Koreans in the UAE
You-Mee Kim, a nurse at Abu Dhabi's Cleveland Clinic (center), with Namho Kwon, a Taekwondo coach (far left) with their friends, fellow Korean expats, Jae Heon Choo, Jae Hyuk Choi, Nahee Kim and Minjin Lee. Image Credit: Supplied

Craving kimchi, epic K-dramas, and the warm buzz of fellow Koreans? The UAE's vibrant Korean expat community has it all! Over a decade, they've built communities of shared experiences, laughter-filled playgrounds, and friendly competition. Dive into their stories and discover how the UAE became a home away from home for Koreans.

‘You need to become friends with Korean mums'

“I think most Korean friendships here begin with fellow mothers,” laughs E-Wha Kim, manager PR and Media at Korean Cultural center, Abu Dhabi, UAE. The playground becomes a common ground for finding Korean friendships, as she says. “You need to become friends with Korean mums,” she says. “They’ll all share important information about everything together, so you’re always in the loop,” says Kim, who has an eight-year-old son. Yet, this chatty group of Korean mothers provides much camaraderie and companionship to people like Kim, who might find the move to a new country a tad overwhelming.

Min-jun Lee, an Abu Dhabi-based homemaker echoes this sentiment. Lee, who arrived in the UAE three years ago, bonded with Korean mothers at her daughter’s school over the love of food. “We discuss new recipes every day; we talk about all our favourite dishes and how we can make it here,” she says. “I think all of us mothers just love food so much, so we get excited, and our children have to tell us that it’s time to go home. We now have a foodie WhatsApp group that we created at the playground itself,” she recalls with a chuckle.

We meet every day after school at the playground near the school. We talk about dinner menus, education and more. We have our own WhatsApp group.

- Doyoun Kim, teacher at the Korean school of Abu Dhabi

They try to meet at least once a month, where they cook and bake together. “On my birthday, we all made Ddukbokki, which is a spicy rice cake, and Bibim Nengmyun, a form of cold noodles,” she says, with a rather blissful sigh.

Korean moms enjoy bonding over delicious food, that includes traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap: rice with vegetables and beef. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There’s inexplicable warmth about meeting other mothers that sweeps barriers away. In the case of Doyoun Kim, a teacher at the Korean school of Abu Dhabi, the conversations tend to go beyond food and recipes. “We meet every day after school at the playground near the school,” she says. This little group’s topics of conversation cover a wide range, including discussing the dinner menu, to serious discussions on education, in general.

Doyoun Kim often meets the mothers of her child's friends for quick brunches over the weekends. Image Credit: Supplied

Doyoun just doesn’t restrict herself to befriending the mothers: She’s found friendships in different pockets, including fellow teachers at the Korean school of Abu Dhabi as well as people from her yoga class. The weekends are packed with brunches, coffee dates, lunches, with conversations on life in Abu Dhabi, mental, physical health and their children, she says.

While the friendships between mothers is one way of finding Korean communities in the UAE, others found their people with a little help from sports communities and other forms of cultural exchanges.

Friendships built through sports

Korean expat You-Mee Kim (center) with her friends Myung Oh Ra and Hye Won Park. Image Credit: Supplied

A little football. Some golf. A lot of tennis, baseball and Taekwondo.

It’s true for You-mee Kim, who arrived in 2018, “without any knowledge” of the UAE. As she puts it, she and her husband “just packed up” without much information and arrived in Abu Dhabi. “No friends. No information. So, our survival instincts kicked in and we looked for our community here,” she says. After making friends at church, the networks collectively grew. “We are quite active people, so we found golf and tennis communities,” she says. Their tennis community meets once a week, along with golf. “I’m still learning how to play golf,” adds You-mee, rather abashedly, revealing that the sport is quite popular back home.

Nevertheless, these matches are never too competitive; the point of all these communities is for people who wish to learn, explains You-mee, who is a nurse at the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

Sometimes, it’s more than just the game. It doesn’t matter if you know the game or not. And if there’s food in the mix, what else matters? Ha-rin Kim, a Dubai-based Korean expat who regularly attends Korean football matches, just attends for the sake of handing out food to the audience. “The point is to be together, and have fun,” she says with a chuckle, revealing that she specially packs galbi ribs, and Korean takeaways from restaurants to bring for her Korean friends. “Everyone looks forward to it,” she says.

