Before coming to Korea, I never thought twice about eating alone. In a typical day, I have a very different schedule from that of my friends, and so naturally I would eat most or even all meals by myself. That just made sense.
Here, however, it’s a different story. In Korea, it can be seen as sad and almost pitiful to eat alone. Eating is seen as something to be done in a group. With friends, family, or on a date, you should be joined by at least one other person while eating any meal out in public. It’s part of how the community is structured.
Of course this is changing, and it’s becoming more acceptable to eat alone at restaurants (you have to be clear when you order, or else you will get served enough food for at least two people), but the majority of the time people prefer to eat together. What does this mean for the foreign English teacher? It means that I have lunch with the entire school in the cafeteria every day.
Some friends of mine have opted out of school lunches and chosen to pack their own lunches, and often their coworkers will be understanding (maybe the foreigner has dietary restrictions or doesn’t really like Korean food), but said coworkers are culturally predisposed to think that the foreigner is almost burdened by their company. The teacher I replaced packed her lunch and ate it at her desk during her second semester at my school, and I cannot tell you how long it took for my coworkers to get over the fact that I genuinely like Korean food, and I am still trying to convince them that I do not feel tired from talking to them.
Lunch in the cafeteria is a sort of show every day as the foreign teacher. Each school is a little different, but in my case I sit at a table for subject teachers and administrative workers that is right next to the lines of students getting food. Every day, I sit down to eat my food, and am greeted by a never-ending line of hungry students who want my attention. They are cheerful and lovely, but I can’t help but feel a little too on display, almost like a zoo animal.
Besides my daily lunch, I have a dinner with my office at least once a month, and a dinner with the whole school’s staff at least twice a semester. At these dinners, everyone is concerned about how much I eat, how I eat (no, I don’t need a fork, thank you), if the food tastes alright to me, and, oh yeah, how much I eat.
Aside from the chopstick concern, which they’ve all gotten past, these are all very normal comments for Koreans to make to each other. Typically, a Korean person will make quite a few sounds and a couple of comments about the taste of their food. It’s a type of etiquette. And older people will tell the younger people to eat more, and even put food on their plate. It’s just considerate.
I want to stress that I don’t think that any of this is a problem and I do not want to complain about this culture which I do not come from. HOWEVER, I am a very shy person. With a history of body issues. And some problems with both under-eating and over-eating. Needless to say, having people constantly watch and comment on my eating habits is not exactly something I enjoy.
So what happens when I’m in these situations? Usually, I don’t eat enough. I feel that I shouldn’t eat too much, because I’m a little bigger than the average body size here and I don’t want people to feel that I’m fat because I eat too much. It’s not just here, though. Sometimes when I’m with friends back home I won’t eat as much as I want to for the same exact reason. The other thing that has been happening is now over-eating. After hearing at every lunch and dinner for months that I wasn’t eating enough (which was encouraged by the fact that I lost a lot of weight after coming here), I started to actively try to eat more in order to curb the comments. My stomach had adjusted to the small portions, so it was too much for me to be eating. Now my stomach is adjusting again, and I almost never feel full.
The other main difference has been my eating speed. I know that I am being watched, so I worry about dropping things or making a mess out of fear that people will try to find me a fork. So I eat more carefully, slowly. It works out alright, because the older women in the office also eat quite slowly. But, again, it makes it look like I don’t really enjoy the food. Or like I’m some lethargic older woman.
These things happen every time I eat out unless I am particularly comfortable with the person I’m eating with. And I never eat alone. When I do eat alone, I go to a convenience store and sit in a park or a cafe and eat something simple. I feel uncomfortable and try to eat slowly, avoiding any gazes from other people.
These are a lot of personal problems for me to work through, and I know that. I’m genuinely trying to be a more body-positive person when it comes to my own body (that process has been more than well-documented on this blog). It’s not even a problem with feeling comfortable in my own body anymore – I’m comfortable now. I know that my problems are ridiculous. I know that no one is going to see me eat any size of portion and relate it to my size and judge me. However, once I sit down to a meal with other people, I get incredibly self-conscious.
If you, like most people, don’t have these problems, then it’s really nothing to worry about. In that case, the culture of eating with others can really be a lovely thing. Often times the older people will want to treat the younger people to their meal, and you can spend that time bonding with coworkers or friends over some delicious food. It’s honestly a really nice part of the community.
Also, the food is bomb.