Living an independent life is something that Korean millennials are embracing, even if it means eating alone too. This has been labelled honbab (혼밥). Hon (혼) stands for honja (혼자) meaning alone and bap (밥) stands for food/meal.
However choosing to be alone is not so easy with Koreas noonchi and ‘eat-together-stay-together’ culture and the fact that most restaurants and diners cater to groups. Many people are aware of the social implications of eating alone, and are embarrassed that other people may judge them with pitiful stares.
This movement kicked off when an online webtoon went viral. It is short and low quality, but the story of a boy’s nightmarish experience of eating alone, struck a chord with millions. Many people came forward online saying that they starve when they are out alone, or hideaway like animals when they are eating, to avoid people’s judgemental eyes.
People in the restaurant are audibly mocking the boy for being a loner, and even a little child confronts him about it. He can sense stares and the atmosphere is awkward. The main character is clearly self-conscious and crippled with social anxiety.
Some even went on to print the webtoon onto T-shirts to address social stigma. As single-households sky rocket and the desire to be independent rise, many people are keen to break these social prejudices. Wearing these shirts is only the beginning.
On August 27th, 190 strangers gathered at 1pm at a Goyang City restaurant for an intriguing Honbab Gathering Party (혼밥 모임). The rules were simple; don’t talk to anyone and interaction is banned. If you keep the rules, you are allowed to eat the meal for free, if you break the rule and speak, you have to pay and leave immediately.
This party was to raise awareness of the unfair stigma of eating alone. (The motto of the event was ‘Let’s openly/confidently eat by ourselves’). They hope to bring eating alone into the mainstream, take away the fear that people may have and change people’s perception when it comes to dining alone.
However, people’s discomfort with the awkwardness is harder to tackle. While they ate, most people were locked into their phones, ate in 10 minutes and briskly fled the premises.
Admittedly there are certain dishes that are harder to eat alone. For instance eating at a convenience store alone is the easiest, the second level is at a fast food restaurant, the third is a single meal at a Korean restaurant, next is eating at a family restaurant, then the final stage is solo dining at a buffet.
In the popular reality TV show ‘I Live Alone’, a famous ex-idol group member Kim Dong Wan shocked and made headlines with his confidence in eating alone. He even ate a buffet by himself confidently. Many people were surprised that he didn’t care about his celebrity status and was not self-conscious.
Doing things alone is growing in popularity, whether it’s living, travelling, or eating. While the idea of eating alone can seem lonely, people are attracted to a life uncluttered with relatives, family friends, neighbours, acquaintances etc. This is a new type of freedom.
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