Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders. This post is not fun. It’s not about travel or adventure. It is relevant to these because by living in other cultures, and experiencing culture shock, we uncover things about our own culture and about ourselves that may have otherwise never come to light. This is about how food culture in Korea made me face a tiny portion of my own food wars and the treatment of food in American culture. I thought about making it private, but aside from the fact that I just don’t have that many readers, I think that there are others who have their own food fights who need to know they aren’t alone.
I don’t want to say I have an eating disorder, but I think that it’s reasonable to say I have a very good view of eating disorders from where I stand. As a child, my father made it clear to me that my grandmother (his mother) was morbidly obese, diabetic and wheelchair bound because she ate her feelings. I saw this trope in movies and TV shows, as well as in PSA style warnings in health class, so it sunk in pretty deep. So deep that when faced with feelings of sadness, grief, anger, shame, guilt, etc. my throat closes down making swallowing nigh impossible and my stomach rejects everything with a vicious roiling nausea. There are some negative emotions like insecurity, stress and anxiety which do not trigger this response, so I still stress eat from time to time, but far more common for me to fail to eat while emotional and then eat too much when I recover and realize how hungry I am.
When I lost a close friend to suicide, I was so sad for so long that I couldn’t eat anything other than plain crackers and chicken broth with white rice for about a month. Most of the time, this isn’t actually a problem, since I’ve gotten decent at being able to take some time out and bring the emotions back around and postpone the healthy meal until I finish crying myself clear. (oh, yeah, I also believe we have to experience our sadness rather than suppress it). I haven’t actually gagged or thrown up over food from emotion since I was a kid. Which is probably the source of this whole mess.
Korea has been a battle ground over this usually innocuous problem. In the US and a lot of other places, if a fat girl turns down food in public, no one really pushes. Heck, even skinny girls are nervous to be seen eating too much or the wrong thing. A lot fat shaming is placed on overweight people eating anything in public, like they’re supposed to just hide from the world and never visit restaurants. America is like one giant overbearing parent criticizing all your food choices while also being the worst frat boy bro and offering deep fried everything and sandwiches made of fried chicken “buns” with bacon in the middle. Do you want fries with that?
Korea is not the only country I’ve lived in or traveled to where eating is a social activity, but it is the only one I’ve lived in where I felt so pressured to eat more. I sit at lunch with my skinny Korean coworkers and watch them shovel mounds of food in record time. I cannot eat that fast. I think maybe when I was in high school we had to eat that fast because there was no time, but I’ve become a slow eater since then. It’s better for you. It gives you time to enjoy the food, and gives your body the time it needs for the messages to get from the stomach to the brain that you’re satisfied. Not only can I not eat as fast as these women, I can’t eat as much as they do.
Last summer, I found myself in the very awkward situation of sharing an office with a group of administrative staffers that I otherwise never see. They brought treats basically every day to share and would insist that I come away from my desk to the table to join them. Even if I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was right in the middle of working on something and didn’t want to break my train of thought. I felt like I had no choice. And that made me feel a stinging combination of anger and shame that caused my throat to close against the swallowing of the snack.
I know, it sounds silly, why have such a strong emotional response to someone offering you food? It’s not about the food. It’s about the agency. It’s about food as weapon of control. If I can’t politely decline, it’s not my choice anymore, and there is nothing that flips all my trigger switches like having my agency over my own body removed.
I made it through the awkward summer often by simply holding onto a single piece of something to make it look like I was eating more. When school started and I was once again back in the company of my regulars who were all on diets all the time. One ate a huge lunch because she planned to eat nothing else that day, while another did so because she’d skipped breakfast. I survived lunch awkwardness by simply taking less food on to my tray, but this year with the new cafeteria, the very kind lunch staff love giving me big portions. And this year there are new teachers around me who are not on diets and love bringing and sharing snacks morning and afternoon.
