Friendship can start anywhere, from classroom to the neighbor next door.
My very first Korean friends were the people I met in Japan during my study almost two decades ago.
They came from Seoul and Daegu. They were cool and exotic. They were very different from me. And they’re some of the kindest people I know my whole life.
When Yu Yu Jin, a good friend, classmate and apartment neighbor, returned to Korea, I was sad. Luckily, a few months later she invited me to Daegu and I stayed with her family after I visited Seoul.
We communicated through postcards, but then everything stopped when she and I moved to different cities for work.
I still have her address and I tried to locate her when I went to Korea for holiday. Her house had been completely demolished and replaced by a new apartment building.
So, there it was. The end of our friendship.
A decade later, my daughter and I joined a taekwondo dojang (academy) which is run by a Korean master with affiliation with Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo.
Out of 500.000 people living in my town, 10% of them are foreigners. Ninety percent of that number is estimated to be of South Korea nationalities. The rest is comprised of Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, American and European.
In the adjoining industrial complex, there are prominent Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hankook Tire, to name a few. There is also a special commercial complex dubbed the Korean Town by the locals.
There are a Korean school in my town, along with Korean supermarket, restaurant, karaoke, bakery, and cafe. Anywhere I turn, I will meet some Koreans.
They’re our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our restaurateurs, our vendors, etc. They came first as expatriates before their families join them. Then, they build factories, provide jobs, and grow as a community.
Intercultural friendship, business relationship, and even marriage are not unusual in my town. My family and I embrace it well because we once lived abroad and are friends with people from different nationalities.
The students of the taekwondo dojang are all Koreans, except for me, an Indonesian, and a French.
How do we communicate? By using minimum Indonesian, body language, and most importantly kind heart and good will.
The seonbae (senior) whom I call eonni (big sister) are helping me to adapt to the exercise routines and the senior-junior culture.
I can experience firsthand the culture I see in K-Dramas, what it means to be a hoobae (junior) under the care of my seonbae. They take me under their wings to teach and guide me.
I started doing taekwondo when I was 34 years old, so it was definitely not an easy task. I have never been keen on sport, but there’s elegance and beauty in taekwondo poomsae (defined pattern of defense-and-attack motions) that made me fall in love.
My seonbae help me in class. They also rooted for me on my first shimsa (examination). I was so nervous that I thought I would faint, but they distracted me by taking so many wefies that I forgot about my cold sweat.
After I passed the exam and advanced to yellow belt, they took picture with me to celebrate it. A seonbae, Yeong Sun eonni, even made me sikhye (traditional sweet Korean rice beverage) as a present.
Right after the shimsa, our dojang held a bazaar to gather money to buy taekwondo equipment. Everybody worked hand in hand, doing everything they could to contribute.
Since I can’t cook any Korean food, I volunteered to make the poster and flyer for the event. I also participated in making kimchi. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far.
What really warms my heart is how my friendship with the Korean people goes beyond our lessons in the dojang. They have become my eonni (big sister) and my chingu (friend), the people I hang out and converse with.
Before the pandemic, we would have lunch once a week, trying out the newest Korean restaurants in town. It’s apart from the monthly lunch we had with our sabeomnim.
My Korean friends are regulars in many Korean restaurants. From them I know where to find the freshest kimchi, the most savoriest naengmyoen, and the tastiest samgyetang, for example. Those are three of my favorite Korean food.
I also introduced them to Indonesian delicacies and snacks, like martabak telor. Believe it or not, they like Sundanese food because of the sambal (chili paste).
When I gave birth to my youngest child two years ago, they came bringing seaweed soup to revitalize my energy. Our children are in the same taekwondo class, so mothers and children are all friends.
The pupils of Taekwondo Cheon Ji In Dojang in Bekasi, Indonesia
Our countries have been friends since 1973. I have been friends with them since 2016 and it is still going strong.
Two of my classmates are now my bestfriends, my companions and confidantes. Even though we don’t see each other face-to-face nowadays, we still exchange news about each other’s lives.
Our dojang is now temporarily closed because of the emergency PPKM. I miss having taekwondo lesson, but I miss my Korean friends more.
I sincerely hope they’re doing well and staying healthy. I can’t wait to see them again once this pandemic is over.