This article breaks down a previous article and rebuilds it in three pretty big parts but without the humor I used to approach the topic before. After reading a comment from a wonderful Korean-American mom– see way down below, I knew that this was a topic that I needed to approach again!
And, this time with more about not just where I made Korean friends but what I (unexpectedly) had to overcome when I began to make friends– Korean or not, after high school: My race.
I have to start this story far back in time. I also have to start this story by talking about race and friendship here in America, from my point of view– not society’s.
Middle School and High School Years
I talked about how hard it was to grow up in Louisiana in my short story, Junho. Thankfully, my family moved to a small town called Pearland in Texas when I was in middle school.
I went to one of two or three middle schools, and most of my close friends were Hispanic since we played soccer together. However, my best friend was an Indian girl named Betty.
Now, we never saw each other’s race in middle school. At most, we saw and were interested in (or totally ignorant of) one another’s cultures.
In high school I took AP classes and became close friends with the “AP kids.” We just didn’t know we were different from each other even though we were white, African, African-American, Asian, Indian, Hispanic and more.
Maybe because we were in a small town like Pearland, Texas, but maybe because we were just different from the rest of the world. I was also (unwillingly) placed on the Varsity soccer team and became friends with girls who were suddenly less Hispanic and more Caucasian. Oh, high school politics!
Throughout high school I had HUGE crushes on two boys: One from El Salvador (Michael) and one from Puerto Rico (Alex). I did my best to learn Spanish… and failed. Now, there was this guy named Satra.
He was from Cambodia, and he played soccer as well. I would often hang out with him and two or three other Hispanic guys who were also on the boy’s soccer team. Yes, soccer was once my entire life.
But injuries changed that. Another reason I liked High School King of Savvy: High school sports and all the passion and pain that goes with it! But back to Satra! He liked to tell me had pet tigers as a kid, which I still like to believe.
He was also my first date ever. I went to his soccer banquet when he was a senior and I was a junior. After about four or five years of my own jjak sarang, I finally worked up the nerve to ask Alex out to MY soccer banquet junior year, and he said yes!
The whole school knew that I liked Alex– even Satra (but he didn’t care), and the whole school also knew it when he stood me up. Don’t worry. Alex got what was coming to him from me AND the whole school, but I will never forget the look in his eyes when he lied to me and said he just hadn’t done his laundry.
On the day of my graduation I looked up at the blue sky full of endless possibilities and seriously wondered if I had really loved Alex for four or five years. I realized that I hadn’t, but I still kept my diaries from high school– cringe worthy as as they were.
Just so that I could always look back and remember the difference between fantasy and reality. (Think Surplus Princess.) However, I still wasn’t aware of my race. It didn’t define me, and it didn’t define the people I chose to like or love.
When I graduated from high school and started attending the University of Texas at Austin, I began to notice my race and the race of others for the first time.
My so-called friends in Freshman and Sophomore year were quite diverse (White and Pakistani, Bulgarian, Malaysian and Bengali, African-American, Algerian, and Vietnamese– all girls except the Vietnamese guy, who’s gay).
But, they only wanted to go to parties hosted by white (and sometimes black) fraternities/organizations/people. They even made fun of me for wanting to go to parties hosted by Indian and Asian fraternities/organizations/people.
I knew something was wrong with them– not just because of the way viewed others but because of the way they viewed themselves. I had never (and probably will never) meet a group of girls more insecure.
They fought with each other about who had gotten more attention from guys that night, about whose arms jiggled more, about anything and everything stupid, shallow, and superficial.
They also pressured me into my first kiss with a total stranger even though I had been saving it for my first love, which I regretted then but not now. But it goes deeper than their general dislike and disregard for Asian and Indian people.
My African-American friend from that same group (the not-so-close friend) was dating a very Southern white boy her Freshman year and a very skater white boy her Sophomore year.
The very small African-American community at our incredibly big university (+50,000 students) literally shunned her AND talked about her behind her back. We were together at Wendy’s once, and a few girls actually glared at her.
