A Little Context Regarding Korean 먹방 (“Broadcast Eating”)

So, the global news has been abuzz with the latest story about South Korea, which is that some Koreans are making vast piles of money by eating massive dinners on live broadcast online.

No, I’ve never tuned in. (I hate watching people eat with their mouths open, and that’s pretty common in Korea. So, uh, no thanks.) But yes, it’s real: where, in the west, strangers would only send that cam-girl above money if she took off her clothes online, Koreans send her money just to watch her eat. 

There’s a context, though, that these the news stories seem constantly to fail to mention. Here it is: 

Vast amounts of mainstream South Korean TV broadcast programming is filled with shows about people eating. Celebrities and regular people alike are constantly being filmed eating one or another food, chewing it up, swallowing it, and then mugging for the camera while they declare how utterly delicious it is.

This, in effect, is South Korea’s real “reality TV.” I mean, South Korea has Western-style reality TV shows, but this is South Korean TV networks’ cheap, easy-to-produce substitute for quality programming. People are sent out across the countryside, to visit this or that “famous” restaurant specializing in… well, you name it: knife-cut noodles, soy-sauce-pickled crab, spicy fried chicken: as long as the food has no controversial political connotations (like, say, dog meat, which half the country seems to love while the other half hates the practice), you will see people eating it.

(And yeah, more often than not they chew with their mouths open–which is generally much more socially-accepted in Korea–and usually they end up proclaiming how glorious and amazing some dish they’re eating is. It’s bafflingly un-entertaining for most Western viewers. It’s also brainless, but no more brainless than any other reality TV show, and probably less toxic than some.)

Why do Koreans like to watch people eat? It boils down to culture, folks.

In fact, one of the things that dominates the Korea internet is food, especially pictures of food… coffee… food… coffee… food. Not food or coffee they’d made themselves, which I can undestand, but rather just shots of anything and everything they happened to eat, which is more baffling to me. As soon as I stopped teaching and allowed former students to be a friend on Facebook, the first thing that happened was my feed filled up with pictures of food, coffee, and highly artificial, posed shots of oneself. (Shots produced with all the care and artificiality of a food photographer, come to think of it.) I actually noticed a decline in Facebook use among my own Korean acquaintances by noticing a slow reduction in the number of pictures of food appearing in my feed, in fact!

The Korean internet is filled with food pictures for a lot of reasons, but the most fundamental one is that Korean society is basically preoccupied with food and eating, to a degree that many expats I’ve known found a bit obsessive… even as they became more and more like that themselves.

Dalk dori tang

In fact, when I started learning Korean, I was amazed at how such a vast amount of the conversations I overheard became so much more comprehensible to me after the day I learned a bunch of food vocabulary. One day, I was immersed in a soundscape of incomprehensible (to me!) syllables strung together; the next, I understood a surprising amount of what people were saying, and this is what they were saying:

  • Are you hungry?
  • I’m starving!
  • Let’s eat together!
  • I’ve already eaten!
  • Where shall we eat?
  • Where did you eat that delicious kimchi stew?
  • The food there is so spicy!
  • I’m full!
  • I’m so full I could die!
  • You eat so well!
  • We ate so deliciously!

Indeed, I soon learned that even sexual innuendo in Korean often involves food metaphors: when a man says he’d like to “eat” a woman or that he thinks  she’d be “delicious,” he’s not specifically talking about oral sex. [Edit: Just in case it’s unclear, the usage tends, in my experience, to refer to penetrative sex. It’s a sexual connotation, but usually has nothing to do with oral sex.] And, in fact, almost every term I’ve run into for a new “type” or “category” of person (the Korean equivalent of “flapper” or “beatnik”) involved some kind of food metaphor: not just the infamous Soybean Paste Girl, but also the Bagel Girl (Babyface+Glamour, ie. a youthful face and big breasts), or the herbivore man (who isn’t interested in women so much as his own hobbies), or other ridiculous terms I’ve learned and forgotten over the years. Unappealing legs, on a woman, sometimes get compared to radishes. A man’s penis is his “pepper.” (The long, spicy pepper is more common than the “pimento” or “bell” pepper in Korea.)

There are exceptions: “Gold Miss” and “Princess Syndrome” come to mind. (While the Wikipedia page for the latter focuses on Hong Kong, I can assure you the concept was widespread in South Korea a decade ago; it’s fallen out of common use, in my experience, but at the time, plenty of women called themselves “Princess” in this way.) But more often than not, the terms for people, and even for expressing disparaging or complimentary opinions about parts of their bodies, seem to involve food.

Not just that: one of the most bewildering of my early experiences was ran into a woman I’d just met, and she asked me, “Have you eaten?” She was, of course, transliterating from the Korean expression–more often used a decade ago, especially in the countryside, “밥 먹었어요?” (Which is to say, “How are you?”)

