Today’s post is inspired by a conversation with blog regular INTJ.
After I posted my review of Let’s Eat, we realized that our respective experiences of the show were like night and day, to put it mildly. While I enjoyed the drama a lot, INTJ did not enjoy the show. At all.
I’ve understood for a long time that as viewers, we all respond to dramas and actors differently. A drama that one person loves to bits could be completely meh to someone else. And, an actor that inspires love in one person could inspire irritation in another. We all approach the world with our own filters, after all.
What gave me pause for thought is a follow-up email that INTJ sent me after our initial thought exchange on Let’s Eat. In it, he mentioned that he’s heard people around him say many times, “all Koreans do in their movies is eating.”
Well now. I’d never seen it that way before. This piece of information definitely made me think. And that, well, brought about a bunch of thoughts.
Given that INTJ’s mentioned several times before in other comments that he’s deeply interested in learning about the differences between cultures, I thought it apt to share my perspectives in a post.
Before I get into the post proper, let me state upfront (disclaimers!) that I’m not Korean. I’m Chinese by ethnicity, Singaporean by nationality. So, not actually being Korean, I can’t speak with real authority on the subject. However, there are enough similarities between my own culture and Korean culture and our peoples’ relationship with food, that I feel that I can shed at least some light on the subject.
I also don’t claim to know everything about this topic, so if you’ve got more information and perspectives to share, please do. Coz as they say, sharing is caring. 😉
Also. The post has been edited – I realized that INTJ is a he, not a she! Oopsie! Sorry, INTJ. 😛
[END DISCLAIMER. HEH.]
When I thought about this whole “food as obsession” topic that INTJ raised, 3 main things came to my mind as factors that can help us understand the dynamics at play.
1. Pride in the Culture
I’ve watched more than 160 kdramas in the 7 years since I boarded the kdrama train, and one of the big things I’ve noticed is that Koreans are proud of their culture. It shows in the way not just food, but other things like clothing, traditional practices and history, are treated in dramas.
And our beloved kdramas showcase different aspects of the culture, in varying degrees of detail.
Sometimes, it’s clear that a particular aspect of the culture is a big focal point of the drama.
With food, we have shows like Dae Jang Geum (2003-2004) and Fermentation Family (2011-2012), where the loving and meticulous food preparation process is given the spotlight, and is a major force in the dramas’ storylines as well.
And yes, it’s not always about food. One drama that comes to mind is Family Honor (2008-2009), which features a family that lives in a traditional Korean house and takes painstaking care with traditional practices, ancestral rites in particular.
Often, dramas showcase aspects of Korean culture without making it an overt focus of the plot. One example that comes to mind is practically every family drama out there, which mostly showcase multi-generational communal family living.
In these cases, the dramas aren’t specifically trying to feature multi-generational communal family living as an aspect of Korean culture. Instead, it feels more like it’s incidental to the plot. The focus is on the characters and their lives, and multi-generational communal family living just happens to be the way of life.
Perhaps one of the reasons that INTJ noticed many people commenting that “all Koreans do is eat in their movies” is because, like communal family living, eating is something that the characters do together. It’s often incidental to the plot, but with communal eating being a big part of the culture, it’s inevitable that scenes featuring characters eating together would be relevant. More on that in my next point.
On a slight tangent, to be fair, not all kdramas feature a lot of eating, whether incidental or otherwise. A fairly recent example is Mandate of Heaven (2013), where the characters barely ever ate anything at all. They were more preoccupied with other things, like not getting killed. And when they did manage to eat, it was only grass porridge.
2. Sharing Food is a Big Part of the Culture.
Eating together is a big part of familial relationships, both in Korean culture and in mine too.
Other expressions of love – like hugs, kisses, and words of love – are less common in traditional Asian culture. Instead, one of the big ways that love is expressed, is through food.
A father expresses his love for his family by providing for them, ie, putting food on the table. A mother expresses love for her children by preparing food for them. A child receives that love by eating the food. And that’s also a way a teenager might rebel: by refusing to eat the food that has been prepared.
Food isn’t just food, in this case. It’s a language, almost.
Traditionally, a family eats together. That’s family time. That’s when most conversations happen. And even if conversations don’t happen, the act of sharing the meal counts for quality time.
It’s why eating together is such a significant thing in dramas.
In Let’s Eat, when the 3 singleton neighbors, who live alone and therefore do not have families to eat with, come together and eat together, it’s more than just friends eating together. At a deeper level, it symbolizes that they’ve become a surrogate family.
Other instances of characters’ relationships taking on additional meaning/going to new levels: Do Min Joon eating with Lawyer Jang and Song Yi in You From Another Star. And also, Park Soo Ha eating with Jang Hye Sung in I Hear Your Voice.
And what about the scenes where mothers show love to children by preparing food and watching their children eat?
So many of us were moved to tears at the scene of Young Do having a meal prepared by Eun Sang’s mother, with her watching over him and urging him to eat in Heirs.
Was it really just the food? No. Beyond the food, this was a scene of a love-starved Young Do finally receiving a mother’s love in one of the most common and mundane ways that Korean mothers demonstrate love. And it meant so much that it brought him – and us – to tears.
