Tea for One

Eating lunch alone or having a quiet beer at home on the couch doesn’t strike most Westerners as out of the ordinary; but in South Korea, a country whose culture is more oriented toward group affiliation, something as simple as having a sandwich at your desk could mark you as anti-social or an object of pity: the dreaded wangtta, or social outcast, doomed to a life of solitary meals and other lonely pursuits.

This stigma on eating and drinking alone however is rapidly changing, as a few recent articles note (here and here). In the past year or so, restaurants have embraced solo diners, and a new word, honbap (a compound derived from the words for “alone” (honja) and “rice” (bap)), has thus entered the Korean lexicon. Likewise, drinking alone no longer marks you as a bum or an alcoholic, but merely a practitioner of honsul (“alone” plus “alcohol” (sul)), which has a decidedly more sympathetic ring.

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Cheer up, Bill. It’s cool.

As many observers have pointed out, the changes in dining habits are driven in part by the rise in single households, which now account for over one-quarter of Korean households – a significant social shift that has been playing out over the past few years as property values rise while economic uncertainty and changing personal priorities impels more young people to delay or forgo marriage.

The rise in solo living arrangements may also be having other interesting effects on consumption trends. This recent article traces a recent rise in the number of convenience stores to the same single-living trend, noting that many people who live alone simply find it easier to procure most of their daily needs at a CU Mart than at a larger store, which tend to deal in larger quantities and sizes.

On a personal level, I have noticed a steep drop in the looks of pity I used to receive from Korean students and friends whenever I was sighted sipping a coffee or scarfing down a sandwich by myself. Now it appears that I was just a man ahead of his time. Who knew?

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2 comments

  1. Yes, it’s changing as you said. But it seems to me that it’s changing but it’s still weird. Because we don’t usually name everyday stuff. We don’t give a name to taking a shower alone. It’s just a shower no matter how many people take it. we don’t name it because there’s noting special about it. The very existence of the term ‘Honbap’ implies that the action of eating lunch or dinner alone is still something unusual in here, Korea.

    1. Good point. I agree; it’s hard to say how many Koreans are beginning to see it as normal, but the use of such a term at all suggests that it is far from the norm.

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