With services catering to unaccompanied diners and single living situations, Korean society is increasingly becoming geared toward young singles, reflecting both the rise of honjok and the country’s shifting from its traditionally group-oriented culture. Honjok, a neologism combining words “hon” (alone) and “jok” (tribe), best describes a generation that embraces individualism, independence, and solitary activity. The rise of honjok is attributed to the various social pressures of the modern age, namely forced social interaction and limited opportunities to interact with others. Ultimately, it is about letting go of societal pressures and investing time in yourself. Honjok primarily takes form in hon-bap, eating alone, and hon-nol, enjoying space and time for leisure activities alone.
To better understand this shift in our collectivist social setting, I decided to experience the honjok lifestyle first hand. Before I begin, I feel it is important to disclose my biases: although I am a finicky eater and an introvert who would willingly walk up ten flights of stairs to avoid making small talk in an elevator, I dislike and dread even the thought of eating alone. In fact, I have never eaten a meal alone outside the comfort of my home while studying or watching a movie. Sure, honbap, as a phenomenon, has always made sense to me: solo-dining means you can eat whatever you would like, and that you do not have to adjust your schedule to accommodate other’s timing needs. You can also listen to music or a podcast and use your phone without worrying about being perceived as rude. Eating alone, however, has almost always been associated with friendlessness and socially awkward individuals—‘losers’—for the entirety of my life. I cannot help but sympathize for and assume that the college student eating alone two tables over is shoving spoonfuls of pure sadness mercilessly down his throat, desperately attempting to drown his loneliness in grease and sprite.
My first stop was where most students honbap—a convenience store. Although the food available is not exactly healthy nor palatable, they still offer a wide variety of affordable food that requires minimal effort and time to prepare. You could walk in, buy a frozen pizza, and or sausage, hamburger—whatever your heart desires—all for less than ten dollars, or less than three dollars individually.
I walked toward an unoccupied table holding a sangap kimbap and cup ramen, caught in a spiral of anxieties. Was I being looked upon pitifully? Was it possible to feel any more unbearably bored and lonely? I swore I could feel the cashier’s and other’s gaze burning in the back of my head as I assembled my dinner. How long would I be able to fight the overwhelming urge to turn around and confirm my assumptions? Was I coming off more as a student eating alone for convenience or a friendless loner? Perhaps a mix of both? I forcibly shoved my kimbap down my throat desperately. Every time the chime of the entrance bell filled the store and every time footsteps grew closer and louder, the number of individuals most likely judging me increased along with my desire to retreat to the comfort of my room.
My second stop was at a regular restaurant where individuals occasionally honbap. I had always managed to run into several acquaintances every time I had come here previously. What were the chances of running into someone? I reluctantly sat down in my seat with music blasting from my earphones, scrolling through my Facebook feed. The security of having something to do and my phone, a virtual connection to the outside world, slightly alleviated my self-consciousness, the waves of anxiety crashing down weakening.
Cut, dip, eat, drink. I worked my way through my tonkatsu and glass of sprite. The less pleasant aspects of eating seemed to have been amplified: the labor intensity of cutting the meat, oozing greasiness, and slightly salty aftertaste of each bite. Ten minutes in, my tonkatsu was nearly all devoured, and my glass was empty. I was out of a side dish but didn’t want to beckon my server again. The two times I asked for more kimchi or side dishes previously, I had done so in a somewhat hushed voice, not wanting to call attention to my presence. I was left to stare at and think about the food sitting in front of me with no one to talk to. Something felt odd, and I managed to realize what was missing: human voices and interaction. Restaurants typically are a cacophony of conversations, of individuals exchanging banter, sometimes too loudly. It is also the convention to call out to your server every time you would like to order something additional, or if you wish to have something at your table refilled. These requests run the gamut from effusively polite pleas to please bring something over when the server has a moment to barked commands to give me this or that.
My third and last stop was at the movie theater inside Coex mall, where individuals occasionally participate in hon-nol by watching movies alone. Watching a movie alone means you do not have to sit by someone who asks you questions throughout the movie or speak over the movie to you in general. I, however, happen to be ‘that’ person. Did I look like someone who had been stood up on? Would I simply blend in with all of the other moviegoers? I stuffed my mouth with the popcorn of my choice, determined to enjoy my special alone time and turn inward, self-reflect, and prioritize self-care. I, like most individuals, had been so caught up with my life that I hadn’t had a chance to process my feelings and thoughts nor reflect on my identity.
We often forget to relax and meet our own needs, and unknowingly partake in both subtle and extreme forms of honjok, whether it is singing our heart out at a coin karaoke room, studying alone or simply purchasing our favorite drink at a cafe. As enjoyable and convenient honjok is, it is something you cannot and should not force yourself into as one can never find forced isolation enjoyable.