When the substitute had her last day with us, the music teacher ordered a whole bunch of “Mom’s Touch”, a fast food fried chicken and burgers kind of place I ate at once and only once because there was nothing else around where I was at the time I was hungover and starving. But she ordered this smorgasbord after lunch, and everyone just kept eating! Even though I’d just had lunch, even though I really don’t like Mom’s Touch, and even though fried fast food is so unhealthy, I felt solidly pressured to eat some of it.
A few weeks ago, one brought me an ice cream right after lunch. Usually when people bring me snacks, I can politely accept and just say, oh I’m still full from lunch but I’ll enjoy this later. But ice cream melts… so I ate that. And that just runs counter to everything I ever learned about food. Eating ice cream just to be polite and not because I wanted it? What!?
After a whole puberty of diets and exercise plans, calorie counting and measuring ( and an early 20s rebellion of eating all the worst things, and part of the 30s doing fad diets and more measuring), I finally came to terms with listening to my body. Eat when hungry, stop -not when full, but when no longer hungry. When craving food, think about why. Go in craving steps where you try the healthy option and wait 10-15 minutes: water, protein, fiber, fruits/veggies, lastly chocolate. This has done basically zero for my scale, but I think it makes me feel better, and it’s certainly not unhealthy.
This chronic battle with food and emotion is unlikely to ever stop entirely in my life, but I felt like it was more of a cold war in the last few years. And then today, at lunch, one of my coworkers explained that the school was doing a “food waste awareness” program and that everyone was supposed to clean their plates.
Food waste is terrible. People in wealthy countries throw away so much food, it’s insane. I am sure Korea’s waste is less than it is in America. I remember learning the weight-loss mantra “Better to waste than to waist.”, meaning better to throw it away than get fat. But of course, really it’s better to not buy it, not cook it, not put it on your plate.
The point is, I am all for food waste awareness. But here we all are in a setting with very little control over how much of what food is put on the tray (I suppose kids can ask for less of something, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen) and this “clean your plate” suggestion (not even a mandate, since of course I am an adult and they aren’t actually forcing me to finish, only asking me to set a good example for the kids) this suggestion reaches all the way back into my psyche and flips every last food autonomy switch I’ve got.
I’m sitting at the table in my dad’s kitchen in California. I don’t remember exactly when, but I’m not more than 10 years old. His wife has made some kind of Hawaiian stir fry for dinner, and I’ve been told I have to clear my plate to earn a slice of the delectable chocolate layer cake resting under glass atop the fridge. I try, I eat everything but the onions, which I hated back then. But it’s not good enough. No onions, no cake. I struggle to choke down the onions I hate so much, the cake taunting me from across the kitchen. My father is going to have his piece in front of me. I force onions in sweet and sour sauce into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow, trying to hold back tears. But my throat closes and my stomach rebels and the onions, peppers, beef, and pineapple comeback up and onto my plate.
Now there is no dinner in my stomach, and I am scolded and shamed for vomiting, for wasting, for making a mess. Dinner, cake and dignity all revoked.
This is far from the only time that food was used as a weapon or a reward, but it is the one that came back to me today when my co-teacher innocently asked me to set a good example to the students during this food waste awareness campaign. And suddenly, my stomach turns upside-down. Food is repellent and I can feel the beginnings of the clenching throat that will make swallowing impossible.
I was hungry when I sat down and we were having curry rice for lunch which I particularly enjoy. And yet, after that I picked listlessly at my food, waiting for the others to finish first, which they always do, and to leave me alone at the table where I could nibble until nearly everyone was gone and I could dispose of the rest of my lunch as unobserved as possible. Now I am ashamed to waste food and to let the children see me do so.
I love food. I don’t understand how it is that we create in ourselves this kind of conflict, guilt and shame over food. Shame over eating, shame over not eating. I can’t help but think back to my brief time in France, a country that takes pride in food preparation and spends time to eat and enjoy it. Maybe I’m being wishful in believing that somewhere there is a culture that does not have the complex love-hate relationship with food that I grew up into. Until I find it, though, I just have to keep digging the shrapnel out of the scars of my past, hoping they’ll heal more completely each time.