Eating alone in public, especially if you’re a young woman working in a business district, is still a rare sight in Seoul. Being alone at a cafe on the other hand—sipping on your latte, chatting on the phone, reading—has now become a natural sighting. But 15 minutes alone in a restaurant packed with people in business attire, laughing and chatting happily with each other, can be a pretty awkward time of your day.
10 years ago, when I was still in college, I would sometimes eat alone in the school cafeteria. I attended an all-women’s college in Seoul, so it was easier to be by myself without being overly self-conscious. At first, though, eating by myself was not an option. I didn’t want to become one of those girls who hunched over their trays, a somber atmosphere reeking about them.
Eating by myself was not an option. I didn’t want to become one of those girls who hunched over their trays, a somber atmosphere reeking about them.
I think it was my junior year that I started eating alone. Many of my friends had taken a year off for overseas programs. Some took different classes, made new friends, and went their own ways, so having to always find someone just so she would be beside me while I ate was becoming a nuisance. By then, I had become so exasperated with having to worry about others that I decided I would just try it and see how horrible it felt.
It was awkward at first, alright. I would contemplate the lunch menu samples displayed at the cafeteria front doors, alone, and have mental conversations with other girls wondering about which dishes would be more delicious. I would buy the meal ticket, alone; stand in line for the food distribution, alone; and look for a seat that would promise good digestion and little inner turmoil. I would sit there, chew madly, and bolt out of the cafeteria. If I saw someone I recognized, I looked down and counted the number of anchovies on my tray. If I inevitably made eye contact with someone I knew but didn’t like, I smiled brightly at her then returned to my task of spooning rice into my mouth, like a soldier eating in tune to a command. Normally, I am a slow eater, but when eating alone in the school cafeteria, I tried to make myself look like I was a busy person who had no time for leisurely lunches. I had people to meet, things to do, make something of myself when I graduated.
Then I realized that I was putting on a play without an audience. Nobody really cared, and I didn’t have to care, either. So I started enjoying it. I ate slowly. I read books while eating. I said hi to friends, asked them to join me when I felt like it, and even had coffee after the meal. I noticed my surroundings: the colorful hand-written poster on the wall promoting a handwriting club; the cashier, who looked to be my mother’s age, and how she accepted money from students, gave them their change and ticket, and went back to her conversation on the phone; the way the snow was falling outside. I wondered if I could write beautifully if I joined the handwriting club—I was always bad at doing things with my hands. I imagined the cashier’s daughter, who brought pride and joy to her mother. The daughter probably had long hair and intelligent eyes. The snow—which I could see falling through the frame of the cafeteria doors as if it was a show that was being put on just for the women in the cafeteria—reminded me of the winters I had spent in Jordan.
I thought I would never have to eat alone after that, when working for a company or out in society. After all, having a solitary lunch is only fun when it’s occasional. But life sometimes brings you unexpected situations and tangled relationships. And sometimes, when you’re working full-time and facing different kinds of people all day long, spending an hour alone at lunch can recharge your spirit.
Now I’m glad when I see more women eating alone in restaurants, especially if they’re young. I’m glad when I see Korean women smoking alone, not in Itaewon or a trendy bar in Sinsa-dong, but in a grubby smoking lounge in an office building. I don’t know her name, what type of personality she has, whether we have similar tastes. Most times, I don’t even have a chance to see her face. But I know that she is one solitary moment from becoming stronger.