[Viewpoint] Fast and furious friendships‘Michelle, what are you going to do this weekend?” It seems like a neutral enough question that could have endless responses in a dynamic city like Seoul. But it seems that lately I’ve been giving the same answer every Friday afternoon. More often than not I reply with “I am going to my friend’s farewell party.” In just these first four short months of 2010, I’ve already bid farewell to at least three friends, and another one is going to bite the proverbial dust this weekend. (Good luck, Phil!)
I’ve been living and working in Korea for almost eight years. During this time, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. In fact, I only have one friend left from my first year here. And, of course, she’s Korean. (Hi, Kate!) While I do have several Korean friends, I am thinking today about friendships among the foreigners in Korea.
Investing in relationships here is very tricky but also very rewarding. In Korea, your friends become your surrogate family. They are the ones you spend Christmas and birthdays with. It is surreal how quickly new friendships are formed among foreigners in a strange land. The situation forces you to proactively initiate and maintain these important friendships, but also forces you to let go. (I still miss you, Tim!)
The life of a foreigner living in Korea is constantly changing, evolving and adapting. Having grown up in the same small New England town my whole life, I had the same friends all the way from elementary school through high school, and most of us still keep in touch even today. But in Korea, because of the constant cycle of always meeting new people and then bidding them farewell a short time later, friendships are much more broadly defined and fluid.
Koreans often look at me strangely. They wonder why a good-looking white girl like me would choose to live in Korea all by herself. They ask, “Aren’t you lonely?” At first, that question would really take me by surprise. And of course, at first, the answer was “yes!” But the fact is that you actually have to work pretty hard to be lonely in Seoul. Foreigners here are all living, eating, working and playing outside of their normal comfort zone. We are all in that same boat and we look out for each other. So, we have something in common with people we would never think of befriending back home. Maybe because of this we are able to develop real and meaningful relationships much quicker than we would if we had met back home (I won’t mention any names.).
But even more interesting than those left behind are those who actually leave. Where do they go from here? Is it possible to really go “home” after living in Korea? I expect that when (if) I finally do go home for good, the reverse culture shock will probably be worse than the initial culture shock of moving to Korea. Sure, at home people will say “excuse me” when they bump into you on the street, but I actually kind of like not having to say “excuse me” all the time whenever I accidentally brush against someone. The streets are crowded. There is bound to be some physical contact. Let’s just move on with the tacit and mutual understanding that it was not intentional. And I actually kind of like sweet potato on my pizza now. With pickles. And garlic dipping sauce. (Mmm... getting hungry!)
Another great thing about being a foreigner living abroad is that Seoul doesn’t have the institutional memory of a small New England hometown so it’s easy to reinvent yourself again and again. I can be whoever I want here. No one here remembers what I looked like before I had braces, or how I peed my pants on the playground in... well... never mind when that was. The point is that it is refreshing to see and be seen with fresh eyes. Here, I’m looking at everything as an outsider, so even the mundane seems new and exciting to me, and I seem interesting to everyone else. There, I’m just as American as everyone else and no one gives me a second glance! I’m like, “Umm, hello!? Don’t you want to look at the groceries in my cart to see what I eat?! Don’t you wonder what I’m reading? Look at me! I’m using chopsticks!”
So when (if?) I ever go home, will it be the same home I remember leaving? We always hear that everything changes. That change is inevitable. And in Korea, this is definitely true. Change happens everywhere. All around us. Twenty-four hours a day. Buildings go up. New shops move in. Others move out. New people arrive. Others move out. Korea is on the move. Ppalli ppalli! But visiting home for holidays over the past few years, I’ve noticed that change happens there at a much slower rate - a rate that doesn’t live up to my expectations anymore. I am so accustomed to the fast-paced Seoul style that it is frightening to imagine going back to New Hampshire to a town that has no bus system, no subway, no taxi and no one ready to go out for dinner and drinks on a whim at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday. (Three Alleys tonight, anyone?)
So, who knows where this life will lead me, but I hope we get a chance to meet along the way.
*The writer is a consultant at IRC Limited and an American who has lived in Korea for eight years.
by Michelle Farnsworth