In Canada, though, when someone asks whether you’ve eaten, it’s essentially an invitation: you’re saying, “I haven’t eaten yet, have you? Would you like to eat with me?” Imagine my confusion when I told her that I in fact had not eaten, asked whether she had, and she told me yes, she’d had dinner already.

But it’s not just that. It’s deeper. When my Korean got better, I suddenly noticed a pattern in conversations: when people decided to change the subject, so often they would change it to food. Either to a place where the food was good, or to a specific food that the two interlocutors had agreed to cook together sometime, or asking after some foodstuff… it was food, food, food.

Which, well: that’s culture. Some Koreans I teach find it odd how weather is so prominent in our (English-language) small talk, but it’s the same thing: food and weather are both eminently inoffensive subjects. Nobody’s ever going to feel insulted or angry when you talk about food or the weather. Nobody will ever report you as a communist. Nobody will ever hit you regarding your opinion about food. (As long as you don’t disparage kimchi, anyway.)

But also, food is a communal thing… because in Korea, so many things are fundamentally communal: soup is often served in a single big bowl, from which everyone spoons their broth one mouthful at a time, or picks the morsels they want to eat. Yes, you end up having miniscule amounts of others’ saliva in your own food, and as a Westerner that put me off at first. I got over it, at least when it comes to people I know well or feel comfortable… and, as a testament to human neuroplasticity, I actually learned to feel that thing that lots of Koreans seem to feel, about how, once you’ve shared a meal with someone, you’re somehow closer and more comfortable together. I even remember feeling keenly sad that I couldn’t eat with my family this way, years ago: that was pretty weird, really. (But I’m still pretty uncomfortable sharing food with strangers this way.)

So it’s really not that unfair to say that South Korean society is pretty heavily preoccupied with food. It’s a staple of conversation, a fount of metaphors for other aspects of life (including other people), a means of bonding, and an unavoidable part of their entertainment culture. (Suddenly, that octopus scene in Oldboy makes a lot more sense, right?)

That doesn’t mean people are particularly attentive to food, mind you, any more than Westerners are all that attentive to the weather in a deep way. Most of us fail to make a point of going out and enjoying a sunny day, and I find most Koreans I’ve met aren’t particularly discerning about food either, despite the horrible state of restaurants in Seoul. Which is odd: it’s always felt a bit like being trapped in this bit of the film Oliver Twist:

… where people are singing the praises of food that, compared to what you get for $3 in Jeonju, is just substandard. That gets tiresome after a couple of years. But one reason people eat out so much despite this is because eating alone means either eating alone, or eating with family. Whatever is lacking in gustatory joy, is made up for, for many, with good company, and the variety of new faces with which to share one’s meal. Little surprise that some people would opt to just outsource that function, and find company with someone who is selling company as a service online.

That’s just what happens to culture when modernity hits: one might as well be baffled at the fact that men today are willing to send money to women who undress or masturbate online: it’s really, sexually, pretty equivalent to watching someone eat somewhere where you can’t share the food, but when the food (like the sex) serves as a placeholder for something else–company, proximity, an actual relationship with a human being–what you end up with is the same: a simulacrum filling in a blank shaped like something else.

You can be obsessed with something and not really care about it on a deeper level. (Example: the passive acceptance of the Patriot Act(s) in a society obsessed with talking about its “democracy” and “freedom.”) The obsession is a cover for obsessing about something else: in Korea, it’s communion, and stability, and, I think, a kind of community that hasn’t really been a part of daily life in decades, or at least in years. (As I mentioned in a piece in Arc magazine a year ago, highly ritualized drinking practices in Korea serve a similar purpose: they’re like an extended metaphor for the kind of community-wide connectiveness and elder-respecting that has been steamrolled out of existence by the anonymizing and fragmenting forces of urban modernity.) I’d be surprised if you could find a culture where the society-wide obsession with something  resulted in a deep, intellectual, meaningful relationship with the thing itself. The thing is a metaphor, and the relationship is more fundamentally with the thing metaphorized. In Seoul especially, food is so busy standing in for other things that for many people, the actual quality of what’s eaten is often almost an afterthought.

So when I hear that people in South Korea are paying to watch some skinny young woman eat meals on the Internet, I’m pretty unsurprised. What surprises me is that they don’t have girl-group like circles of women, dressed in girl-group clothing (or half-dressed in girl-group outfits, or undressing from such outfits) chowing down together on live streams for lonely middle-aged men to watch. (“Uncle fans” as they like to be called, with all the, er, discomfiting connotations.)

Oh, but all this reminds me, I need to post my Jeonju restaurant guide sometime soon! But I have a couple of other posts lined up first: one on beer under Habsburg rule, and the follow-up to my post on tutoring Korean kids. Coming soon!

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