A few days ago, I had a huge fight with my boyfriend. It was about money that had nothing to do with money indeed. I hated that we always split the cost for things that we do together instead of taking turns so that we don’t have to be calculating our share. Every time I put my share of cash on the table, I felt part of me connecting to him was silently withering. A few months back, I had already complained how negatively it affects my feelings towards our relationship. He understood and he made an effort to fix it. He wasn’t just used to it. Money is the last thing I care about when it comes to my relationship. Yet, experiencing negative situations that always had to do with money over and over made me extra aware of money and paying. I was already so poor. I had no income but only spending from my savings. I almost cryingly admitted that it is especially a sensitive issue now that I have no disposable income to treat people whenever I want, which already makes me feel miserable and owing something more than money to people I care about.
It turns out I have a deep rooted feeling against splitting bills, which I never realised before going Dutch became a “normal” routine here in Belgium. I believe it comes from the culture I was raised in. It’s extremely casual but it turns extra sensitive if the invisible rule isn’t followed. Similar issue was raised in online communities in the beginning of 2000s when men started complaining about women who don’t pay anything on dates. Although it involves more complex socio-economic explanations, it is true that not being reciprocated in any kind has a power to make any person sensitive.
Interestingly, though, this reciprocity isn’t just about the value of money. It specifically involves the activity of eating together. Often, after someone asks for a help, he or she might say, “I’ll buy you a meal,” as an expression of gratitude for the help. Then the “feast” in restaurants will be followed. One might ask how on earth taking more time to eat with the person for whom I spent time on helping out is a compensation at all. That’s exactly my point. Eating together is the compensation. Eating together itself is considered as a valuable activity in social interactions, often with the help of good food. That’s the culture I grew up in.
As a result, when I walk to the counter waiting for the cashier to tell us how much we need to pay, I suddenly feel the whip of socio-cultural obligation-like urge during the 5 second interval between the announcement of the addition and reaching for my wallet, I claim “I’ll get it.” The next time, another person would approach to the cashier and pay first so that I don’t unfortunately end up with 0 in my bank account.
One of the most common scenes in restaurants in Korea is how people argue with each other saying one will pay for the food. One would toss his card to the cashier with one hand while the other hand intercepts the wallet coming out of another person’s pocket. And the other person would try to do the same thing. This ritual can take several minutes. Usually the less quicker one gives up and proclaim that he will pay next time. What I also remember is that some, including my parents, would just secretly go out at the near end of the meal and pay for all food before anyone else tries to argue. That way they get to pay without fighting.
During my first university year, we first year students were almost guaranteed to eat for free. Older students would pay for the younger ones even just for casual everyday meals. Splitting bills wasn’t common unless they are all first years. The younger ones expect to do the same for even younger students the next year.
Eating meals together is an important notion in Korea. What demonstrates this is the newly created term called “hon-bab,” the shortened meaning of eating alone—“alone rice” in literal meaning. It is typically used in a rather sad or negative tone to imply unordinary situation. Its connotation also comes with the life of modern times where people are busy to make time(or friends) to eat together. I would imagine if eating alone was nothing but casual, the term wouldn’t have been created. The fight to get the honour of paying for the meal should be related to this cultural meaning of eating together. It’s about doing it together. Calculating what I ate feels so separating and somehow feels like such a cheap action for the great nourishment we get from eating together.
All the affection and caring starts with treating for food. Whenever I visit Korea, my friends and my sister’s would insist on taking me out for lunch or dinner. My mum insisted on cooking lunch for my boyfriend when he visited my parents, and they had to take us to a dinner place that they thought was good and perhaps more familiar to my foreign boyfriend’s taste. It must have been the only way for them to communicate with him without understanding any language. This is the way I know how to feel warm and welcome. In Korea, the common greeting is to ask if they ate (literally, “did you eat rice?”). I sometimes feel lonely here without people asking me if I ate.