My Indian friend from high school– my best friend, also began to spend time with other Indians and a few Asians, but not with me. Was I being shunned, too? I made friends with an Indian boy.
And, he told me about how difficult it was to make time for anyone other than his Indian friends. Not because he didn’t want to, but because of what they would say to him if he did.
It hit me my Sophomore year. We’re being divided up and grouped by our race. No, we’re doing the dividing and grouping, choosing our so-called friends and boyfriends and girlfriends based on race and telling ourselves we’re not racist because we know (or maybe even talk to) a few people of another race.
Or, maybe because we’re a minority and couldn’t possibly be racist. It was around this time that I began to spend less time with girls– I truly thought all girls were crazy at this point, and more time with guys.
My two best (guy) friends by then were a guy from Taiwan named Tim (still bffs!) and H-, my best friend and first love, from Korea. Tim always told me not to get close with too many Koreans.
He had met a few through H- and been given the “hey, you’re not Korean” cold shoulder Korean-American mom mentioned even SHE occasionally gets from Koreans. But, I liked H-, and I wanted to spend more time with him, which meant spending more time with his friends.
So, when he got divided and grouped– the next year suddenly all of his friends were Korean and not white or Hispanic or whatever, I met his Korean friends. And by then I wasn’t surprised by what I had to overcome: My race, or at least the stereotypes and prejudice associated with it.
Part 2: Race and Friendship in Korean Culture
Can two people who aren’t the same gender ever really be friends? Korean culture often dictates that namja (men) and yoja (women) can never really be friends. What about two people who aren’t the same age?
Is he a dongsaeng (little “brother”), chingu (friend), or an oppa (older “brother”)? There is only one answer in Korean culture, and it depends on his age. Well, what about two people who aren’t the same race? Oh, the barriers between us.
The Barriers Between Us
After meeting H-‘s friends years ago, I realized that many of the Korean people I met didn’t and would never see me as their friend, simply because I was not Korean. It was exactly what Tim had said, cold shoulders.
What Tim didn’t know is that– just like he was friends with ME even though his Taiwanese friends didn’t give me the time of day, not all Koreans– just like not all Taiwanese people, are the same. Duh, Tim!
He’s just protective of me, so I forgive him for a lot of things, like being super skeptic about my relationship with my ex-boyfriend. Yeah, the Korean one. And, was it really simply because I wasn’t Korean? Because Tim wasn’t Korean?
I learned a lot more about Korean culture and Korean people through my ex-boyfriend, so I can easily say no– at least now. By now you know Korean culture comes with barriers, and some barriers you just Do Not Cross until you are actually close.
These barriers include gender and age (maybe even race) as I mentioned earlier. They also include anything else you can think of such as family, profession, and image. These barriers pop up immediately, too.
Why do you think the first thing many Korean textbooks teach you is insa, or greetings, where you state your age, name, and race or where you are from along with what you do? Because you are your greeting, your first impression. It defines you. It’s what groups and divides you.
In America, it’s pretty rare to find all of this out about someone within the first few minutes of meeting them, especially at a job interview. In fact, it’d be nosy and rude and– oftentimes in the context of a job interview, downright illegal.
It’s judgmental, too, but Koreans are really good at judging, for better or for worse. So, am I an unni or a dongsaeng. A friend or a lover or a girlfriend? A sunbae or a hoobae?
The list goes on and on and on, but each word only has meaning to those who speak “the code.” But more on that in a bit! Yes, Korean culture comes with a certain amount of automatic and superficial barriers, but even Koreans don’t always break down and get beyond them.
You might be somewhat familiar with this if you like Kpop and have an “awkward” couple in one of your favorite Kpop groups. They’re just not close, and everyone knows it. Well, a big step in breaking down those barriers for foreigners, at least, is learning Korean.
Korean culture is truly embedded into the language like some secret code. After learning Korean I suddenly understood what words like oppa meant– and who to use them with.
