Conversations With Koreans: Wait, we aren’t friends?
“Thank you”, “Hello”, “Give me… please” and a few other words and phrases are among a handful of words that foreigners just in Korea learn and among them is often the word chingu (친구), translated loosely as “friend”.
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Foreigners splice this word into their English sentences without hesitation and use it seemingly without understanding exactly what it means. This is probably one of my least favorite words in Korean and I’ll explain why.
Some years ago, I was taking Korean lessons four days a week for four hours each day. I was devouring as much as I could of the language because I was dating a Korean man, most of my friends were Korean and of course I was living in Korea and I wanted to make life just a bit easier. Before taking the classes, I was hesitant and weary of what I perceived as forced respect within the rules of the language, parts of the language that force me to show a respect that I may not have for someone. Just because people are older doesn’t mean they always deserve respect and at that point I’d been in enough situations to know that quite a few, usually, men just assumed that I should be respectful of them even though they disrespected me in numerous ways. Through the classes, I learned how to show my disapproval when being disrespected without being downright rude and I learned how to be more assertive in Korean. One of the biggest lessons I learned, however, was that I have almost no “friends” in Korea. (From here on out “friend” in parenthesis will be the Korean form of friend while a freestanding friend will be the English version.)
My husband, boyfriend at the time, and I decided to have a get together at our house and invited our close Korean friends. There were about 10 of us around the table and I was the only foreigner in the place. At this point, I’d known my boyfriend and all of his friends for a good four or five years and in my native tongue, I would call them my friends. After the food was finished and the plates picked up, I thought a game would be fun. Taking what I’d learned from class on how to call someone by name, I said, “So-yung-a, do you want to play a game?” (소영아, 게임 하고싶어?) using the lower form of the language. I had been gaining confidence with the language and using it whenever I could. There was an audible gasp and after a few seconds of silence, So-yung said, “yes,” but two of the more aggressively conservative members of the group told me I couldn’t say “So-yung-a” to So-yung.
Me: Why not?
Friend 1: So-yung is older than you are.
Friend 2: You can’t say “So-yung-a” because you’re younger than she is.
Me: We’re friends though.
Friend 1: No, you’re not friends with So-yung.
Me: What do you mean? I’ve known her for years. I have her phone number in my phone. I see her a lot. We are friends and my book says that is an appropriate ending for a friend.
Friend 2: No, you can’t be friends because she is older than you are.
Me: I don’t understand what you’re saying.
Friend 1: You can only be friends with someone that is the same age as yourself.
Me: Well, that doesn’t make any sense. You are all my friends and you are all older than I am.
Friend 1: We aren’t your friends.
After that I went to my room for a little cry mostly because I was just told I had no friends and also because the language they were using to express their viewpoint was very aggressive and I don’t handle aggressive situations very well. Coming from a teaching viewpoint, aggressively attacking a student for using a word or a term inappropriately almost never makes the student respond in a positive way. Usually, the student will become more timid to use the language or try to use words in the future unless they’re completely sure of their meaning. I also reminded my “friends” later that I don’t attack them when they misuse a word, if it’s extremely rude, I remind myself that it’s not their first language and I try to help them understand why it could be taken the wrong way. My “friends” however, were not so patient with my language acquisition. Though I had excitingly read through my lesson books and went through discussions in my class, I had taken some things and words in the book for granted not realizing they didn’t mean what I had assumed they meant. Two of the more tolerant members of our group came in to calm me and explain in nicer terms what everyone had gotten so upset about.
For starters, when you call someone in Korea by name, you almost never say just their name. There is always a title attached to the ending. Koreans allow foreigners to use just a name without any ending because they know we’re coming from the West where that is acceptable, but in Korea, technically, you end a name with some title. For example, So-yung would be called So-yung-si. “-Si” is the title attached to her name when it’s being called out. If she has a more specific title, like manager or teacher, then that title would be switched in, though then her last name would be used instead of her first as in my example. If you’re “friends” with someone instead of saying the more formal “-si” you can attach “-a” to a name ending with a consonant or “-ya” to a name ending with a vowel. The book explained, “it is used in talking to someone who is junior to the speaker, or to someone who is on familiar terms with the speaker.” I made the assumption that familiar terms encompassed So-yung and I who had known each other for years and were very familiar with each other. It did not.
The next assumption I made was that “friend”, a word I had heard over and over and had used from my very first year in Korea, meant what it means in English. It does not. Chingu is only used with people of the same age in Korean. You can be friendly with older people or younger people, but you will never be their friend. Instead of using the term friend for older or younger people, Koreans use terms like older brother (형/ 오빠) and younger brother (동생). This was a bit more difficult for me to grasp and to be honest I still haven’t. No matter how much of the language or customs I learn, I will still be from the West and there will still be some things that I can’t give up and don’t want to. The idea that I can be friends with people young and old is one of those ideas, I also find it difficult to call people brother and sister when they aren’t. After this situation, I had discussions with my husbands friends, who are all older than I am by almost a decade, and asked each one of them what would make them more comfortable. Could I use the lower form of the language with them? Knowing I wasn’t coming from a place of disrespect but from a place of familiarity and closeness many of them said the lower form was just fine. I am more aware of the language discrepancy now however, and when we are out with mixed company, friends and people I don’t know yet, I will usually use the polite form with my friends because I know the unfamiliars may not understand where I’m coming from and may find me disrespectful.
I have had to remind Korean friends and acquaintances that though I’m speaking Korean, I’m still coming from a western mindset and so some of the things that I say easily or openly may not be what Koreans would normally say, but I think that should be expected. Often it seems when I switch into Korean, listeners seem to assume I also take on a Korean mentality, though I do not. Now, whenever I hear a foreigner splice the word chingu into their sentence, I cringe thinking they have no idea what they’re saying and wondering when they will end up in the same awkward predicament I did when I realized I have no Korean “friends”.