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You’ve got a friend (for life), 마이 친구 (Korean Friendship)


Man I’m getting deep. Friendship is no joke with Koreans.

Actually, that brings up a good point. Take a moment and analyze what the term means to you. Seriously. What is a friend to you? Someone you can tell everything? Someone you can spend time with? Someone you can drink with? Someone you love?

Even the term ‘친구‘ has different connotations in Korean. It involves so much more than just a smile and a commonality. Friendship takes a commitment. Friendship takes regular upkeep. Friendship is hardcore. But first let’s take a look at friendship in an American context.

In the English language, the term “friend” is used quite lightly. I’m meeting some friends for lunch can mean any number of things. You’re a good friend can mean anything from “thanks for being my best man in the wedding” to “thanks for opening the door”. I feel that we use the term “friend” somewhat freely. It can mean a classmate, coworker or even best friend. It’s all encompassing. It also doesn’t have any time-limitations. If you have only known the person for a month and you feel comfortable around them, then he or she can be classified as a friend. There’s no prerequisite for friendship. It trumps social class, age, and any other category.

By the same token, if said friend hits on your girlfriend at a party, you can drop him like an 8 o’clock French lit class. You don’t hate the guy but the friendship is over. Losing a friend can either be completely not a big deal to life-shattering.

Also, we don’t necessary need to keep up our friendships. Since junior high school, I have only keep in regular contact with one friend. Even then, we only hook up a few times a year for drinks. Yet, I consider him a close friend. Sure my situation may not be the standard but it certainly isn’t abnormal. When I run into friends from high school, I usually have a pleasant experience. We meet up, maybe go for a bite to eat, snap a photo, and part ways. No strong emotional connection but certainly a nice experience. It was good running into him.

In the Korean context, a friend is someone you trust. Like, for real. Someone whom you have a history with. As in, elementary school history. This person can generally do no wrong. When they do wrong, they’re still your friend. You feel connected to them. You served in the army together. You think of them often and make a point to let them know that you’re thinking of them. They require upkeep.

One must really take into consideration who they introduce themselves to. There’s a possibility of some real responsibility. Social networking sites like cyworld and facebook help maintain these friendships with regular “just-saying-hi” messages. Failure to leave these messages results in your Friendship meter going down. Oh, haven’t I explained the friendship meter? Well, have you ever played the Sims? Remember that little box at the bottom of the screen? Koreans have this little internal meter.

Korean Sim 정 Meter

uh oh. I put 정 on the meter next to friendship.

Alright now stop. Hammer time.

Now, is its own blog entry – and one that I will surely butcher. I have carefully avoided writing about 정 because it’s mad detailed and frankly, above my level of description. Even my roommate has trouble explaining it – in either Korean or English. Just know that it’s on my to-do list so expect an entry about it sometime around the next time Halley’s Comet passes by Earth. In the meantime, KC101 did a fine job of introducing the subject.

But Chinese typewriting aside, this friendship meter must be maintained. It may seem like an obvious statement but Korean friendships need to be maintained. I can speak for myself in that my American friendships need no or little maintenance. I feel free to come and go between friends without any repercussions or hey, why didn’t you call me? situations. Whereas in my Korean circle of friends, I must be conscious of their feelings. When I hang out with one friend, I build up our friendship meter (green). But, if a few weeks go by and I don’t call, text, hang out, or email, our friendship meter goes down (red).

This process occurs in real time with each individual friend.

The trade-off is that American friendships may seem a little wishy-washy and shallow to some Koreans and Korean friendships may seem like to much work to some Americans. In my own personal experience, I find that the Korean friendships are more meaningful and lasting. That isn’t to say that Americans don’t have lasting and meaningful friendships. Perhaps this is why I seek out more things Korean? Perhaps I have more in common with a Korean than a typical American? Perhaps the Sim meter exists in America but in a diminished capacity? I can’t help but recognize my own personal bias.

It’s touchy at best and messy at worst. Alls I can say is that hands down, the Korean idea of friendships is decidedly different.