The Foreigner’s Phrasebook for Eating Alone

Photo by La Toya Crittenden

by Paige Morris

1. 초딩 입맛 (A Little Kid’s Tastes)

Life as a foreigner in Korea often relies on a fixed script of questions and answers. Where are you from? America. What are you doing here? I’m an English teacher.

Over time, the questions grow weightier, more loaded. Are you married? Do you like Korean men? How do you do your hair?

Slowly, I’ve acquired the vocabulary needed to respond. After two grant years and even more years of language study, I know how to politely say no, how to demur, how to describe the interweaving of strands, both real and synthetic, that form my braids and twists. But when I first came to this country, I was overwhelmed by the amount of language I didn’t have, all the things I didn’t yet know how to do. Certain lines of dialogue demanded to be learned with urgency. There were interactions I had to become fluent in, fast. 

One of the earliest lessons I had to figure out was eating in Korea on my own.

This wasn’t a skill I was even sure I’d had in English. Back home in the US, I hardly ever ate by myself. In college, eating was a decidedly social occasion, with eateries and dining companions within walking distance from my dorm or apartment. My friends and I hosted huge potluck dinners at least once a month and shared at least one meal a day. I had gotten used to always having someone around whenever hunger set in when graduation scattered us all over the globe, and I found myself in a new place where I knew no one.

When I ate dinner with my host family that first year, I felt like I was scratching at something familiar, starting to uncover a sense of closeness that came with eating a meal together. But it was also strange to be treated like another child in this family.

I wouldn’t know what that night’s meal would be until I was called down to eat. I would ask questions about dinner, curious to learn all the words for the food laid out before me, but it seemed this frustrated my host mother, who had to set her chopsticks down to look up the words in Naver dictionary. I heartily ate what I was served, but when I set aside the little slivers of egg from my kimbap, my host father chided my choding ipmat and called me a pyeonsikga—a picky eater with the stubborn mouth of an elementary-aged kid.

 I started to question my every move during meals. If I ate only one serving, would my host mother think I disliked the food? If I went for another bowl of jjigae1, would my host father think I was being greedy? Should I wait for my two host sisters to stop quarreling over who was the prettiest member of Twice and finish their rice before I got another pat for myself? Should I have eaten the hodu2 snacks—even though I’m allergic—so no one would think I was too particular?

The anxiety around eating grew so intense, I decided I might be better off having dinner on my own.

2. 한 명이요. (Table for One)

More than almost any other cultural differences, my efforts to eat alone proved incomprehensible to the people around me.

When I mentioned at breakfast one morning that I’d be getting dinner on my own after work and volunteering, my host parents panicked. “With your American friends?” they asked. “With other teachers?”

When I told them the other volunteers lived on opposite ends of the city and I was planning to go alone, they were scandalized.

“You’ll eat alone?” my host mother echoed, incredulous. “We can save some dinner for you to heat up when you come back. You shouldn’t do that—eating alone?” She turned to her husband, murmuring, “Where would she even eat? By herself, at that?”

It turned out this concern wasn’t for a lack of options, but for the perceived strangeness of the situation itself: a foreigner, or anyone, eating somewhere unaccompanied. The first few weeks of my experiment were predictably difficult.

 Even at restaurants in bigger cities, it seemed lone foreigners were unlikely customers. I would step inside a kimbap3 shop, a kalguksu4 place, a mandu-jip5, and be greeted with a look of surprise. Sometimes the surprise melted into excitement, the thrill of spotting an opportunity to try out some English or to ask questions of the Black person who had suddenly appeared in the doorway. Other times, the surprise shifted into panic. What was anyone supposed to do with me? Why was I here, instead of off somewhere eating hamburgers or steak? In any case, the script was initiated as soon as I entered. The waitstaff would ask: 분이세요? How many people?

I’d hold up a single finger. The grammar to indicate the size of your party is a pure Korean number, plus the counter for people—myeong. 명이요. One person. Just me.

Here is where the script might fracture.

Sometimes, there was no issue. I’d be ushered to a table. Often, I’d have a good view of a wall-mounted TV showing a drama from the early 00s that I had never seen. Most times, despite some initial trepidation, I managed to order without a hitch, which would put all of us—the waitstaff and the foreigner—at ease.

There were times, though, when I’d be met with a firm shake of the head. This was usually at places with grills and pricier cuts of meat: pork and beef. The owner of the restaurant would hold up two fingers and shake them to say there was no room for someone looking to dine alone.