I knew the difference between sarang and jeong, the latter of which doesn’t even translate into English. I also knew about aegyo and most importantly how something like my grammar or tone (aegyo or not) defined and shaped my relationship.
Is it okay for us to drop honorifics? The importance in that step, “Mar no-eul-kka?” Suddenly, those barriers just fell down. Of course, speaking even a little Korean almost always makes even old Korean people (who you might assume are incredibly racist) open up, smile, and start chattering away in Korean at the speed of light. Slow down, please!
Crossing The Distance Between Us
Breaking down barriers is pretty easy when you’re a foreigner. As Korean-American mom mentioned, it’s much harder when you’re actually Korean and expected to know certain things, like how to speak Korean and other aspects of Korean culture.
Getting close is the hard part, unless liquor is involved… and it always was and it always is! I was always shocked by the pacing in Korean movies and dramas.
They hardly know each other, but then they get drunk together 45 minutes in and are suddenly this lovey-dovey couple for about 10 minutes before all Hell breaks loose.
Oh, okay, it’s based on real life! Or so I finally realized after going to tons of parties where everyone except for me and my friends (Chinese and Bulgarian) was Korean… and dating one too many Korean guys here in America and in South Korea.
Yup, Korean drinking games are the best way to cross that distance… soju and skinship please! As for me, I was friendly enough when I met H-‘s Korean friends at parties with him, but I didn’t bother being too friendly with his friends until I was actually close enough with them to call them my own.
I still laugh about this: He got mad when I began to spend more time with his friends and said I’d “never be able to replace him” knowing I loved him and knowing his girlfriend wouldn’t like it if he said that. He was
fucking crazy, but I loved him. The end.
Part 3: Making Korean Friends: Don’t Be Shy (Or Scared)
Al lot of people I have met have been scared to approach Koreans, or really just anyone who is or might be different from them. Like Tim, maybe it’s because of a bad experience. But, don’t be like Tim!
And please let the following serve as encouragement to get over any shyness or fear when it comes to making new friends– period. I feel like Koreans in particular get a bad rap– at least here in my town, and so many times we hear about the bad. Well, here’s some of the good!
Making Korean Friends Online, in South Korea and in America
I made Korean friends online while blogging on Naver and posting in fashion cafes. I also got scouted by OnStyle Korea while doing that as well. However, unless your Korean is at an intermediate or expert level it will be impossible to use Naver.
Most people I know or have spoken to use pen pal sites to meet Koreans online and become friends, but I have mixed feelings about them. People searching for a pen pal can be quite prejudiced since they are looking for a certain type of person or to do certain dirty things with a certain type of person.
I do like mykoreanfriends.com and have heard good things about interpals.net. When I first went to South Korea a group of very sweet, super fun Korean girls actually took me under their wing for the entire time I was there.
And, I knew everything about the boys they liked– one worked at the club, and the “really pretty” girls who were their enemies. It was a slice of life that was mine– but not really mine, all at the same time.
I also met with the friends I had made online through Naver– mostly guys, and even a few girls I met on Craigslist Seoul. I also made a lot of Korean friends in class since I was studying at a law school and a lot of Koreans were there (obviously).
One Korean girl even tried to set me up with her oppa on the first day of school! Unnis can be so scary sometimes. More importantly, after going to Korea and coming back…
I realized that living in America makes us all more aware of our race and the differences between one another solely because of our race. I began to understand why people chose to segregate themselves. In a way, it’s safer. And– of course, a LOT more boring.
Breaking down barriers is what I do, it’s like breathing to me, because I have to. Everything is in my way, because I was born into a world that works against minorities and women. I happen to be both.
So, I’ve always tried to learn the languages my friends and crushes spoke. With Korean, I was successful. I also took an interest in Korean culture, learning drinking etiquette and more little quirks and perks of Korean culture like mildang.
More importantly, I didn’t waste my time on any Alexes and Betties. I stuck with the Satras and Tims. As for the differences between them? Well, they have nothing to do with race.