by Alex Lemon
In South Korea there’s a word for eating alone, 혼밥 (honbap). A pushing together of syllables from 혼자 (honja) meaning ‘alone’ and 밥 (bap) meaning ‘meal’ (or, literally, ‘cooked rice’). A pushing together because, in a country that puts group before individual, that emphasises social capital and personal connections, to eat alone raises eyebrows, questions, doubts, a feeling of pity, the prospect of shame. Where are your colleagues or friends? Does no one want to eat with you? Did you do something wrong? Are you unliked? Unlikeable? Eating alone isn’t enjoying your own company, it’s implying you’re 왕따 (wangdda), an outcast.
I’m travelling solo around South Korea, from Seoul, down to Gwangju, across to Daegu and Gyeongju, then back to Seoul. A trip of eighteen days. Fifty-four meals. I’ll be eating a lot of honbap. I’m anxious about the new cities, about moving between them, about finding my feet each time, about deciphering their subways and buses, decoding their streets, finding a loo. I’m anxious about the different culture, the different customs, the different language and script I’ve been learning for only a year. I’m anxious about waking lonely, sightseeing lonely, exploring lonely, feeling lonely. I’m anxious about eating lonely, too.
Back home I eat alone a lot. I live alone and have done for a decade. I’d like to say I’m used to it, but I’m not. I hate it. To me, sharing food is a fundamentally human practice. Eating alone makes me feel less part of humanity, less human even. My meals are sustenance, existence, they fill the gap in time and company. In London, with its distances between friends and barriers between people, restaurants are where I get to eat with others. In Korea, I’ll be alone even there.
The evenings of my trip loom loneliest in my mind. The day’s sightseeing over, the sun gone, the darkness putting a sharper edge on being alone. I’m willing myself to see dinners alone, far from home, as a kind of nighttime sightseeing, another way to watch this other world go by. I want these meals to be for enjoying, for luxuriating in, for savouring every bite of Real Korean Food in Actual Korea, feeling it in my body as an experience of travel, not just fuel. But I can’t. I dread them. I don’t need honbap to shame me; I do that myself.
Food is tightly woven into the fabric of Korean culture. One word for family is 식구 (sikgu), another portmanteau of syllables that boils down to “mouths to feed”. A Korean’s sikgu might ask a casual “밥 먹었어?” (bap meogeosseo?) to enquire “How are you?”, but the direct translation is “Have you eaten?”. At the end of your meal, you don’t say thank you to the person who paid for it – who, by custom, will be the most senior in age or superior in status – instead you say “I ate well”, “잘 먹었습니다” (jal meogeoss-seubnida), using the formal, polite verb ending so your words show your respect.
One day on my travels I hike up a mountain, Mudeungsan, just east of Gwangju. I do it alone, of course, but not anxiously. It isn’t remote. It’s a half-hour bus ride from the city, which drops you by the rangers’ station, the one near the Starbucks. In a country more densely populated than India or Japan, I’m barely out of earshot or eyeline of other walkers. But, to keep myself reassured, at the halfway point I use my shaky Korean to confirm with a couple resting on a bench, “제가 여기 지도에 있어요?”, Am I here on the map?
“Oh, your map is in English!” the husband replies, in English. (I’m learning to take this as Koreans’ enthusiasm for practising my language rather than a comment on my butchering of theirs.)
“네, 영국 사람이에요.” Yes, I’m English, I reply. (My Korean more certain since you learn this on Day 2.)
“English! I used to live in England, on the south coast. Brighton.”
And so, halfway up a Korean mountain, beside a small Korean city that few Western tourists visit, I discover that this Korean stranger, who I interrupted at random, lived in the English town I was born in, at the time I was living in it. He even remembers the January of 1986, so unusually snowy we sledged to the shops.
I talk more to the couple, Kyung-hwan and In-jung, as we wend our way up the mountain, then they tell me they have coffee and invite me to drink it with them over our picnic lunches. I nearly say no, out of British reserve, from not wanting to be a bother. But I say yes, because they’re kind, because I’ve missed conversation, because something is telling me here, in Korea, to Koreans, it might be ruder to decline the food offered than to devour their entire lunchbox. They give me the coffee and some rice cakes; they divide their apple into three parts, not two. It’s my first shared food in eight days, in twenty-five meals. In return I offer boiled sweets, the only food in my backpack that isn’t mangled or limp. The apple tastes sweeter. Afterwards, when I return from the loo (easily found in South Korea, even at 900 metres), they’ve decided together to invite me to dinner. We’re taking different routes down the mountain, but they’ll meet me at the bottom, they say, and we exchange numbers.
I set off alone again for the second half of my hike, glowing with wonder and joy from the couple’s kindness, their keenness to make a lone stranger feel welcome in their city, to feel warmly about their country. I stare out across both from the top of the mountain, see the blooming silvergrass ripple on the slopes below, feel the warm autumn breeze and the warm autumn sun, and I know that I love it here. I begin my descent full of lightness, skipping down rocky paths with sure-footed speed. But as I get lower, the bright silvergrass disappearing with the shade of the trees, my mind starts to churn. My pace slows enough for the question to catch up: was I invited to dinner because I look a bit wangdda?
