I live abroad because I want to have an in-depth cultural experience in the country that I’m staying. I knew when I came to Korea that I didn’t want to just see the run-of-the-mill tourist destinations the country has to offer.. I want to dive into the depths of how the born and raised Korean really, truly lives. The best way that I’ve found to do that? Meet locals and make friends with them.
I know, it’s a bit easier said then done. Especially when you have, you know, that whole “language barrier” thing stopping you from befriending every stranger that walks by. But, I promise you there are ways around that. I actually have basically zero foreigner friends here in Korea. I manage to fill up my free time chowing down on traditional Koran food, catching the newest block-busters at the movies, and wandering Korea with a bunch of different local friends that I’ve made here. Besides, don’t you want to get to know the country with someone who actually knows the country?
I promise you, following those silly little guide books and trip advisor posts on the best places to visit and eat is not the way to truly find out what a city is like. It’s a sad, sad truth, but most of the time, the places that are boasted about in guide books are typically the least authentic places. They’re targeted specifically for tourists and are only focused on making money.
One of the best days of travel that I ever had was when I ventured to the traditional city in Andong with a bunch of Korean housewives. Yea, their English is quite limited– but they were lively and dead-set on showing me what Korea is really like outside of the cities. We all enjoyed the delicacies that Andong is known for, sipped traditional tea at the local university, swung on traditional style swings that I swore one of these ladies was going to fall off of and break a hip, and munched on Korean snacks the whole day. I basically took the best Korean-style day-trip and I had these ajummas to thank for it. Had I stuck with measly tour book and visited the city sans the lovely local ladies that accompanied me, I
probably definitely wouldn’t have had the same experience.
So here you and I are– stuck between, “Yea!! I want to meet some locals on my next trip!” and “But wait, how the hell do I do that!?” Well, lucky for you, I have plenty of experience in this sort of thing. So let me shed a little light on this subject..
How to meet locals when traveling
Take Any Opportunity You Get
I kid you not, I’ve been approached by random girls while I’ve been walking downtown in Korea. It happened a lot to me in China too, but those people mostly just wanted to take a photo of me *le sigh*. Here in Korea, they obsess over trying to improve their English. Yes, they have a bit of a hidden agenda but don’t we all? If someone local starts speaking English to you, whether they approach you or not, take that opportunity straight away! Strike up a conversation.; ask where they’re from, compliment their English, ask where they learned English, or you can compliment them on their damn shirt or whatever! My point is, think of something and don’t let them just casually pass by.. this is a great opportunity to meet locals!
This site is the holy mecca for meeting foreigns! Meetup.com is basically a place where people can make a place and time for people with the same interests or career paths to literally meet up in person. It’s based on city and miles from that city. You can literally find anything from a yoga class in the park, to cooking local cuisine, to language exchange meetups, to hiking local trails in the city. The possibilities are endless and this is one of the most ideal ways to ensure that you’ll meet some locals who speak the same language as you. I mainly use Meetup for yoga classes (travel ain’t gonna stop me from getting my downward dog on!), but now that I’m moving to Paris and will have more free time, I’m going to look into language exchange classes so I can parles francais more than just un petit peu. Membership is free too!! (Unless you want to start your own Meetup, I believe that costs some moolah).
Grab A Cup of Joe at a Coffee Shop
And then frequent that coffee shop. Why? You’ll start to get to know the owner well and maybe even see some other people that are constantly there. If someone starts to speak English with you, offer that they come sit with you + chat. Bam! You just made your first local friend. Make sure you choose a coffee shop you enjoy the vibe of and I insist that you skip out on entering any big chains. Trust me, local friends are made at local businesses. Don’t enjoy coffee?
(I pity you, oh so much) Grab some tea then! Green, herbal, or even a hot chocolate! Just go enjoy your time at a local place you can hangout at and for Christ’s sake.. Please look approachable! Having your arms crossed and looking like you just got dumped by boyfriend on the same day your boss decided to fire you is not the way to make friends!
Research, If You Can
Say you know you’re about to move to Chaing Mai and have several months before you do. Well, nowadays, we have this magical thing called the internet that can get us connected with people all over the world in an instant. It’s really quite amazing and I don’t know why people don’t utilize it more. Get online, research local forums, blogs, Facebook groups, and even #ChaingMai on Instagram and try connecting with people! I promise you, it’s not weird to meet friends online anymore. We live in a digital era.. this is how things work, people! Now, I’m not saying that you go meet your new virtual buddy at their house or in a small park tucked deep into the outskirts of town. But if you meet your new friend at a coffee shop near the heart of downtown, you’re safety is practically guaranteed. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to people! Say that you’ll be moving to their hometown soon and would love to meet up with someone who knows a bit about the city. Offer them a free coffee and I’m sure you’ll get a response.
Get To Know the Hostel/Hotel/Air BnB Owner
Chances are if someone started a hostel or hosting their place on Air BnB, it’s because they love meeting new people too! You don’t just start up a business where you’re basically meeting new people every day, if you have a fear of other human beings. So strike up a conversation with them! Ask them about their hobbies, their interests, what people do in the city for fun. Tell them from the get-go that you’re looking for more than a touristy visit to the city.. you want a real experience. If they don’t seem like the type of person you want to hangout with, or they just look way too busy to be going to grab dinner with a foreigner, then ask where you can go to meet locals! You’d be surprised by how much vast, in-depth knowledge these hostel and air bnb owners have.
Grab a Drink with your Coworkers
Are you an expat living abroad who works at a company that hires locals for certain positions? Then you are basically in a gold mine for making friends with locals. When I worked in China, I was in a company of about 100 employees. Only 5 of us were foreigners. What does that mean? Basically every interaction I had at my job was with a local Chinese person. Everyday I was able to go into work, get to know my co-workers more and more, and finally offer to go grab lunch or a coffee with them. In America, maybe it’s sometimes a little weird to try and grab drinks with your office mates, but when you’re a foreigner abroad, it’s basically expected. People understand you’re new and probably feeling a bit out-of-place. The locals in your office will most likely jump at the opportunity to go hangout with you some time.
Offer Tutoring Services
My last tip is actually kind of a double whammy if you decide to try it. Offer your tutoring services via word-of-mouth, Facebook groups, and blogs for the city your traveling/living in. These people are already dying to improve their English. If, after a couple of weeks, you offer to hangout with them outside of the tutoring classes, they will love it. Or, get creative like I did. When I lived in China, I privately tutored someone who was looking to move to the United States and wanted to improve his conversational English. He said that the location of the classes didn’t matter.. so I jumped on this. Each class was held at a different location. We went to a local Chinese tea garden, hit up a billiards hall, frequented some dessert cafes, and chowed down on some bomb.com Korean BBQ. Not only was I getting paid to tutor this guy, but I was also getting to hangout with a local and see the city at the same time! Score!
Do you have a great travel story that happened with a local? Share it in the comments!!