The first time it happened, I glanced around the restaurant and saw several open seats, which made me wonder why it was that business from one customer was made out to be so much worse than no business at all.

I realized the foreigner dining alone in Korea must learn not to take offense to being denied in this way. Instead, I had to learn to greet each occasion with the appropriate phrase.

3. 혼밥 (Eating Alone)

As I started seeking out places to eat, I came across the term hon-bap on several Naver blog reviews for restaurants I wanted to try. #혼밥. #EatingAlone.

I asked my students about the term during lunchtime English conversation club: “What do you think about it? People eating by themselves?”

My girls seemed nonchalant, if a little pitying. Why not eat with friends? they wondered. With family? 

I wanted to encourage their conversation, so I didn’t cut in to remind them that some of us had come to Korea without either, or that some people liked to be alone, despite the stigma surrounding the table for one.

I asked my students what kinds of places came to mind when they thought about eating alone, and most tapped their pencils to their chins, eyes to the ceiling, struggling to think of any. Just before the bell rang, one girl had a sudden, revelatory outburst. “Street food!” she said. She mimed eating food with invisible chopsticks out of a little paper cup. “Takoyaki!6 Tteokbokki!7 Perfect to eat alone!”

Aside from street food vendors, I learned that there were certain restaurants that specialized in serving people who came alone. Even in the land of meals eaten around long tables, each square inch covered with wide plates, steel bowls of rice, banchan8 in round dishes, there were certain foods that were well-suited for loners: bowls of jjajangmyeon9, a donkatsu10 platter, a cup of ramyeon11 eaten at a GS25. It could seem as though only the culinary dregs were afforded to single diners, but these were foods I liked, and the thought of eating them whenever I pleased instilled in me a confidence that combated my everyday anxiety. I knew eating alone was still somewhat taboo, and I didn’t want to call any more attention to myself in Korea than my mere presence already did. But being truly on my own for the first time ever, I felt the need to maintain some influence over at least this one element of my life—my meals—now that so much was beyond my control. 

Even harder than learning Korean or creating lesson plans, even trickier than remembering drinking etiquette at hweshik12 or greeting etiquette in the hallways at my school, would be learning how to be—and how to eat—alone.

4. 드시고 가세요? (For Here or To Go)

When I was still getting used to hearing Korean around me daily, it took me a moment to break down sentences as they were spoken. For a long time, this one phrase in particular baffled me. I heard it most often in fast-food places and coffee shops, the solo diner’s safe havens.

I would get through my order without issue, taking care to pronounce each menu item properly, to use the correct level of formality. I would feel that small sense of accomplishment as the receipt began to print, thinking I had nailed this latest interaction in my adventures in eating alone. And then the cashier would toss me the curveball that surprised me each time, even after I could no longer say it was unexpected.

Deu-si-go ga-se-yo?

Literally: Will you eat and leave? But often, the start of the question would be swallowed, and all I would hear was: Are you leaving? Are you taking this to go?

I thought this was a subtle way of asking me not to take up space as a party of one. Even in the plastic seats at McDonald’s or Ediya, there were families and couples and clusters of friends. And there I was, outside of them. Yes, I would murmur. I’ll leave, I thought I was saying. I would always be puzzled, then, when I was presented with a tray—the universal invitation to stay.

I don’t remember when I realized the invitation was inherent in the phrase: Will you eat and leave? A freer translation might be: Will you stay and eat a while before you go? On the loneliest evenings, I felt soothed by the question, even though I knew it was part of the script of eating out. It meant nothing to the baristas, the cashiers. Still, I took comfort in the fact that they welcomed me, and that I was never the only one nursing a café mocha or a teriyaki burger at my own table, opposite no one.

I would often sit near the window in such places and watch people pass by. Sometimes, I would see one half of a pair or one person in a group glance over at the restaurant with longing before they were pulled along toward someplace else. I had to wonder if even Koreans envied me at times for my aloneness and the ability to eat whatever I craved, so long as someplace would have me.

5. 저 2인분을 시킬 겁니다. (I’ll Eat for Two.)

This is how I learned to negotiate. To earn my stay.

Can I eat here alone? I used to ask. A friend might join me later, I would lie, still unable to shake the thought that an overcrowded table was the only sanctioned way to enjoy a meal.

The most effective phrase for earning a seat for one, I learned, was best deployed when the restaurant was not especially busy and required the confidence of someone prepared to spend a significant amount of time and money in order to eat. 

What if I order for two?

