17 In Korean learning journey (:

Being the foreigner noona 누나 / unnie 언니

I think I have always assumed people who read this blog has a pretty good idea about Korea/Korean. For the new learners, here’s a short explanation. Sorry, no romanization still. I don’t yield to that. ^^

언니: term used by female to refer to an older sister or close older female friend

오빠: term used by female to refer to an older brother or close older male friend

누나: term used by males to refer to an older sister or close older female friend

형: term used by males to refer to an older brother or close older male friend

As you may have read elsewhere, kinship terms and terms addressing people in Korea carry a lot of hidden meaning, nuances and the above explanations are the bare minimum. Using the wrong term can cause embarrassment, discomfort, anger, disrespect etc. Beware. Of course, the rules are more lax towards foreigners, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of it.

Being the foreigner ‘elder’ is really weird. Older Koreans are supposed to care for their dongsaengs and it’s common for the 오빠 to pay for the meal when dining out with a younger friend. The reasoning is that when the same person dines out with a older friend, the older friend will pay – so it kinds of even out?

So.. does that (and other nuances) apply to the foreigner noona / unni?

First, will they even accept you and call you that appropriately?

My experiences are mixed. Korean girls have no qualms calling me 언니. Guys.. they have some reservations. My 1 year younger guy friend told me openly that calling me 누나 is weird and thus call me 샤나. Another same age guy calls me 누나 at times and keep telling me ‘누나~~ 밥 사 줘’ (noona, buy me a meal). -.-

Do they attach the same expectations to the foreigner noona / unnie?

In my case. Not really. They treat you with the same respect – pour drinks for you, set the dining table etc but somehow I feel that Koreans do that for all foreigners.

How do I feel as a foreigner noona /unnie?

PROTECTIVE. hahaha. Weird. But I feel like I need to take care of my dongsaengs. I try to look out for them when I go out with them and especially if they start drinking a lot. O.o As for the guys, I just feel a sense of fondness for them. I don’t really have many younger guy friends and out of them, only some of them are close enough to call me noona or treat me as one.

But I don’t abide by the noona-should-pay idea. For the main reason that I’m a foreigner on a low budget in Korea.

But I’m super happy on the accepting end of the oppa-pay idea 😛

I think I will treat them for a meal if they come to Singapore. When I’m more of the host. My dongsaengs generally don’t expect that I pay in Korea.

It’s funny. I laugh whenever I’m addressed as noona. 😛 It’s weird. I don’t feel out of the place with unnie but noona is just… awwww. I’m super happy when my friends call me that. I feel accepted into their social circles.

Being the foreigner noona / unnie is awesome. You get the respect, the sense of closeness but none or little of the obligations that come with it.

What’s your experience? Do share 😀

sorry, can’t resist! 오빤 강남 스타일

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  • Reply
    에텔~♡ (@ethel1187)
    10 August, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    lol i havent heard anyone say that it’s weird to call me 누나 or 언니 before~ and being a 누나/언니 is fun cos u can boss the 동생 around kkk!

  • Reply
    10 August, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    Woah we were just talking about this a few minutes ago! You’re fast! I have oppas and it feels weird to call them ‘oppa’ so I made nicknames for them XD I’m totally fine with unni and I feel closer to them. Being called noona still feels weird yet it makes me smile.

    • Reply
      10 August, 2012 at 6:39 PM

      hahaha im fine with calling oppas hahaha. xD

  • Reply
    Xing Wei
    10 August, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    I like this post

  • Reply
    10 August, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    How interesting! Is the oldest oppa is the one who will pay? what if there is few same age oldest oppas? Do they spilt the bills among themselves? =]

    • Reply
      10 August, 2012 at 6:25 PM

      haha!!! wow you must be one lucky girl if you go out with a few oppas at one time ㅎㅎㅎㅎ mmm I guess it depends? I think they will split among themselves. xD or one guy will offer to pay your part of the meal xD

  • Reply
    11 August, 2012 at 12:47 AM

    Most of my Korean friends are older (because they’re mostly graduate students and I’m still an undergrad), so I’m fine use 언니/오빠 with them.
    Well, the only exception was when I first started at my lab and on the 3rd day, I asked the PhD student I’m working with if it was okay to call him 선배님. And he responded back “Oh, just call me 오빠.” Since it was only the 3rd day, it felt really awkward, so… I didn’t. [And on top of that, later one of the 언니s said I should call that 선배 as 삼춘 because of his age and that he was married. So in the end, in front of the 언니s I called him 삼춘 but since he preferred 오빠 I used that by the time I was comfortable with it.)
    I do have like… 1 or 2 younger Korean friends, and the first time I was called 언니 I was super happy.

    Because of having so many older friends, I am totally cool with the older people paying though XD

    • Reply
      16 August, 2012 at 12:38 PM

      hahaha!! thats an interesting story 😛

  • Reply
    Lucie Dvorakova
    11 August, 2012 at 1:17 AM

    I’ve always found the word “오빠” somewhat awkward to use. And it’s usually guys who immediately call me “누나” – this goes for penfriends. None of the girl penfriends have called me “언니”.
    How is it usually with paying in a group of friends? Is it always the oldest one who pays?

    • Reply
      16 August, 2012 at 12:39 PM

      mmm that’s interesting 😛 I always thought its easier for girls to call us 언니s.

      It’s not always the oldest one who pay, just usually. Especially if you have a group of young university students and one working adult and the age gap is big. Between a group of uni friends, they usually split the bill.

  • Reply
    16 August, 2012 at 1:06 AM

    i’ve never been a noona/unnie (yet) but i’ve been a dongsaeng quite a lot of times.. strange to say but while my friends want me to address them as unnie, i feel absolutely awkward at doing that :/ is it even normal?
    I don’t know, it feels like i want to interfere in their culture… ._.

    • Reply
      16 August, 2012 at 12:40 PM

      I dun think it’s interfering in their culture, but its a sign that they like you and want you to be a part of their group. ^^ I think you should try embracing it. Might sound awkward to you in the beginning (especially if your own culture is very different), but it’s an awesome experience

  • Reply
    5 November, 2012 at 1:24 AM

    Most of my classmates in Korea were foreigners or Koreans who wants to practice English so I don’t get (the luxury?) to be called 언니 or 누나 in school where I’ll probably be the oldest. But among my circle of friends (aka fans of Kim Sun Ah), even if I am not really the 막내, they treat me like one. Probably because I look AND act younger than my age, or probably because I’m the only student, or because I speak Korean like a kid OTL. When asked how old I am some would mutter 어! 언니. Shall I call you 언니? But they never did because I don’t ‘seem’ like an 언니. I can easily call the older girls 언니 but for some reasons I feel awkward to call the 오빠s 오빠 (though I badly want to call one of them as such! ㅋㅋㅋ). And as much as I want to be called 누나 no guy is younger than me. But in our university here in the Philippines there are a couple of Korean guys who call me 누나 all the time, anywhere. And I think it’s so cute of them! They started doing that when they learned I know Korean.

    • Reply
      5 November, 2012 at 11:40 AM

      ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ 누나 is such a cute form of address. it feels normal when younger girls form a sisterly friendship with older girls but guys doing the same thing is just… awww XD

  • Reply
    22 December, 2017 at 10:38 AM

    I have been called 언니 and 누나 but I must say I like the way 누나 sounds. It’s cute!
    Also I have a 언니 so I call her that. But 오빠 I don’t have enough confidence to say it to their faces.

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