Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eating Alone

I am often asked by Korean people who know that I have lived in Japan what some of the differences are between Japan and Korea. I usually mention that Koreans like to eat outdoors in groups, and that I think this is a really great custom. There are raised platforms and little gazebos everywhere, all set up so people will have a place to share a meal and conversation, seemingly one of the chief joys of life in Korea.

A meal and conversation. The two are inseparable. The act of eating is always done in a group. In fact, it is rare to ever be alone at all in Korea. From what I have observed, they really dislike it. And so it goes that the outsider is at a distinct disadvantage in Korea as so much of the culture is geared towards the shared group experience. Japan will never let the foreigner forget he is different; Korea has no room for anyone, foreigner or otherwise, who is on his own.

I had been living in a hotel for 3 weeks and thus had no way to cook my own food, so every night I wandered out into the streets in search of a restaurant. The first place I tried, which was shaped like a train and called Galaxy Express, seemed inviting enough until the waitress automatically set down two glasses of water at my table, even though I was obviously alone. It's not that she was mocking me—she just couldn't comprehend that I could be dining solo.

Another night I tried a "hof," the Korean word (borrowed from German) for a place that sells beer and food. Basically a Korean pub. After the flurry of confusion that erupted from a foreigner entering their business, I was sat at a table and given a menu. The prices seemed especially expensive and I feared that it was some sort of price extortion, like the snack bars in Japan. You want to drink? You pay for the privilege. But no, that's not Korea's style. The dishes were expensive because they were all for two. And again I felt all the more alone because of it.

I have finally moved into my own apartment (ironically located just behind Galaxy Express) and so I can start cooking for myself and thus avoid the pariah meal. And I have gone out to eat a number of times with co-workers and thus experienced the true Korean meal experience, complete with shared food and complex drinking etiquette, the latter of which will get an entire post of its own in the future.

And if I don't feel like cooking? I buy a premade sandwich from the convenient store and eat it at home, alone.

1 comment:

  1. Oh! I commiserate with you! I love Korean barbeque, but alas! How can I eat five giant strips of pork all by myself?