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Korea: Eating Alone and Loneliness

In a major newspaper, there was a column about eating alone.

“Eating alone, you should be strong.”

Citing the script of a movie, Hope Floats, the columnist says how difficult eating alone is and especially in Korea. After the column, there is a compilation of how bloggers think about the issue.
A Japanese blogger who lives in Korea talks about her experience.

근데 여러 식당 안을 들여다봤는데 뭔가 이상하게 느꼈다. 가게는 사람으로 들끓고 있는데 그 중에서 나처럼 혼자서 먹는 사람이 단 한명도 없었던 것이었다. 다 2명이상 8명 이하의 단체 손님들이었다. 게다가 어떤 식당에는 서양사람같이 생기는 사람도 있었는데 개인주의로 유명한 서양사람조차 한국사람들과 수다를 하면서 재미있게 먹고 있었다.
‘아—나 혼자였지…아—부대찌개 먹고 싶었는데…’
잠시 음식냄새에 미쳐 오늘 내가 혼자라는 걸 깜빡하고 있었다.
‘그렇다면 어쩔 수 없지…그냥 빵이나 사서 먹어야겠다.’
나는 빵집에 가서 빵을 사서 근처 벤치에서 혼자 앉아 먹었다. 근데 역시 뭔가 이상한 느낌이 들었다. 혼자서 벤치에서 맛있는 빵을 먹고 있었는데 배가 너무나 고파서 뭘 먹어도 맛있는 터인데 왠지 빵이 맛이 없고 게다가 기분까지 쓸쓸하고 외롭게 되었다. 그래서 더 이상 먹지 않고 반만 먹은 빵을 가방에 넣고 나는 빨리 집으로 돌아갔다.
여러명이서 밥을 먹는 다는게 얼마나 좋을 일이었는지 밖에서 혼자서 먹어보고 처음으로 알았다. 한국에 온지 얼마 안 되었을 때에는 ‘어른이 혼자서 왜 밥을 못 먹어?’라고 자랑스러운 듯한 얼굴로 한국 친구들한테 말하며 혼자 밥도 못 먹는다고 놀렸다. 그때는 친구들과 먹으면 내가 식당을 정할 수도 없고 왠지 신경이 쓰이고 해서 남들이 어떤 시선으로 보내던지 말던지 혼자서 먹는게 편했는데…지금은 나도 모르는 사이 어느새 혼자서 먹기 싫어진 것이었다.
‘음… 한국사람들 말대로 역시 밥은 여러 명과 같이 먹어야지 맛있다…’
한국에 오기전까지는 이런 생각이 들지도 않았는데 가족과 떨어져 한국에 오고 나서 한국사람의 식문화를 보고 가족이나 친구들과 함께 하는 밥 한끼 한끼의 소중함을 느끼게 된다.

…I found a strange scene. There are so many people in restaurants, but no one was eating alone. All of them from 2 to 8 eat together. In some restaurants, I found several Western people. Even those people are eating with Koreans and chatting together.
‘right… I’m alone… I want to eat Budae soup’ (a kind of Korean soup usually shared by several people).
Because I was so hungry, I forgot I was alone.
‘then… I’d better eat bread.’
I bought bread in a bakery and ate alone on a bench. I still felt strange. I should have felt good eating delicious bread, but the bread was not so delicious and I even felt lonely and sad. Giving up finishing the bread, I went back home in a hurry.
I realized how good it is to eat together after eating alone. After I stayed in Korea for a while, I mocked Korean friends proudly, ‘why can’t you adults alone?’ At that time, I was not comfortable going to restaurants with friends because I couldn’t choose the restaurant and had to be concerned about other people. Now I don’t want to eat alone.
‘hm… maybe eating together is much yummier like Koreans said.’ Before I moved to Korea, I haven’t thought about it. But now I feel how precious the time eating with friends and family is.

What do you think about when you eat alone? Here is a blogger to talk about life.

혼자먹는 밥…
밥을 같이 먹는다는 건 삶을 같이 한다는 것
이제 뿔뿔이 흩어진 사람들은 누구도 삶을 같이 하려 하지 않는다.
나눌 희망도 서로 힘돋워 함께 할 삶도 없이
단지 배만 채우기 위해 혼자 밥먹는 세상. 밥 맛 없다. 참 살 맛 없다.

A meal eaten on one’s own…
To eat together means to have lives together.
People who are dispersed don’t want to have lives together anymore.
Without hope to share and lives to encourage each other, now people eat alone in order to fill their stomaches. There is no taste for the meal. There is no taste for life.

Growing up in a family and being independent as an adult… it would be a passage rite anywhere. You can see the change through how many bowls on your table you had in your childhood and how many now.

