My Brilliant Korea

Did you eat?

Blogging | July 1, 2012

In the beginning, it really bothered me.

“Did you eat?” my Korean colleague, Jeong, would ask me each and every time we saw each other.

“Yes, I ate”, I would reply, often, a little impatiently.

If I’m hungry, I’ll eat, I thought at the time.

If you’re hungry, you’ll eat.

I’ll look after me, and you’ll look after you.

End of story.

I realise now, a couple of years later, that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Jeong was asking me if I had eaten, because this is the way Korean people greet each other.

In Australia, we might say, “G’day, how’s it going?”

And in America, “Yo, waaaaaaasssssssup?”

And in Korea, “Hello, did you eat?”

The reason Koreans greet each other this way dates back to the 1950s, when the country was ravaged by war.

At the time, Koreans asked each other if they had eaten, and more often than not, the answer was no.

No, to eating today.

No, to eating yesterday.

And possibly, no to eating the day before.

Like I said, it’s a little more complicated than I first thought.

To be honest, now, when I look back on the way I would respond to Jeong, I feel like, well, a bit of an arsehole really.

She was checking that I was okay.

She was asking whether I needed anything.

She was being a good friend.

I, on the other hand, was sighing and feeling frustrated that she wouldn’t mind her own business.

Because that’s what we do in Australia- we mind our own business.

When we ask “how are you?”, we want the answer to be “good”.

A student recently told me she had spent some time in Australia, so I asked her what she thought of the country.

“It’s good,” she said, but then paused.

“But, to be honest, I thought the people are very insular.

“They eat alone, they live alone, they don’t ask personal questions.

“Why is it like that?”

I was stumped.

Why is it like that?

When I first came to Korea, I thought we looked after ourselves in Australia, because that is the way it should be.

Now, as I wrap up my time in this country I have come to love and understand, I don’t know.

I don’t know why we don’t know the names of our neighbours in Australia, the ages of our close friends, and whether or not those friends are genuinely okay.

What I do know is that Korea has changed me.

Now, when someone asks if I have eaten, I tell them.

And when I ask them in return, I genuinely want to know the answer.


Comments

1. Michael A. Pringle II on July 1, 2012

I've truly enjoyed this read. At one point, I also questioned the reasoning behind...."Did you eat"

Thanks for sharing your journey^^

2. Caroline on July 1, 2012

Every post you write makes me want to visit Korea - but if I do, not sure how this quaint custom will apply to me. Sadly, I think just by looking my colleagues will be quite clear, I ate!!!!

3. Blythe on July 2, 2012

Glad you enjoyed it, Mr Pringle.

And Caroline, you are hilarious. As times goes by, it is becoming more and more obvious that I, too, have indeed eaten. Quite a bit, in fact.

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About Blythe Seinor

When Blythe was a journalism student at the Queensland University of Technology she interviewed the former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid.
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