Jan 12, 2011

Table for One: on Korean Coffeeshops

I spent a freezing few days in Seoul, shifting from coffeeshop to museum to coffeeshop to confusing subway maze to...  wait for it... coffeeshop.

I'm not a java fiend per se, but the streets were slippery wind tunnels and my only company was myself.

Does that sound a touch Debbie Downer?

Really, it was a fun few days, waiting for my friends to arrive in Seoul. I had neighbourhoods to wander and books to read. I had the end of 2010 reflect upon, and the approach of 2011 to ponder. All in all, it was a good recipe for two days spent drifting in and out of coffeeshops. A soft chair, a book, a window, and something hot to drink.

To me, a coffeeshop is the perfect place for reading and writing, for people-watching. It's a place to reflect on recent happenings, or to plan future ones. They're great sites for chatty catch-ups with friends, or slow Sunday mornings with a loved one and a fat weekend newspaper between us. Mostly, for me, they're solitary hangouts. In Canada or abroad, I like it that way.

How terribly un-Korean.

My Korean peers do very little alone. On weekends, couples and girlfriends prowl the downtowns for shopping and errands. They fill up the coffeeshops; fill them to the rafters, until every plush chair is taken, and every tiny table is a mess of cups and napkins and folded arms. They linger for hours there, laughing loudly with friends, speaking softly with partners, looking at photos, snapping more photos, looking at those new photos.

Then there's me, alone and content. I feel like a tourist into the very lives of Korean twentysomethings as I watch their excited conversations, listening for recognizable Korean and eyeing their fashion with an outsider's curiosity.

Solitude isn't really done here. Not in a country where unmarried offspring live with their parents well into their thirties. Not in a country where toothbrushes are sold in six-packs and menus price their meat based on 2, 3, or 4-person servings. Communal is the norm.

So when I'm sitting happily in a coffeehouse chair with my big waegookin nose buried in a book, I know it's an anomaly.

I bumped into a coworker in a cafe once, while writing in my journal by a sunny window. She hovered over my table, lines of worry on her forehead, while her friends beckoned at the door with takeaway cups in hand. She had places to be. Still, she stood close.

"So, you're meeting someone? Oh. You're meeting someone later though, right?"

She left, her ears full of my grinning assurances that yes, I was fine, no, I wasn't lonely, no really, I was alright. Later, I tried to picture the scene through her eyes, of a foreign woman far from her family, claiming in chipper tones that a paperback and notebook were "company enough."

On the streets, when I see people walking about alone, they're usually going to or from something. People rarely stroll leisurely, taking in the streets and sounds. On buses and subways, Koreans are forever buried in their phones, texting friends, filling that limbo of solitary time.

We all face that limbo at some point, after all. The difference between Koreans and I is that, at my table for one, I'm relishing it.


  1. I'm also a big fan of my time alone. Not just in coffee shops, but also traveling alone. It's not that I don't love being with my husband and daughter. It's just that sometimes I need space to remember who I am.

    I find cultures in which constant communality to be fascinating. American culture deems the idea of always having to spend time with others as co-dependent (or insert other psychological work instead). I think it's just different, but since I've never experienced it for myself, I have yet to find out.

  2. Well, a day spent cafe hopping in Seoul is a day well spent - one of my favourite uses of a Sunday is just taking the subway to Hongdae and spending a few hours exploring the cafes :)

  3. Beautiful reflections, Anne. And that photo looks awfully familiar--Gangnam or Daehangno?

    Naomi--are B-Hind and Davant still around?

  4. Good eye, Hal! It's Daehangno.

    Hongdae is going to be next on my list of Seoul neighbourhoods to visit - thanks Naomi!

    And Leigh, a very good point about the notion of co-dependency. Great food for thought. I doubt the notion exists in Korea, and it's such a common North American guidance counsellor/Dr. Phil buzzword.

  5. I too enjoy the quiet moments alone at a coffee shop. But I've had a really hard time dining out alone in Korea; sometimes they won't even let you sit down unless there are two+ people.

  6. Really? Ouch. When I eat alone, it's always at the same restaurants where they know me and are no longer fussed about my solo-ness. I do sometimes get the concerned waitress, hovering around my table, trying to offer company.