Meanwhile, Namho Kwon, a Taekwondo coach, has different plans that involve sports with his friends. They’re all busy, but they ensure that the weekend is a good time to play. He enjoys a wide range of sports in the UAE, and actively seeks out friends to make plans on the weekends. “I love football, baseball, tennis and cricket,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the thought of the games. Baseball is a serious business: There are league matches every week.

Namho Kwon arrived in the UAE back in 2012, with the aim of promoting Taekwondo in the country. Image Credit: Supplied

‘The family we choose’

For You-mee, a good, thrilling game ends with unwinding at each other’s houses, over much food and laughter. It cements the sense of community, as she feels. “We are trying to find our home away from home. By going to people’s houses,” she says frankly. “We cook together or buy food together, and just generally spend time together.”

Korean expats
You-Mee Kim (from right), Nam Ho Kwon (center), with their families, and friends from church, as well as their sports matches. Image Credit: Supplied

You-mee is also grateful for these groups that she found through sports: It goes beyond just games. They get to celebrate special Korean festivals too, including the Lunar New Year. “It means something to spend those special moments together, with these families that we choose, as our real families are far away,” she says.

Competition and camaraderie are just a few aspects of building the Korean community in the UAE. There’s also a strong desire for cultural exchange: A two-way street where Koreans learn together about the UAE and get to share their culture with others.

The UAE Chingus

UAE chingus
Jiyeon Song, Julia Gonzalez Mendez, a Spanish expat and Shaikha Alsuwaidi, an Emirati, decided to kickstart their own meetup group: UAE Chingus Image Credit: Supplied

In this spirit of community and out of love for Korean culture and language, Jiyeon Song, Julia Gonzalez Mendez, a Spanish expat and Shaikha Alsuwaidi, an Emirati, decided to kickstart their own meetup group: UAE Chingus, a word that means friends in the Korean language.

It intends to serve several purposes: A space where Koreans get together and learn about other cultures, as well as where others can learn about Koreans. “We would like people to connect with each other and be able to exchange cultures and languages,” explains Shaikha. “The reason for that is we figured out that as much as other people are interested in Korea, Koreans too have voiced out that they are interested in other cultures and would like to connect,” she says.

What are Yut Nori and Jegichagi?
What is yut-nori?
It is a traditional Korean family board game, which is played mostly during the Lunar new year. Yut-nori, is also known as yunori, nyout, yoot, cheok-sa or sa-hee. It is believed that yut-nori, is played since The Three Kingdoms (57 BCE- 668 CE), but it is imprecise. Yut-nori, consists of a board, 4 yut sticks, and 8 small tokens - 4 for each team. The board, is called ‘malpan’.
Information Courtesy: ccorea.com

What is Jegichagi?
Jegichagi is a Korean traditional outdoor game in which players kick a paper jegi into the air and attempt to keep it aloft. A jegi is similar to a shuttlecock, and is made from paper wrapped around a small coin. In Korea, children usually play alone or with friends in winter seasons, especially on Korean New Year.
Information Courtesy: Wikipedia

There is a careful balance between the three organisers. Song, who runs a book club, answers the questions on Korean language and culture in the group. Mendez, who has a fascination for Korea, assists with venue scouting. “I understand both UAE and Korean cultures, so I connect between them,” says Shaikha. The group is still in its early stages, however, they are intent on spreading more awareness on Korean food, culture, music, films and beauty.

UAE chingus
The UAE Chingus is a space where Koreans get together and learn about other cultures, as well as where others can learn about Koreans. Image Credit: Supplied

Intending on making the space a ‘second home for Koreans’, the Chingus host events often, the most popular being the Lunar New Year celebrations, known as Seollal, in February. A picnic was organised at the Dubai Creek Park, where they played games of Yut Nori and Jegichagi. It was not just for Koreans, many other nationalities attended the celebrations too.