Overcoming cultural barriers as an expat (in South Korea)

Korean beach

Being an expat is fun. Being an outsider is tough.

It’s been ages since my last post. I lived in Europe for a few years, and returned several years ago to the same town in Korea, where I’m now raising a mixed-culture family. Now that we’ve got that out of the way… Let’s get down to brass tacks: cultural barriers,  making friends (?) and “being foreign” in Korea. At the beach this weekend, I took a picture of the barbed wire fencing, which stretches its way along most of the country’s coastline — a big fence to keep some people out and make others feel safe while keeping them penned in together. It seemed like an apt metaphor for cultural barriers.

Exactly a decade ago, I read that expats living in Korea will always be viewed as foreigners. As soon as I read it, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want it to color my experience in Korea. But many years into living in Korea, I can’t deny its truth. I know two women who have lived here for decades, speak fluent local dialect, married Korean men and have Korean passports. I attended a speech some years back given by one of the women on notable female figures in Korean history. A couple members of the local press approached nervously, not knowing that she was the keynote speaker, and asked her politely what brought her as a foreigner to the event. Despite actually being Korean, she will always be a foreigner.

There are considerable hurdles to “fitting in” and making friends, let alone living life as a member of the community in Korea. And my guess is that these hurdles are probably just as high for Koreans living abroad as well.

Now, I’ll preface this gladly with the caveat that many, many people in South Korea are extremely kind, curious and accommodating of Europeans and people from the Americas. (Kinder, perhaps, than they are to people from other Asian countries who live in Korea.) I chose to live here, and there are plenty of reasons to defend that choice: the natural landscape is diverse and beautiful (if you discount the architecture), most cities are walkable, the cost of living is manageable, and (except for institutional corruption) people are honest and friendly. In fact, your average Korean is arguably kinder to people who look “foreign” than your average person from Europe or the Americas. That said, after the initial honeymoon phase of the first few years wears away, the barbs of cultural barriers begin to work their way under the skin of many expats.

I’ve heard the following questions and comments with varying degrees of frequency during my years in South Korea. Other expats living here will invariably have their own list of odd remarks to add.

  • Where do you live? (Answer: just down the road.) No, I mean where are your really from?
  • When are you going home? (Answer: in several hours.) No, I mean when are you going to your real home.
  • Can you eat Korean food?
  • (To African Americans I know) You’re not American, you’re African.
  • Sorry my dog’s barking. He’s never seen a foreigner.
  • I know it’s not your culture, but we can’t hire anybody black or gay. Can you ask him if he’s gay before we hire him?
  • Foreigners! They’re foreigners! (Say children, waving excited fingers in the direction of me and my son, who was born in Korea.)
  • Do you eat rice or bread for dinner? (This is actually kind of a cute question, IMO.)
  • Can he understand our language? (This is usually asked about me to the Korean person with me, before the speaker addresses me. “Our language” and “our people” are the common ways Koreans refer to Korean language and ethnicity when talking with other people whom they consider Korean.)

These remarks do seem to be less frequent today than they were five or ten years ago. Also, notice that none of them are mean-spirited. But they’ve left me a bit raw and guarded nonetheless. Every time you’re reminded that you don’t fit in, it hurts a tiny bit. Cultural death by a hundred thousand cuts. And I have unconsciously developed a physical reaction to this quotidian barrage of unintentional slights. This morning, I tensed up when the bank teller finished with her customer, looked up at me, registered a look of surprise and chose to wait for a colleague to hit the “next customer” bell instead of doing it herself. My voice actually became gruff and my face set in a scowl when another bank employee came to stand over my shoulder and watch with curiosity as I signed deposit forms. “누구세요? 도와 드릴 수 있어요?” I asked bluntly. Taken aback for a moment, he responded that he worked there and that I speak Korean well. He then continued to stand a step away and stare as I filled out forms.

I struggle not to become that old foreign man who goes inscrutably about his daily tasks, lives in his own world and is unreceptive or rude to the “nationals” around him. It’s in this context that I bring up the most painfully unsuccessful part of my life in Korea: making friends.

I’ve lived in several other countries in Europe and the Americas. Most of the time, I made friends and learned the language quickly, and I more or less integrated into the society. I’m many years into living in Korea, and I will admit that I have no Korean friends here apart from my wife and the wives of other expats I know. I might consider these women friends by my North American friendship standards, but using Korean standards they would each probably say I’m a friend of their husband. I know people here, and will chat from time to time. Mostly, I know people who want practice speaking English. But it’s been years since I called a Korean person in Korea to hang out.

As my child goes through school and my wife introduces me to her circles of friends, I’m an awkward embarrassment. I shut down and don’t act at all like I did when meeting new people during my first years in Korea. I’ve become thick-skinned about not fitting in, and that’s possibly become the main barrier now to making friends.

How do you make friends in the in-crowd when the underlying assumption on both sides is that you are not part of the in-crowd? I’ve joined sports groups (the gym, archery clubs, swimming classes). I’ve tried to reconnect with baristas who seemed especially friendly. I’ve used meet-up apps. I almost feel like I’m trying to date, painfully unaware of a huge piece of spinach that won’t let go of my front teeth. No friendships have panned out of these attempts. People I’ve asked who are also expats living in South Korea cite the following as common problems when making friends:

  • I don’t like getting drunk, and people in Korea seem to expect this of their friends. Alcohol is the glue of friendships here, and people feel that they don’t really know you before you’ve been blind drunk together.
  • Korea is really hierarchical. People in groups who are older than me tend to talk over me and don’t listen when I try to participate in the conversation. People who are younger than me show deferential formality that makes me uncomfortable.
  • I make friends with the opposite gender more easily, but this doesn’t seem normal in Korea.
  • Friendship seems to take a long time to form in Korea. Familiarity is the cornerstone of friendship here. I feel that people can’t be friends with me unless we served in the military together, went to school together or have been on the same sports team for a decade or more. It’s not like in the West, where people are immediately friendly and make friends quickly.
  • If people approach me to get to know me, it’s usually because they want a free English teacher or want to convert me to one sect of Christianity or another.

The cultural barriers I face are probably not unlike the cultural barriers a Korean person might feel trying to fit in to a group of expats living in Korea or trying to make friends in Europe or the Americas. When my wife and I were living in Europe, many people categorized her as Chinese/Asian, and were more closed with her than they were with me, whom they couldn’t easily categorize on sight as an outsider to their country.

So this question really goes to anybody who has lived in a place where he or she has faced high cultural barriers: How do you do it? What’s your experience, and what are your tricks for coping and succeeding?

One response to “Overcoming cultural barriers as an expat (in South Korea)

  1. Building friendships in asia takes time. I think the most important part is not to put so much pressure on one self to immediately find their BFFs.

    What worked for me was meetup.com. I found a combination of expats, and more importantly, locals that were open to meeting people of varying cultures. Some people just want to stick to their clique or people of the same cultural background, and we just need to accept that and move on.


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