혼자 밥을 먹어보고 싶을때가 있었다.
할머님 숭늉, 아버님 반주, 어머님 물, 시누이 도시랑 시중에 파한 밥상머리에 앉아 먹었던 식어버린 밥이 싫었다. 내가 원하는 시간에, 따끈한 된장찌개, 갓 끓여낸 조개탕, 김 오르는 밥을 먹고 싶었다. 삼년 째 혼자서 밥을 먹는 친구 연숙이를 부러워한적도 있었다.
이미 밥통에서 누렇게 말라붙은 한 공기와 보리차한컵과 시어터진 김치조각 밥에 걸쳐놓은 밥상,
때마침 날아든 친구의 안부 메세지에 혼자 밥 먹으며 무슨 생각을 하느냐는 말에 반찬 신경쓰이지 않아 좋다는 답장 보내놓고 보리차만 들이킨다.
홀로일 수 밖에 없는 식사가 어떤지를끼니마다 혼자 밥을 먹어보고서야 식탁 갓등을 오래 켜놓아 본 후에야
조금은 알아지는 것이다.

There was a time I would like to eat by myself. I didn’t like cold rice after grandparents-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. I wanted to have a meal when I wanted to have with hot beancurd soup, shellfish soup, and hot rice. There was a time when I was even jealous of my friend who has had meals alone for three years.
A bowl of rice that got already dry, a cup of hot tea, and pieces of sour kimchi.
After my friend sent a message asking how I feel eating alone now, I replied it’s good I don’t have to worry about what to eat, but gulped a cup of hot tea on and on.
Now I’m getting to realize how I feel eating alone since I eat alone every time.

Or you can find some philosophical thought through the experience.

나는 종종 허름한 국밥집에 혼자 들어가 앉아 있는 것을 좋아한다. 가령 비가 부슬부슬 온다거나 심란한 저녁이거나 뜬금없이 국밥이나 소주가 생각날 때 사람이 붐비지 않는 국밥집에서의 소박한 식탁은 꽤 오래된 습관처럼 자연스럽다. 친구는 이 유서 깊은 청승을 만류하는 편이지만 거기 해장국집이나 순대국집 구석에 앉아 주인이 틀어 놓은 텔레비전을 별 감흥 없이 보거나 지난 신문들을 뒤적이며 뜨거운 국물에 밥을 말아 한 입 두 입 넘기는 일은 생각보다 쓸쓸하지도 군색하지도 않다. 곽재구는 포구기행에서 혼자 먹는 밥맛을 아는 사람은 예술가가 아니면 육체 노동자라고 말하며….밥맛, 특히 혼자 먹는 밥맛의 깊이에 대해 잠시 골똘해지는 밤이다.

I often like to go to a shabby restaurant and sit alone. In a drizzling day or a night in anxiety, having temptation to have a cup of soju and soup rice, it is so natural to head to a restaurant like my old habit. Even though my friends detain my habit, it is not bad to sit there and scoop hot soup and rice. Without any thought, my fingers check each page of newspapers and my eyes follow the TV screen that the restaurnat owner chose…. Author Kwak Jae-gu wrote in his book that people who know the taste of a meal eaten alone are artists or physical laborers…. The taste of the meal, it is the night I can ponder the depth of the taste of the meal eaten alone….

Or a simple experience anyone must face.

입사이후 나의 최대 고민은 ‘점심을 누구랑 같이 먹는가?’ 하는 것이었다. 남들은 ‘점심을 무엇을 먹을까?’ 하는 것이 제일 고민이라 하던데…
업무가 대기업하청이고 업무 특성상 사무실에 그것도 독립 공간안에 파견을 나와있다보니 자연스레 발생하는 일인 것 같다..나의 이런이야기를 전해 들은 친구들은 아주 간단히 말한다..
“남들 밥 먹으러 갈때 같이 가면 되지… 누가 오지 말라고 말리냐?”
하긴 누가 말리진 않지… 하지만 사나이 대장부가 굶었으면 굶었지 눈치밥을 먹을 순 없지 않은가…
대부분의 사람들이 식사를 하면서 뭘 하는가? 온갖 잡담이 다 나온다. 회사에서 하는 업무가 전혀 다르다 보니 그들의 대화에도 낄 수가 없다는 것이 나를 더 그들의 식사에 끼는 것을 힘들게 한다… 눈치는 보며 겨우 밥을 다 먹긴했는데 안 일어서고 잡담들을 지네들끼리는 아주 즐겁게 나누는데 계산을 할 ㄳ도 아니면서 먼저 일어나 나가기도 그렇고, 사실 그 식사자리의 밥값을 어떻게 계산 할 것인지도 모르는 경우가 많다…
이게 뭐하는 짓인가 싶어… 특별한 경우가 아니면 점심은 가능하면 혼자 해결한다.
점심시간에 회사근처 식당에 가서 혼자 밥을 먹기란 쉬운 일이 아니다. 식당 주인들도 싫어하는 눈치다. 그래서 나는 항상 회사 식사시간보다 한시간 늦은 오후 1시에 식당을 간다…
어딘가 책에서 읽은 적이 있는데.. ‘혼자 밥 먹지 못하는 자 성공할 수 없다.’

