The horror of dining alone in South Korea

SEOUL - A Korean guy goes to the university canteen for lunch, alone.

Halfway through his meal, he catches the eyes of three female seniors, one of whom casts him an "oh you poor thing" look and then pays for his meal.

The guy walks out "never feeling so embarrassed in my whole life", his ego bruised by unwanted pity.

This story, which I heard in a podcast, is not uncommon here.

In a country where people go to great lengths to keep up appearances and maintain an intricate web of relationships and yonjul (Korean for social network, similar to the Chinese guanxi), dining alone is akin to social suicide.

People are going to judge, and they're not going to be subtle about it.

It starts from the moment you enter a restaurant alone, when a waitress greets you with: "How many of you?" "One," you reply. "Just one?" she asks in a disbelieving tone.

You cannot help but feel a bit unwelcome.

And then, the curious stares. Fellow diners are going to gawk as if you have Pokemons on your head.

A Singaporean friend recalled how she was seated between two elderly couples in a Chinese restaurant once, and they never took their eyes off her throughout her entire meal.

She confided that she felt really uncomfortable, but she was too hungry so she just devoured her meal and left.

Another friend observed that Koreans have very strong herd instincts which translate to a pressing need to belong to a group - more so than say, Singaporeans.

Namzatang restaurant owner Jang Sung Bae posing a regular serving of their signature dish gamjatng (spicy pork spine soup) and a scaled down portion for one person (in black pot). PHOTO: KIM JINHA

Eating alone and enjoying me-time goes against a preset group behaviour that the Koreans are so used to, and those who do it could end up being perceived as ostracised.

So it's not that Koreans fear eating alone. What they fear is losing their chaemyon (Korean for face or reputation) if people think of them as a wangda (Korean for loner or outcast), and that's a big taboo.

When I first lived in Seoul for three months in 2005 to learn the Korean language, I had a hard time looking for places to eat alone. I felt self-conscious as most of the eateries were packed with rowdy big groups or lovey-dovey couples engaging in sweet nothings.

I really missed Singapore's abundant coffeeshops, food courts and restaurants where I could dine by myself for as long as I wanted with nary a care.

Things are different now, 10 years on.

The curious stares still prevail, but those who eat alone seem less uptight about being seen and are able to find strength in numbers.

It has even become cool to dine alone, after the term honbap, which literally means rice for one, was coined to describe a rising phenomenon of people enjoying their own company over meals.

A search for the term online would toss up thousands of recommendations on where to find a good place to eat alone comfortably, and people seem genuinely happy to share their finds, complete with photos and raving reviews.

Experts attribute the honbap trend to an increase in the number of single households caused by rising life expectancy, a low birth rate and delayed marriage.

Ms Yoo Hyo Jin posing with gimbap (seaweed rice roll) which she would eat for lunch alone. PHOTO: YOO HYO JIN

There comes a point where you realise there is no need to care so much about other people's opinion of you, said a Korean friend who is no stranger to dining alone.

I counted three other solo diners over lunch in a crowded Korean restaurant just last week, all female. None of them seemed to care that they could be judged by others in the room, although I did hear the waitresses bickering over where to place us - so we don't take up too much table space, I guess.

It also helps that one can always pretend to be busy with a smartphone in hand. Who needs dining companions when your friends are just a text message away?

But it would really help if waitresses stop behaving as if it's a big deal that diners come alone.

"Table for one?" would be a much more welcoming greeting, thank you very much.

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