Ugh. Hibernation is coming to an end as spring descends upon Seoul. That means I must leave the warmth and comfort of my cave, venture outside and make some new friends. Much easier said than done considering that this place is like a desert for like-minded western females in their late twenties and early thirties. Growing and maintaining those friendships is even harder as other westerners are so transient here. It’s happened to me many times before: you meet a really cool girl and invest in the friendship and then a few months later, they are gone. Transience is a defining factor of expat relationships.
While I do cherish the relationships I have with my close, long-term friends who are scattered all over the world, email and Facebook doesn’t capture all the nuances and complexity of face-to-face interactions. It can be superficial and often doesn’t occur in real time. Thank god for Skype, but then it requires a lot of planning to find a mutually convenient time. Blah.
So back to Korea. There is a feeling of not quite fitting in – I don’t have any reason to hob-nob with the diplomats or corporate executives whose housing allowances is almost twice my entire salary. I have tried to hang out with the Ladies Who Lunch, but that was just awkward (“I’m sorry, but the reflection off your $10,000 Tiffany diamond ring is hurting my eyes”). The 22-year-old-straight-outta-college set is hit or miss and they’re more interested in partying than anything else. I just can’t keep up with the spritely whippersnappers.
I am lucky, though, to have found a sense of community and met some really awesome individuals in my Capoeira group. Apart from just being cool and interesting, there are ivy league degree holders, U.N. employees, scholars, actors, musicians, teachers, students, business people and an adorable 12 year old Russian boy. When the uniform is on, life outside of the academy disappears and everyone is treated with equal respect. It is like a sanctuary where connecting through the art trumps ever asking the question, ‘so what do you do?’ I have also made some excellent Korean friends which helps tremendously. However, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, and I must diversify my friend portfolio.
What this requires is hardcore prioritizing and being crazy-proactive. This is hard for me as I am a classic introvert – on Saturday nights I would much rather curl up with a book than go to a party, bar or club. However, one cannot befriend a book (believe me, I’ve tried), and so, it is with much dread and trepidation that I attempt to get my friend on.
I don’t have a clear-cut strategy yet, apart from being that girl who is overly-friendly, enthusiastic, and borderline sycophantic at social gatherings and asks, way before it is appropriate, if my potential friend would like to go on a girl-date with me sometime.
Science would also encourage me to make more friends because people with more friends live longer (it’s true, you can read about it here). And as usual, anthropology brings in an interesting perspective.
See, I read about the importance of friendship in a cute account of one woman’s search to meet one new woman a week for a year. This woman is Rachel Bertsche, who lives in Chicago, and who had moved there for her husband. She struggled to meet people and make new friends and so took a typically American approach (and by American, I mean extreme). She writes that:
‘It all goes back to the chimps. When British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was studying the behaviours of primates in 1993, he noticed their social groups were generally limited in size. Chimps, for example, could not maintain tribes of more than 50. For any species of nonhuman primates, Dunbar found the “mean group size is directly related to relative neocortical volume.” In English, he’s saying the size of your brain determines how many relationships you an maintain. Chimps can have about 50 friends. Since human brains are bigger, we can keep up a wider social network. The exact number Dunbar proposed was 148.4, but the Dunbar Number, as it has come to be known, is 150.’
So, I think that what she is saying is that my social network can be 150. Indeed, by the end of her book, when she did the math, when she included all her new, established friendships, she also had this amount. At a quick guess, I think I would need at least thirty new people for my network…hmmm, there are still more than thirty weeks left in the year. No, I won’t go there. Until I have my strategy laid out, I will go and read a book.