05/30/2016, 18.03
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Family meals, a disappearing act caught between stress and competition

Some 55 per cent of South Koreans aged 19 to 64 eat alone. One-person households now represent 27.1 per cent of the population. Caught under a heavy workload, more and more people do not have a social life. Young people, especially in Seoul, turn to virtual reality. One player in that world is Diva, a young woman making thousands of dollars a month by simply eating on a live webcam.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – In Korean, honbap means “eating alone”. Shim Kwon-ho, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul, does that a lot, but objects to the expression.

A frequent solo diner who also enjoys going to movies by himself, he wonders “Why do we even need a separate, special word such as ‘honbap’ for those eating alone, while there isn’t a specific term for those who dine with others?”

Strangely enough, Shim is actually not alone; he is one of the growing number of South Koreans who eat alone at work and home. According to a report by the Health Ministry, 55 per cent of all Koreans aged 19-64 did not have dinner with their families as of 2014, a trends that is rising.

A recent study by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation (KHPF) also found that the number of working South Koreans aged 30-59 (i.e. the most employed) who eat alone is up, and this for a number of reasons: some eat alone to save time, but many do so because they do not have company at meal times.

For Jang Hee-seok, a 33-yer-old Seoulite, visiting a convenience store near his office during lunch hour is an almost daily routine. He goes there to get his lunch, packed in a box. Out of some 30 choices, the popular options include rice with chicken breast, deep-fried pork cutlet or fried kimchi rice. His favorite is bulgogi stir-fried with gochujang, the Korean red pepper paste.

He returns to his office, microwaves his food and eats it alone at his desk. Sometimes he also has a cup of noodles to go with it. A convenience store boxed lunch costs about 4,000 won (US$ 3.39). It takes him 15 minutes to finish his lunch. Not exactly gourmet food.

“I don’t really feel like spending more than 5,000 won on lunch, because I’m eating it alone anyway,” he said. “It makes more sense to have quality food when you have someone to share it with.”

From 2010-2015, the proportion of single-person households increased significantly from 15.8 percent to 27.1 per cent; that is five million more.

This has had a negative impact on South Korea’s birth rate, which is already one of the lowest, as well as on social relations, as more and more people seek shelter in a virtual world that is difficult to leave.

If there is one who should know, that is Diva, whose real name is Park Seo-Yeon, who earns about more than US$ 12,000 a month eating in front of a webcam on Afreeca TV, very popular WebTV in South Korea.

Diva eats three kilos of meat a day, and her food bill can reach US$ 3,000. People who watch her online leave a range of comments, from recipes to thank you notes for “sharing some time” eating.

For Afreeca TV public relations coordinator Serim An, there are three reasons for Diva’s success: the growing number of people who live and eat alone, the growing loneliness in South Korean society, and the excessive health consciousness that sees food as an enemy.

Dive herself was impressed by one viewer, an anorexic woman who started eating again after watching her. However, social loneliness is also self-reinforcing.

Jang told the Yonhap news agency that he gets self-conscious when he eats alone in public, thinking others may judge him or think he is a social outcast. “I think there is still this public notion that if you are eating alone, there must be something wrong with your social life,” he said. This, in turn, makes meeting others that much harder.

Added to this is the health cost of eating alone. The KHPF survey found that 45.8 per cent of South Koreans said they do not eat properly when eating alone, whilst 19.1 per cent said they opt for fast food, such as hamburgers, when they have no one to eat with. At the same time, 15.3 per cent said they tended to eat fast when eating by themselves.

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