PSPD in English Archive 2006-11-21   2656

[Column on Asia] Making friends

Living and studying in Korea is an absolutely fantastic experience that will open your eyes to a whole new world that you can never experience at home. Traveling in itself to another country provides an education that one cannot get from any book or receive from any university. Learning about and experiencing first-hand another culture, languange and way of life is exhilarating, and once people start, they usually can’t stop. The largest majority of people who travel to South Korea to study for two years end up staying longer than they planned.

But this does not mean that there are no difficulties; probably the single greatest threat to any person traveling to a foreign country to live for an extended period of time is “Culture Shock.” First identified in 1958 by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, culture shock is a long term psychological stress that all human beings experience when they move to a completely new cultural environment. A sort of culture shock I experienced, for instance, is about how difficult to make friends here.

In Korea, it can be difficult making friends because the way it happens is different here. In Korea, most friends seem to be former classmates. Many trace their friendships to high school or earlier. The exception is first (freshman) year at university. A friend teaches English to university freshmen, and asked one student why she was taking his class since she was already fluent:

“Aren’t you bored silly?”
“I’m just here to make friends.”

This seems to be a very common attitude amongst freshmen that they are not there to study. Indonesians make friends at any age, and more easily. People can introduce themselves, whereas in Korea, people are usually formally introduced by people they already know, or are introduced by situations, such as by being classmates or members of the same club.This is manifested by the awkward ways Koreans introduce themselves to strangers. I can’t count how many times a total stranger has abruptly asked me, “Where do you come from?” Never has there been a “Hi,” “How are you,” “I wonder when this bus will come,” or “The weather’s been strange lately, hasn’t it?” Also, once I answer that I come from Indonesia, the conversation ends just as suddenly, with no follow-up questions or seeming effort to continue the conversation. This is not to say that making Korean friends is impossible, but it is more difficult, and would be facilitated by some connection, such as being one’s former teacher or the friend of a friend. I’ve often wondered what accounted for this disparity, but I think that would be the subject for a sociology PhD thesis. For now, I just accept it.

* Yuwanto is a lecturer at Diponegoro National University in Semarang, the provincial city of Central Java, Indonesia. It has been four years since he came to Korea for his thesis research on the Korean politics. He is also delivering his experience in Korea in Indonesian at KBS International Broadcasting station.

Yuwanto
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