It’s for the same reason that Soo Kyung eats with extra relish the meal that her mother prepared for her in Let’s Eat. Yes, Soo Kyung loves food, and in particular loves her mother’s cooking. But it’s also because this is when all the other nagging and other friction between them is put aside, and she is able to receive, in an unadulterated fashion, her mother’s love.
3. Historical Context
So why is it that, in Korean culture and my own, food is so important to family elders that it becomes a language of love?
I think the answer, or at least, part of the answer, comes from our historical context.
Interestingly, both Singapore and South Korea went from being Developing Nations to First World Countries within a short span of time; in fact, within a single generation.
Compared to other First World Countries where the process took place over a much longer period of time, spanning several hundred years typically, in both Singapore and Korea, the times of food scarcity, famines, food rationing and related hardships is still a fairly recent memory.
The older generation
The elders in our societies still remember growing up during times of war, famine and post-war poverty. When food is scarce, it’s literally all you think about, basically. And even when you’re no longer poor, food remains a big part of your consciousness. You have a particular appreciation for the food that you do eat, and also, for the foods that you used to long for but couldn’t afford.
Case in point: To this day, my dad still talks about ice cream sandwiches that only the richest boy in school could afford. And to this day, my dad and his sisters (my aunts), who grew up in post-World War II Singapore being told by their mother (my grandmother) that having food to eat is the most important thing in life, still hold that belief dear. Food is a big thing for them, even now.
The trickle-down effect
How does that affect the generations that come after? It shapes us too. This is what we learn as we grow up. Food is important. Food is to be enjoyed.
A common greeting in my culture is, “Have you eaten?” That’s literally the first thing that is often asked, as a greeting. In Chinese, the significance of the greeting is clearer. The greeting “吃饱了吗?” translates loosely as “Have you eaten?” but literally, it means, have you eaten to the full? I believe it stems from those times of poverty and hunger, when it was a blessing to have eaten to the full. I believe that’s also why we have a saying “吃是福” which translates literally to mean “to eat is a blessing.”
And this is probably (at least partly) why we appear to be a little obsessed with food. It’s an “obsession” driven by historical context, which has caused it to then become a part of our culture. And when it’s part of the culture, it ceases to be an obsession. It becomes a way of life.
How does this show up in kdrama?
Similar to what I’ve described, it’s common to witness drama characters ask after each other if they’ve eaten. Parents of even adult children make it a point to ask if their offspring have eaten, even if they don’t live with their children.
On perhaps a slightly more subtle level, food is often used as an indication of social class.
Rich characters are often shown “discovering” foods like roasted sweet potato, jajangmyeon, ddeokbokki or other “common” foods, which they’ve never eaten before. Remember Gu Jun Pyo in Boys Over Flowers and his penchant for fishcake skewers? Or more recently, there was Kang Ju our chaebol heir in Bride of the Century, who discovered roasted sweet potato.
It’s because these foods are considered “low-class” that our rich characters have never tasted them before.
While it’s often played for tongue-in-cheek cuteness, it’s also using food to close the social divide between the uber rich and the rest of us normal people.
What’s Your Context?
While watching Let’s Eat, it never occurred to me that it was odd for people to make such a big deal about food. And I realize that it’s because my own culture isn’t that different from Korean culture, at least in this aspect of our peoples’ relationship with food.
Which means that some interesting questions to examine would be: where do you come from, and what is your culture’s attitude towards food? What is your culture’s idea of family time? Is eating a functional thing, or a social thing? Has food always been something that’s easily available? Is food scarcity something that is a recent memory for your culture, or is it something that’s such a distant event that it no longer has a distinguishable effect on your peoples’ attitude towards food?
In my estimation, the more different your answers from what I’ve described, the harder it might be, for you to comprehend Korea’s – and kdrama’s – “obsession” with food.
While not on the same topic per se, I found this video by Nichola from the My Korean Husband blog informative and educational.
In the video, she talks about things that you’d need to know if you’re planning to / thinking of marrying a Korean guy. In the course of discussing this, she touches on various cultural aspects which I found interesting.
One of the things she says that is relevant to our topic today, is how the ability to eat well is actually prized by Korean elders. Therefore a prospective mother-in-law sharing a meal with her prospective daughter-in-law would be very interested to know if the prospective daughter-in-law is able to eat well. Again, that “food is important” attitude.
You can check out the full video here:
* In fact, if you’re a Westerner and you’re curious about Korean culture and how that is seen through the eyes of someone from a Western culture, &/or how the cultures are similar or different, the My Korean Husband blog is a great place to visit.
In conclusion, yes, food is important to Korean culture. It’s also important to my culture.
But does it mean that that’s all we’re about? No it doesn’t. And perhaps to the uninformed eye looking over kdrama for the first time, Koreans might appear to be a little “obsessed” with food. But really, as with all things, it’s all about not jumping to quick conclusions, while learning to understand the other person’s – or in this case, the other culture’s – context.
Coz context really is everything, isn’t it?