More South Koreans dining solo
FOR Jang Hee Seok, a 33-year-old office worker, visiting a convenience store during lunch hour is a daily routine.
There, he buys lunch packed in a box - such as bulgogi stir-fried with gochujang, the popular South Korean red pepper paste.
He returns to his office, microwaves the food and finishes the 4,000 won (S$4.60) meal alone at his desk in 15 minutes.
"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."
Mr Jang is one of the growing number of South Koreans who eat alone at work and home.
From 2010 to 2015, the proportion of single-person households increased significantly from 15.8 per cent to 27.1 per cent. According to a report by the Health Ministry, 55 per cent of all South Koreans aged 19 to 64 did not have dinner with their families as of 2014.
One of the reasons behind the statistic is the nation's notoriously long work hours - one of the longest among the developed nations.
A recent study by the South Korea Health Promotion Foundation found that a large number of working South Koreans, aged 30 to 59, eat alone to save time, or simply do not have anyone to dine with.
For instance, 38.7 per cent said they eat alone as they do not have company during meal times, and 21.5 per cent said they just did not have enough time to eat with someone else.
In Mr Jang's case, it is a combination of both. His office only has two people, including himself, and his co-worker often skips lunch because he wants to lose weight.
There is another reason why Mr Jang prefers boxed meals over dining alone at restaurants.
He gets self-conscious when he eats alone in public, thinking others may think he is a social outcast.
"There is this public notion that if you are eating alone, there must be something wrong with your social life," he said.
The hostile attitude shown by servers or restaurant owners is also a factor.
Sometimes, he feels unwelcome during busy hours as he occupies a table for three or four people, he said.
Yet South Korea has welcomed a number of restaurants that specifically cater to solo diners in recent years, some of which offer cubicle seats so guests don't have to worry about the empty seat on the other side of the table.
Shim Kwon Ho, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul, said there is nothing wrong with doing activities alone - such as dining and going to concerts - and those who do it should be able to do so without having to worry about being judged.
A frequent solo diner who also enjoys going to movies by himself, Mr Shim said the biggest problem with the solo dining culture - known as "honbap culture" - is the word itself.
"Why do we even need a separate word, such as 'honbap', for those eating alone, while there isn't a specific term for those who dine with others?" he said.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK