Thinking About Moving to Korea?
The Republic of Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world. At the same time, it’s becoming an increasingly popular destination for people from all over the world, especially among university students. According to Yonsei University, they received a record high number of 1,005 exchange/visiting students from 60 countries this fall semester. These students are not the only ones chasing the Korean Dream; there are currently 2.5 million foreigners living and working or studying in Korea. Many people who want to stay here are curious about whether they’ll fit in the Korean society . In order to find out, we first need to look at what it means to be Korean.
I turned to Samantha ’Sammi’ Marie Marcoux, a Master’s student who is currently researching what factors determine the Korean identity. Through surveys and interviews, she has looked at data from many different groups, such as native Koreans, Korean adoptees, Koreans born abroad and North Korean defectors. What makes someone identify as Korean – and be perceived as Korean by others?
“I’ve narrowed it down to three different categories. You have blood ties, cultural ties and land ties. Blood ties generally means family ties, whereas land ties refers to your time spent in Korea. Cultural ties include a shared language, history and other social customs.”
It would be simple to say that Korean is born and raised in Korea with Korean parents. However, because of globalization, many Koreans moved abroad, and many foreigners settled down in the country. These days, you find people born in Korea with multinational parents, or people born from Korean parents abroad. The definition of Korean has become more complicated. Most foreigners who are living, studying or working in Korea don’t have a Korean background, but we can still use these ties as a guideline.
You can actually start establishing different cultural ties even before you arrive. Try getting a basic grasp of the language, such as by learning the alphabet and a few simple phrases. Once you get to Korea, I’d advise you to seek out a language partner. If you’re coming to study, there will be plenty of opportunities for language exchange with local students. Language exchange is not only a fun way to practice while making new friends – it’s also a great way to learn about important social rules. Strict social norms, customs and traditions are strong in Korea. Even though you might not be expected to know about all of them as a foreigner, you should make an effort to familiarize yourself with the most important aspects. Get to know the history, understand the social hierarchy and do as the locals do in social settings.
There’s another great benefit to learning the language: Korea has an abundance of fun, entertaining local content – and I’m not talking about K‐dramas! There are movies, variety shows, online comics, plays, comedy shows and so much more. Socially, you’ll be able to follow the local slang and expressions, which changes constantly as new phrases are created and trending. You can use the local search engine Naver to find content, and you’ll be exposed to news that never make it to Norwegian newspapers. In the end, Korea is already a great place for foreigners, but you’re just scratching the surface. Korea should be experienced in Korean!
Family is a universal factor for our identity, but Sammi’s research suggests that blood ties can actually refer to more than just your relatives. Other strong social bonds in Korea also increase your group belonging – such as friendships and romantic relationships. The second step is branching out from the international community and getting to know the locals. Join clubs, sports, or ask someone to set you up on a blind date (one of the most common ways of meeting a special someone). It’s always more challenging to make local friends, even when we move to a new city to study in our own country. It takes effort, but establishing a local network is crucial if you plan to stay in any place for a while. To some Koreans, you might be the first ‘foreign friend’ to join their group, so keep in mind that in many cases you’ll actually be representing your country!
Land ties, representing time spent in Korea, is actually very interesting. It seems straightforward that the longer you stay in Korea, the stronger your ties will be. However, Sammi tells me about something unexpected experience while she’s stayed for more than five years in Korea. In the beginning, people she met would praise her for speaking Korean so well –. Over the next couple of years her Korean improved a lot, but the reactions were pretty much the same. Then suddenly, there was a shift.
“There seems to be a time factor. Now, when I tell people that I’ve been here five years, they say: oh, you’re practically Korean then! My Korean friends talk to me in Korean and the expectations are changing.”
Be patient. You never know when you’ll suddenly go from getting praised for knowing “annyeonghaseyo” to being practically Korean – it’s not linear, but with time you’ll get there. Sammi has been in Korea for more than five years, speaks the language well and has made close local friends. She has a very positive attitude towards integration in Korea, and for her future life here.
“Personally, I plan on living in Korea forever. It’s my home; I love it here, even though I don’t necessarily feel Korean. Integration and assimilation is not the same thing. I want to be integrated, but I’m fine with being different.”
Since Korea is very homogenous, becoming a part of the Korean society might feel challenging, compared to other countries. On the plus side, if you make the effort, you’ll have endless opportunities here. We look forward to following Sammi’s research further as she explores the Korean identity and its applications to integration.