Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why don't we share?: Korean School Lunch vs. American School Lunch

When one moves from the midwestern United States to South Korea, one sees the average girth of people on the street shrink a bit. When it comes to Asian countries in particular, we're quick to attribute this to genetic good fortune, but I must admit that Korean cuisine, at least traditional Korean cuisine, is pretty healthy. I don't think it cures all ills as some Koreans will try to convince you, but it definitely might surprise you. Fun fact: kimchi contains a lot more, perhaps 10 times more, probiotics than yogurt.

While I don't have scientific proof, I would argue that Koreans also tend to be slim not just because of what they eat, since clearly they don't always eat healthy food, but because of their food culture. Korean food culture is all about sharing. Always.

Forget about my light hair and blue eyes. I have never felt more American than when I scarf down a snack outside my office so I don't have to feel bad for not wanting to share with my co-workers. At restaurants, everything from soup to meat is served in one large order to be divided up amongst the group. Usually your personal plate is hardly bigger than a tea saucer or small cereal bowl.  It was a painful transition at first having to be conscious of leaving enough for others, but sharing with others at restaurants definitely makes me more thoughtful about what I eat, like social portion control. 

I'm sure every foreigner in Korea has felt some judgement when actually ordering a dish entirely for themselves. Even in western style restaurants, I rarely see a Korean keep a dish to his or herself, friends and couples will put their dishes in the middle to share. If a Korean does have their own dish, want to casually snatch a piece of food off their plate? No problem. This was quite shocking to me since like the average American, when it comes to my food I'm like a mother bear with her cub. Want to take some of my food? Sure! As long as you don't value your fingers and/or life.

There are some Korean foods meant for one, but even then Koreans don't tend to eat alone or on the go. Nothing will make you feel the sting of condescension like flying solo at a restaurant, or worse, eating McNuggets while you stand around waiting for your bus (yes, true story). Eating in Korea is certainly not a solitary venture.

So what does a Korean school lunch look like? Here is some non-Instagram-worthy photo documentation:

You're probably sensing a theme here. 

This is how my school lunch looks every day. Rice, kimchi, soup, protein, metal tray, metal bowl, small portions, and bad lighting. Despite the drab pictures, the food isn't too bad, and most days I like what is served. But there are no alternatives and this is what everyone eats, from the students to the teachers to the principal. And this isn't unique to my school; this is what lunch at most public schools across Korea looks like. While seemingly mundane, I can't even imagine this happening in the States. Everyone eating the same thing with no alternatives? And no super sized portions? There would be mutiny, some parents would probably even call it inhumane. 

The lack alternatives in South Korea's school lunches certainly clashes with my American sensibilities, which equate wealth and capitalism with choice and individuality. Food options may have been limited in the not so distant past for Korea, but since the economy has developed tremendously over the past 50 years, why not enjoy the ability to choose now? Why not install a cafeteria with a variety of lunch and snack options? To me the cafeteria seemed out of step with Korea's overall development. 

Eventually though I could see that these questions were more telling of my own values than a hiccup in Korea's development.  It's easy to look at Korea and see a westernized capitalist nation, with it's behemoth shopping centers and upscale coffee shops, but Korean and western mentalities couldn't be more different. Americans and westerners tend to think about "me", while Koreans are always thinking about "we", and how to keep the community in harmony. When I walk into a cafeteria I think "what do I want to eat?", but for Koreans it's "what are we eating?"  

Yes, Korean students are slimmer because their food tends to be healthier, but are there additional benefits because there is one standard meal? And because Korean food in general tends to be standardized and community oriented? I imagine that if you've grown up eating this way, you'd have an easier time learning portion control and accepting healthier food options. After all, if you don't have a choice, eventually you are just going to eat what is served. Even as an adult, living in Korea has changed my eating patterns. When I first arrived in Korea, kimchi and I did not agree with each other, but after two years of having it on my plate every day, I eat it like candy. These days I'm also much more likely to share food and feel satisfied after eating proper portions. 

I also think about my own high school cafeteria. While I'm sure some of my weight gain in high school was due to the natural process of growing up, I imagine the appearance of my second chin also had to do with the greasy pizza, giant sandwiches, and inexplicably delicious cookies served in the cafeteria. Even if I brought something healthy from home, I often found it hard to stop myself from buying snacks or a "side" of fries. I tended to eat more simply because their was more food in front of my face. The amount of choice was overwhelming.

Of course, a choice-free lunch system bodes well with Korean culture, and would be understandably difficult to implement in the States, but it is certainly (pardon the pun) food for thought. I've been raised to think that more choice is always better, that more choice always makes us happier. There' have been many studies however, showing that this isn't necessarily true. More choice can make us stressed and overwhelmed. Could more sharing and less choice in our diet also improve our health? My time in Korea has led me to believe that they are important factors that deserve much more attention. Improving health isn't just about what we eat, it's about how we eat.


  1. When you care about your children you do the very best. Speaks volumes for the U.S.

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