understanding. My friends who have traveled outside of Korea, especially those who have visited the United States, tend to have a better understanding of where I’m coming from. They acknowledge the challenges I face and share in the frustrations and difficulties, creating a shared understanding that strengthens our bond.

Building Trust in Cross-cultural Friendships

Trust, I’ve learned, is a cornerstone in the foundation of any friendship. In my friendships with my Korean counterparts, trust has taken on a different, but equally beautiful form. Whether it’s in the form of confiding personal matters or understanding each other’s cultural nuances, the trust we’ve built has been integral to the depth and richness of our friendships. In conclusion, building deep and lasting friendships between Americans and Koreans is a journey of understanding and embracing cultural diversity, overcoming language barriers, bonding over shared interests, communicating effectively across cultures, navigating cultural differences, and, ultimately, building trust. It’s a journey I’m honored to be on, and I’m excited to see where it leads.

Establishing Trust in Korean Culture

In Korean society, trust and respect are deeply interwoven into the social fabric. These concepts play a significant role in friendships, often influencing the dynamics of the relationship. Understanding these cultural nuances can greatly enhance cross-cultural friendships, allowing for a deeper bond and mutual respect. For instance, one of the most essential aspects of trust in Korean culture is communication. My friend Kyung Sook and I have often found ourselves double-checking and clarifying our plans to ensure there are no misunderstandings. This level of communication, while time-consuming, reflects the importance of trust and reliability in our friendship.

Strategies for Building Trust

Building trust in a friendship involves being consistent and reliable. In my experience, this often means putting in the extra effort to ensure clear communication. A practical strategy Kyung Sook and I have adopted is using text messages to confirm our plans. This not only helps avoid misunderstandings but also allows us to maintain a record of our plans so we can refer back to them if we aren’t sure. Moreover, being patient and understanding when language barriers arise has proven beneficial. There have been instances where we’ve had to pause our conversations so Kyung Sook could look up something relevant to our discussion, and vice versa. The patience exhibited during these moments is key to fostering trust.

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The Role of Honesty and Reliability

Honesty and reliability are values held in high regard in both Korean and American cultures. They serve as the backbone of any friendship, cementing trust and enabling deeper connections.

One particular instance of this was when Kyung Sook confided in me about how she manages jealousy among her friends. She candidly discussed the comparisons she made, showing a level of honesty that I deeply appreciated. When I asked her how she felt about me, she responded that she thought I was prettier, but she was skinnier. Far from being offended, I found her honesty refreshing and even humorous, reinforcing our bond.

She then asked if I was mad. I said, nope, you’re right. I am prettier than you. We both laughed. She makes me laugh often, like the time we met at my apartment. I went in while she stayed in the hall, so I could have Steven say hi. Unfortunately he wasn’t dressed, so we began to leave. But before we did, he opened the door and Kyung Sook immediately shielded her eyes as if he was coming out in his underwear.

Later Steven remarked she didn’t do a good job, she could still see him through her spread fingers. In conclusion, establishing trust in Korean culture, building trust through effective communication, understanding the role of honesty and reliability, and leveraging technology are all crucial in fostering and maintaining cross-cultural friendships. Despite the challenges, the reward of a deep, meaningful friendship makes the journey worthwhile.

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