The grammar entails a Sino-Korean number, plus the counter for servings, in-bun. Especially useful for eating at places that serve meat, this phrase essentially signals to the restaurant staff that I won’t waste their time. I’ll make my table for one lucrative, my meal worthwhile. I’ll eat so well you won’t even notice I’m alone.

This was how I talked my way into a booth at a dakgalbi13 place one night when I was craving the taste of chicken, tender and moist, grilled in that spicy-sweet gochujang14. This was how I negotiated a table for one at a shabu shabu15 restaurant right after peak hours, how I stuffed myself that day on the freshest mushrooms and sprouts cooked in simmering broth. This was how, against all odds, I got to try so many of the delicious foods Korea had to offer—including ones I’d been told before were not for parties of one.

It turned out even those who ate in flocks couldn’t avoid these sorts of encounters, either.

Once, I was craving meat at the end of a long Friday night. I had actually met up with a friend earlier in the evening. We’d gone for Round One at a coffee shop. Round Two at a bar. By the time we were ready for dinner, it was nearing 11 p.m.

We wandered the streets of Palyongdong, Changwon, until we found a samgyupsal16 place that was still open, the window on the second floor glowing down on us. The restaurant was nearly empty, but we were told at the door that if we wanted a seat for two at that hour, we’d have to eat for five.

The two of us exchanged a knowing look, and we did.

6. 또 오셨어요? 어서 오세요. (Here Again? Welcome Back.)

It is only human to develop routines. Favorite spots. Places to recommend to the next stranger who comes to town.

After enough instances of dining alone, I stopped noticing the stares, stopped feeling that pang of guilt in the doorway. I had memorized the script and become comfortable in the skin of my character: the foreigner, braving the swamp of language and anxiety in order to eat some lunch. Soon enough, on Sundays, I would instinctively crave ssalguksu17 from the Vietnamese-Korean place on Changwon’s Garosu-gil. I knew I could have a bowl there alone without a second glance, could twirl rice noodles around my chopsticks as I listened to Vietnamese ballads come through tinnily on the radio. When I was in Seoul, I would take the subway down to Gwanak-gu to eat at the Meat Table that used to be there, where a tray of still-sizzling meat and side dishes fit snugly into the wall of the single booth that faced the day outside. My second year, when I lived in Goesan, a town small enough to toss a stone across from end to end, I became a regular at the Lotteria around the corner from the bus terminal. One of my favorite cashiers would call out, A shrimp burger set today, too? before the chimes above the door had even stopped ringing.

Even when I was nearer to friends and had more opportunities to share meals, I still found myself eagerly awaiting the next time when I would return to this tradition I’d made of eating alone. A good meal can be shared over conversation, over countless dishes and plates, but I wholeheartedly believe a good meal can also be savored in silence. For each dining occasion that has asked me to submit, often to my pleasant surprise, to someone else’s whims, I have also loved those meals that have allowed me to select my course, to eat without criticism or concern in a solitude of my own design.

This is how I became fluent in a language a half-step beneath the standard Korean or English I had become used to speaking. It is the language of being alone, the pronunciation of which I have mastered with time, the words of which have come to taste sweeter the more I’ve tried them out.

I have learned to love the fact that, in Korea, if I’m hungry, I’ll be fed. If I’m thirsty, the water is sel-peu18. There were days my co-workers would bring ddeok19 and gyul20 to the teacher’s lounge to share. On other days, a nice ahjumma21 would give me a discount on the persimmons when I was at the market and craving something sweet.

The more I showed up, the more familiar I became. And I know that bowing to the waitstaff and being greeted with a warm smile and a welcome back is not quite the same as a potluck gathering with friends or a family meal, but for me, it’s enough, as filling as eating for two.

Footnotes

  1. Stew
  2. Walnut
  3. Korean rice roll wrapped in seaweed
  4. Knife-cut noodles
  5. A place that sells Korean dumplings
  6. Breaded, minced octopus snack of Japanese origin
  7. Stir-fried rice cakes coated in a spicy, sweet sauce
  8. Assorted side dishes
  9. Noodles mixed in black bean sauce, of Chinese origin
  10. Breaded pork cutlet dish of Japanese origin
  11. Korean ramen
  12. Company dinners
  13. Grilled chicken
  14. Red chili paste
  15. Hotpot meal of Japanese origin
  16. Grilled pork belly
  17. Beef and rice noodle soup, known as pho in its Vietnamese culture of origin
  18. Self-serve
  19. Rice cakes
  20. Tangerines
  21. Older woman