It was a bustling time in the refectory, with the sound of silverware and trays clattering, chairs being pushed in and out, and the chattering of students and faculty alike excited for a midday break between classes. Tables were filled with plates of food and condiments, and the conversations oscillated between theological academia and personal plans for the upcoming break. With a strong international program, a large percentage of the students were first-generation Koreans, and they reservedly mingled with their English-speaking cohorts. It was in the midst of this when a good friend, a Caucasian woman in her early thirties, leaned over and frankly asked: why do Koreans chew so loudly and so often with their mouths open?
The irony was glaring, of course, for all those who were sitting within earshot. Asking about the proclivities of an entire race based on the experiences of a few, and so bluntly, was uncharacteristic of a culture-minded, progressively liberal community. But none really knew that I didn’t mind, especially because she and I were good friends, and this was something I could laugh about. Plus, her intonation was of genuine curiosity rather than indicative passive-aggression. There was, however, a fraction of a second that I considered being offended, but I simply chose not to and honestly wondered about the question.
Siphoning through my memories, I realized that this was a rather true statement. There are many opportunities for Koreans to sit and eat together, most notably in church settings and family gatherings. And, to be completely honest, it was a tendency of Koreans to be rather rude at the dinner table according to the western rubric. Koreans often chewed loudly and with open mouths; they spoke animatedly with their mouths full; and they often tried others’ foods, many times without asking. It was something I’d never considered before, and, in fact, eating, talking, and chewing loudly was something I considered indications of a lively meal.
But to understand why Koreans may seem so rude at the dinner table, we need to go back many decades, all the way back to the early 20th century when, for Koreans, simply finding food was a chief worry.
War Torn Korea
The early 1900s was a violent period for Korea. Starting in 1910, the peninsula was occupied by Japan following the Russo-Japanese war. The aim was absolute jurisdiction; the native language and culture were forcibly discouraged, and Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and convert to Shinto, the official Japanese religion. Any opposition was brutally handled, including the Independence Movement of 1919, where tens of thousands were killed, injured, or imprisoned.
Japanese occupation ended in 1945, which saw the end of World War II. But the year saw a new kind of conflict as the United States and Russia disagreed over whose rule the peninsula fell. The compromise drew an arbitrary line at the 38th parallel, and it is an angry mark of division that still plagues the divided country today. The northern region fell under the USSR’s communist rule as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), while the southern end was under U.S. jurisdiction as the Republic of Korea (ROK).
The year 1950 saw the manifestation of this divide in bloody battle. Backed by Joseph Stalin, Kim Il-Sung launched a formal invasion of South Korea on June 25. The army reached Seoul in three days, and a fierce war raged along the Han, the river that flows through the heart of the South Korean capital. For the United States, this war fought on the soil of this relatively tiny peninsula meant the tipping of the scale of communism itself on an international level. The U.S. government under Harry Truman sought and received sanction from the United Nations to intervene on the side of South Korea, and the U.S. military came to its aid in July. The efforts were more or less working, keeping the defensive against the North Korean army and drawing them back slowly further up north. That is, until the Chinese intervened on behalf of communism. In October of 1950, the Chinese army fought on the side of communism with North Korea, and by January of 1951, they had recaptured Seoul.
A few more years passed of relative stalemate, but this did not mean that things were stagnant. By the time a cease-fire armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, an estimated 4-5 million people, both military and civilians, had lost their lives or gone missing. It was a bloody war that began and ended at the same 38th parallel, and, in many ways, it is something from which Korea is still recovering today.
Economic Growth in South Korea
By the end of the war, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world with a devastating $64 per capita income. The land was scarred by the rampage that had taken place over the last few years, especially with the world’s powers believing that the culmination of the struggle between democracy and communism hinged on the war fought on this small peninsula. With the involvement of several of the world’s superpowers at the time, the battles were supplied with enough capital and men to feed a constant massacre that resulted in nothing more than a re-marking of the line drawn at the 38th parallel. Which is why it is nothing short of a miracle what South Korea has done since the end of the Korean War.
South Korea’s GDP grew a staggering 31,000-fold since 1953. By 2004, South Korea was the 12th largest economy in the world, joining the trillion-dollar club in global economies. South Korea’s import of raw goods and materials and export of technology products has grown tremendously, with Samsung Electronics making up some 20% of South Korea’s entire economy. This was all possible due to South Korea’s relationship with the U.S., namely as the recipient of foreign aid, receiving an estimated $12.7 billion between 1945 and the 1990s; but what could be said is the most distinguishing mark of South Korea’s success in the global economy is when it went from being the recipient of foreign aid to active donor in 2006 to the Development Assistance Committee.
South Korea’s international rise can also be seen in the permeation of its culture in the global sphere. It boasts a booming entertainment industry, notably its K-Pop scene, with pop stars like 2NE1's CL who topped various celebrity lists, receiving more votes than even Beyonce and Taylor Swift on the Times 100 Reader’s Poll. South Korea’s film industry has also captured international interest, with Asia’s largest film festival being held in Busan and with movies such as 2002’s Shiri breaking Titanic’s record of 4.3 million viewers with 6.2 million.
Needless to say, South Korea’s meteoric rise is both staggering and unprecedented on a global scale. But the question remains: with all their success and apparent wealth carrying them into the first world, why are Koreans such bad guests at the dinner table?
The South Korean Economy and Korean Table Manners
You might’ve guessed where this is going, but in case you haven’t, let’s consider the Korean style of eating. If you’ve read about the rising popularity of kimchi in Atlanta, you might’ve picked up on the fact that the Korean dinner table consists of many side dishes. The only real dish that is personally indulged is a bowl of rice. A main platter, usually derived of meat or fish, may be at the center of the table for all to share, but more often than not, meals consist of individual bowls of rice with several small dishes of seasoned vegetables at the center of the table.
This culture, then, leads to a very communal style of eating. For centuries, the dinner table was a place to commune, and it’s not uncommon to see mothers placing items with their chopsticks on their children’s rice bowls for them to eat. This communal style of eating does not seem to translate well into the western culture, however, where personal space and individual rights are highly emphasized, especially at the dinner table. Trying others’ food and sitting rather close are cultural transgressions in the western hemisphere, and encroaching on personal space may make persons uncomfortable when dining. However, this is a practice that goes back as far as Koreans were eating, and because everyone shares from the same dishes, the table is rather a close space for family and guests.
But what may make Koreans the worst diners in America is the fact that the South Korean economy rose very quickly—perhaps too quickly. It was less than a generation ago that the South Korean people were scrounging for food in the war torn land; it’s a feat to expect Koreans to learn "first world" behaviors such as nuanced table manners in less than a generation. Most second generation Korean-Americans may have learned these behaviors at school or other intercultural experiences, but first generation Koreans may find it novel and even constricting to impede behaviors at meal time. Some may find that seeing their guests eating loudly shows that they are “맛있게 먹는다” or “eating deliciously.”
So the next time you may wonder why a Korean or Korean-American is being apparently rude at the dinner table, keep this one fact in mind: it’s most likely because South Korea is one of the most amazing feats of economic development in history and an example of tenacity and perseverance in the face of a post-war era.