A huge part of Korean culture consists of fake “family relationships” that people establish with their close friends and peers. If you have a friend who is older than you, you would refer to them as “big brother” or “big sister”, which there are four words for:
- 누나(noona) – “big sister” – boy addressing older girl
- 언니(eonni) – “big sister” – girl addressing older girl
- 형(hyeong) – “big brother” – boy addressing older boy
- 오빠(oppa) – “big brother” – girl addressing older boy
The last term, 오빠, is also used by girls to address their boyfriends. Even though it is very commonly used in non-romantic contexts as well as romantic contexts, I’ve always been rather paranoid about using the term and having guys think I have any sort of romantic interest in them. Of course, until recently, I never had any reason to use this word, so I don’t know why I was so paranoid.
Now, I have four close Korean friends, two older and two younger, so this name-calling conundrum is more applicable. I’m very wary of the fact that I am a non-Korean, so I don’t like the idea of just assuming that I can call these friends 오빠/oppa in conversation, but I’m also too shy/paranoid to say “Is it okay if I call you 오빠?” In order to circumvent this issue, I’ve just avoided calling them by their names altogether, which can sometimes be hard.
I’ve had two situations where the topic has been brought up by one of my friends. The first time was with my guy friend who is 2 years older than me. This is the exchange that happened over text, in a mixture of English and Korean:
also, you’re good teacher…. and friend… and 동생 ㅋㅋ [=little sister]
오빠라고 해라 [=call me oppa/big brother]
haha whatever you want
I don’t want… haha
At this point I wasn’t really offended, but slightly disappointed, I guess. When he first told me to call him 오빠, I got kind of excited. My first 오빠! Why wasn’t I allowed to call him 오빠? Was it because I was not Korean? Because it had flirty overtones?
Because I was curious, I straight-up asked him if it was because I was a foreigner, and he responded that it was because it sounds cheesy, because we are in America, and yes, probably partially because I’m not Korean. Nothing I can do about that.
So now I know how not to address him, but I’m still not really sure how I should address him. Since he is older, addressing him just by his name just feels…wrong, especially if we’re speaking Korean. So I’ve just kept on using the avoidance tactic and never call him by name.
The other situation was in person rather than over text. In a group, another one of my friends had asked my age, and then pointed out to one of my younger friends that I was his 누나/noona=older sister, so he should listen to me. Later, when we were studying together, he started to address me, hesitated, and said, “음… 누나라고 불러야 되나?” = “huh.. do I have to address you as noona now?” After the texting incident, I was super paranoid about my non-Koreanness, so I just said “그냥 마음대로 해” = “Just do what you feel like doing”. He thought about it for a few seconds, muttered “누나” thoughtfully to himself a few times, and then said he was just going to call me by my name. So once again, no “family” relationship.
Again, it’s not exactly that I’m offended, and I would never want people to call me (or be called) a name that makes them feel weird or uncomfortable for whatever reason. And it’s not that I believe that they don’t want to be friends with me, because whenever we meet up they all grin, wave, and shout out a Koreanized version of my name super cheerfully (“마디슨~~~!”/Mah-dee-sinnn!”). It just makes me feel like I’m different from the rest of the “group”, which I suppose I technically am.
Since I’m trying to make an effort to speak more Korean around my friends, maybe one of these days I’ll stop my “name-avoidance” technique and ask my other older friend what he wants me to call him, 오빠 or just his name. Several times he has admonished our younger friends to listen to me or treat me well since I was their 누나/older sister, so maybe he’ll be the first one to let me into his “family.”