One of the biggest questions I get asked, right after the annoying, post-college small talk starter "So... what's your plan?" and the very common "How do you get a teaching job in Korea?" is "How do you make friends in Seoul?"
Chances are, if you've ever asked me the latter of these questions, I've put my rose-colored glasses on and given you a highly sugar-coated response about how it's really easy to meet people here.
If we've had this conversation... I'm sorry... because that's kind of a white lie.
Sure, it's easy to meet people... what's not easy is meeting the good ones. So, here's the truth... Making friends in Seoul kinda sucks.
Seoul is a massive city... one of the largest in the world... and, when I moved here in 2015, I was so overwhelmed. I come from a teeny tiny, North Carolina town called Pleasant Garden. A place that, for much of my childhood, was a one stoplight town. I hadn't practiced "the art of making friends" in a REALLY long time. Most of the people I'd met at home just kinda WERE my friends by default I guess.
Let me paint a picture of my small Carolina town for ya. There is a cow pasture beside my house... a house where my parents still live. I spent my summers playing outside, walking back and forth to my cousins' houses, fishing at the pond, and getting yelled at for playing with (chasing) the cows. I knew the majority of my neighbors (because I was related to most of them), and many of my friends and acquaintances were people who I'd grown up with.
When I went to University, I went as far away as I could... just not over the state line (because have you SEEN those out of state tuition rates). This led me to four years in Wilmington, North Carolina... a little beach town made famous by One Tree Hill.
Again, this was a fairly small town. I ran in to the same people on campus, had the same people in my classes, and spent my time with, mostly, the same group of friends... just not the people I went to high school with (because, at that point, I'd realized that some of them kind of sucked). Actively trying to make new friends wasn't ever a thing... Because when you work together, study together, and see each other everyday, you might as well get along and enjoy the occasional two (or 20) beers.
The big city vibe was NOT something I'd ever really experienced before, so, for me, Seoul might as well have been the largest city in the universe. When I arrived here and started my first job, I did it with the small town mindset that everyone I met would just be my friend... We were, after all, in the same boat, right... Foreigners abroad just wanting to meet people, travel, and have a good time, right? Wrong.
Enter... let's call her... D... - coworker, Cali girl, and unbeknownst to me, my arch nemesis. She, for whatever reason, had it out for me from the start, and proceeded to shut me out and exclude me from virtually every office outing, joke, and conversation.
This threw me for a huge loop. I'd encountered plenty of girls who were mean for no reason, but never one who was so upfront and in my face about it.
Looking back, D was both a blessing and a curse. A curse because, for awhile, I was pretty sad and miserable about being excluded from everything... A blessing because she made me wisen up to the harsh reality that not everyone is going to want to be your friend... and that's okay.
In the beginning, I spent my fair share of time feeling sorry for myself. I resented D and my coworkers who blindly went along with her. Then, one day, I snapped the hell out of it and realized that I did NOT come this far (7,071 miles to be exact) to let my happiness be determined by one catty individual. I decided to enjoy the new city I was living in, whether it was with other people or not.
I went to art museums by myself. I went to bars by myself. I read books, taught myself to read hangul, and spent hours writing by the river. I sought out volunteer opportunities. I tutored North Korean refugees. I did things that made me happy, and, even though I was doing them alone, I didn't feel lonely... because, after a certain point, I'd started embracing my solitude. I found that when I started doing things I cared about, I was meeting people with similar interests and passions... and even when I didn't meet people, I didn't care.
I thought I was pretty selective from that point on, but, in hindsight, turns out I'm still a pretty horrible judge of character.
When I tell you I've had horrible experiences with friends and relationships in this city, I mean it with every grain of my being. I have some downright tragic tales to tell.
You see, unlike the small town vibes that I was used to... in big cities, people don't have to be nice to you by default. Most expats know they won't be in Seoul forever, so they're reluctant to get too attached... and they probably don't give a damn about your feelings. The likelihood of them ever seeing you again is slim to none. Those are facts... Facts that empower a lot of people to be dicks (like D) for no reason. (Every Seoul friend I've talked to about this has agreed... we're all guilty of it).
When everyone's putting up this hard, cold, front, it makes it really hard to meet good friends... and so, for a long time, I didn't.
Okay... this all sounds really sad, and this isn't meant to be a sad post... but it's the truth. I let myself be disappointed by other people more times than I care to count, but that never stopped me from continuing to try to find the diamonds in the rough.
I think that, no matter where you are in the world, the older you get, the tougher it is to find people who you really vibe with... and who also vibe with you. That's life.
Thankfully, when it comes to Seoul, for every shitty person you meet, there's about a dozen good ones right around the corner... but, if you hole up in your apartment feeling sorry for yourself because a couple people didn't like you, you'll never meet the good ones.
The key to making friends in this city is this - Grow up.
Make like Amanda Bynes in She's the Man and rub some dirt in it.
You're not everyone's cup of tea and everyone doesn't have to be yours either. If you can make plans to pack up your life and move to a massive city on the other side of the world, then you can let the actions and opinions of a few shitty people roll off your back.
Keep doing you. Be yourself.
Instead of sticking your nose in the air when you see other expats around town, like you've somehow "assimilated better" than them, SAY HELLO. Don't be a dick. When you come across someone who's new here, take them under your wing. Show them the cool stuff. Go on group trips to new places with a bunch of, possibly super annoying, strangers. Maybe you vibe with them, and maybe you don't.
I've made friends at bars. I've made friends on random weekend trips. I've made friends by joining one friend at a group outing where I wasn't going to know anyone else. I've even made friends from apps like Tinder and Instagram (yes, tinder). Some of them I still keep up with, and some of them fizzled out.
When it comes to making friends in this big city as a small town, introverted extrovert (who loves going out and doing all the things, but also staying at home), the bottom line is this... if you want to make friends here, you will... as long as you don't close yourself off to meeting new people.
Of all the lessons I've learned as I (continue to) master the art of making friends, these are the most important.
It's not supposed to be easy. Stay true to yourself. No matter how many assholes you encounter, don't let it reflect in the way YOU treat people. When you meet someone who sucks, make like a duck and let it roll off your back. Not everyone is for you.
When you find good people, hold on to em! Tell them you appreciate them in the name of good vibes and positivity (the world needs more of it)!
Everyone who comes here has their own goals, plans, and, likely, is headstrong afffff (because it takes a special kind of soul to up and move to a country where you don't know anyone). You WILL butt heads with your best friends sometimes... know when to get over it.
The friends you meet in this city will come from all over the world. They will have different experiences, speak different languages, and challenge the way you see things. Your nights out will be a mix of making fun of each others accents, sharing childhood stories, and teaching each other new expletives.
Not having everything in common with your friends is a GOOD thing. This allows you to learn and grow.
And the NUMBER ONE lesson I've learned in this massive city is that the most important relationship I need to work on is the one I have with myself.
All the "friends" who turned out to not be so friendly after all, made me much more self-aware and self-relient. I realized that, whether you live in a small town or not, you should never be friends with someone by default. Choose your circle wisely... and when someone shows you their true colors, believe them.
To the people who have literally screwed me over... I genuinely wish the best for you (and luck to all who encounter you). I hope that you eventually see the light, and change your ways. Moreover, I thank you... because you showed me exactly how NOT to treat people, and gave me a firsthand glimpse of the type of person I never want to be.
To the amazing, beautiful, kind souls who have entered my life since I began this Asia adventure, I am so grateful for all of you. You make life sooooo much more fun, and I wouldn't trade the hours, days, weeks, or years I get to spent with you for anything.
Bottom line: If you're moving to Seoul... fear not when it comes to making friends.