After I started working, one of the biggest anguishes was “with whom shall I eat lunch?” even though others worry “what shall I eat for lunch?”
My job is in a sub-contracting company and I’m dispatched to an independent space in an office. So my worry is natural. Listening to my problem, my friend said,
“When other people go out to have lunch, just follow them… they’re not gonna block you.”
Right, that’s true. But as a man, I don’t want to check how other people think. I’d rather be hungry…
What do other people do while they eat? There are so many gossips going around. My job is different from theirs, so I can’t intervene in their conversations. It makes things much harder for me. Regardless of finishing my meal, they don’t stand up and they start chatting with each other. There are so many cases of whether I have to leave first and then I have to be concerned about how I have to pay…
What am I doing here? If there are no special cases, I eat alone. It’s not easy to eat alone at restaurants near companies. Restaurant owners don’t like it either. So I head to the restaurant at 1 pm, one hour after the regular lunch time….
I remember that there is a book…
‘People who don’t eat alone can’t succeed.’…

But some bloggers try to find advantages through it.

…우리나라는 조금 이상해서, 혼자 밥을 먹으면 굉장히 이상한 눈으로 쳐다봅니다.
심지어 ‘부끄러워서 혼자먹을 바에는 굶어요'하는 사람도 굉장히 많습니다.
(사실 저도 그랬습니다만…언제부터인가 그냥 먹습니다)
그런데 이런 마음가짐이면 3박4일동안 굶고 다녀야 합니다. 그럴수는 물론 없죠.

게다가 혼자 밥 먹는 것도 나름대로 좋은점이 있습니다.
느긋하게 다른사람 신경 안쓰고 먹을 수 있다는 것, 내가 고른 밥이 맛이 없어도
미안해할 상대방이 없다는 것, 마음에 안들면 들어가자마자 나올 수도 있다는 것 등이죠…

물론 같이 밥먹을 수 있는 사람이 있으면 즐겁습니다. 다만 그게 안될때가 있고,
그럴때에 혼자 먹는 것에 대하여 부담을 가지면 안된다는 이야기랍니다.
괜히 억울해 할 필요도 없고 ‘으흑 나는 친구도 없나봐’ 할 필요도 없어요.

이왕 다닐거면, 혼자먹는 것에 신경쓰지 말고,
즐겁게 먹으면서 다니도록 합시다!

p.s 혼자서 밥을 먹는걸 이상하게 본다는 이야기는
  혼자 밥을 먹으러 가서 ‘몇분이세요?”라고 할때 ‘혼자요'라고 하면
  종업원이 보통 이상한 눈으로 봐서 그렇답니다

…People in our country give strange looks to people who eat alone. There are even a lot of people saying, ‘I’d better starve rather than eat by myself.’ (Actually, I was like that too, but since some time, I have started eating alone). If you have this tmind, you might starve for three nights and four days. But it’s impossible as you know.

And eating alone has also advantages. You can eat slowly without concerning other people. Even though the food you chose was so bad, you don’t have to feel guilty toward others. Once you don’t like the restaurant that you choose, you can get out right away.

Of course if you have company to eat with, it is more joyaful. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. When you have to eat alone, you don’t have to feel streeful. You don’t have to feel anxious and don’t have to say, ‘I don’t have friends.’

Don’t take eating alone so seriously. Just enjoy your food…

p.s The reason why we feel that people give a strange look to the person eating alone is because when we go to restaurant, the waiter (waitress) asks ‘how many?’ and when we answer ‘one,’ she (or he) gives the strange look.

5 comments

  • mahathir_fan

    Eating alone is like masturbation.

    But sometimes when you don’t have a partner, its just something you got to do. Just enjoy it and don’t think too much. It is healthy and relaxing.

    After you are married for a long time, you might actually rather like to do it alone.

    So don’t worry too much for now. Enjoy doing it alone while you still can. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do it with your life partner in a few years time.

  • Dbird

    I have always been curious about why Koreans seem to eat in big groups–seldom even as couples. I usually eat alone and often I prefer it. If not alone, then I like to eat with one other person who shares something of my taste and approach to food, and with whom I can have a conversation. Group dining seems hardly dining at all to me.

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  • scott

    Eating in couples or groups at restaurants is one of the main customs of the culture. Many restaurants and beer hofs will not serve a solo person, Korean or foreigner. This presents a confusing problem for many foreigners who live in isolation or who only have chances to join others on rare occasions. It’s common though that Korean co-workers go out to eat dinner most nights, but if you are male such as many English teachers who work in an all female workplace of Korean teachers, they won’t go out for samgyeopsal, beer, and soju often since they have things to tend to at home. So this leaves most foreigners to eat alone after work. I do eat alone in a Homeplus cafe court since no one stops you, where you look at plastic meals in a glass case, give the order # to a cashier, get your food from one of the kitchens, and sit down. I do notice that several people will walk by and bump my chair, seemingly on purpose.

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