South Korea’s everyday phrases, preoccupied with food, have drifted down from older generations, the republic’s first citizens, those who lived through colonisation, world wars, civil war, the birth of a new country, and in the aftermath, poverty and hunger. Now the Republic of Korea (its official name) is a place of wealth, if you look at the numbers, and a place of youth, if you look around. In my eighteen days, I barely see a building constructed before 1960. I see only two elderly people who haven’t dyed their grey hair black again. I see more suggestions of surgery in Seoul’s faces than I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I see a lot of this season’s Gucci.
I meet Kyung-hwan and In-Jung at the foot of Mudeungsan and they suggest a restaurant nearby. “Or,” Kyung-hwan says, “my friends live in a traditional Korean house. I’ve called them. We can drive there to see it and have tea.” I’m nervous about this gesture but nosey about seeing inside a 한옥 (hanok), so I say yes. On the way he asks what kinds of Korean food I’ve not tried yet and, thinking it’s just a casual enquiry, I reel off my list. Later I realise it wasn’t.
We arrive at the hanok and it’s beautiful. Inside, the owner, with delicate care and the feeling of ritual, serves us six types of tea, each the colour of a precious jewel. One is a famous twenty-one-year-old tea from Huinan in China; another she makes herself from magnolia flowers, which it takes her two days to cure. Afterwards Kyung-hwan announces we’ll all go for dinner together, the five of us. As we drive there, he tells me with a twinkle that he and his friend had a debate about which of them will pay for everyone’s meal, and that he lost. Which means I’m about to be bought dinner by someone I met just an hour ago, when I – a total stranger from the other side of the world, who his friends found up a mountain – turned up at his house. I feel my English shame well up hot-cold inside. To try to stop it choking me, I tell Kyung-hwan how lucky I feel. “Lucky, lucky, lucky!” he replies. “We are all lucky here.”
South Korea may be a country where deference to seniority must be shown in every verb, but, as anywhere, young people find ways to defy. In South Korea they do it through trends, continually writing new rules to create distinctive, exclusive worlds where they hold the power, in fashion, hairstyles, music, gaming, language, food. With demanding careers, pressured lives and globalising values, the younger generations are shifting the meaning of honbap, reducing its shame, increasing its cool. Honbap itself is a trend now. There are honbap restaurants in Seoul, catering specifically and solely to solos. There’s a honbap app to help you find your solitary meal because, entrenchment being the counterpoint to defiance, still some establishments won’t let one in.
Knowing it’s custom doesn’t make generosity easier to accept. Especially not this time. The five of us arrive at the restaurant and are led, me unwittingly, through sliding paper doors to our own private room, where we sit cross-legged on bright silken cushions. Two low tables are carried in over our heads and set down in front of us. They are covered in plates, bowls, pans, platters, hotpots on burners, all holding uncountable traditional and local delicacies. This is not a quick bite to eat – this is 한정식 (hanjeongsik), the Korean banquet of multiple dishes and side dishes, once the preserve of royalty and aristocrats. This is the one meal that could never be, and will never be, honbap. I am wide eyed and speechless, in both languages. I quell my discomfort by trying everything. I become stuffed beyond comfort but never delight. I offer thank yous in both languages, then throw in a fumbled “잘 먹었습니다” (I ate well), which meets with surprised little chortles that I know the phrase. I know the real meaning now, too.
Then we leave and I’m dropped home and I’m alone again. I don’t even make it into the lobby of my apartment before I cry. I cry all tens floors of the lift ride, I cry as I open my door, I cry as I close it behind me. I stand in the silence of my empty room and I sob. I think it happens because I’m overwhelmed with emotion, from receiving such kindness, inclusion, generosity, care, from no less than four complete strangers, half of whom didn’t even speak my language. The sobs subside to sniffles and I realise that’s not why. I’m crying because I don’t feel I deserve it. Not because I’m a stranger, a tourist, someone they may never see again, but because I’m me. All they got was me. Who am I to be that special? How am I that special? I’m not. I’m just me. And the tears fall again.
I don’t use the honbap app while I’m in Korea. I don’t seek out a honbap restaurant. I don’t need to. I feel no shame in honbap now. Complete strangers can meet me and decide, within hours, within minutes, that I’m worthy of food, of good food, of a banquet, a feast. For the first time, I see – enjoy, luxuriate in, savour – that I’m worthy of it too. Wherever I’m eating, whoever I eat with, even if it’s just me.
Alex Lemon | @lemonosity | Squanderlustpod.com
Alex Lemon used to be a journalist, then an accountant, and is currently a freelance editor, podcaster and writer. She grew up on a tiny island but now lives in London, dreaming of the sea.