Three days ahead of the Chuseok holiday, the Korean version of Thanksgiving, Lee Young-min, a 44-year-old freelance worker, joined a group of strangers, not family members, in cooking bulgogi and assorted pancakes at a community center in central Seoul.
Lee was one of the four middle-aged people gathered Tuesday afternoon to make lunchboxes filled with Chuseok delights to share with 10 vulnerable neighbors as part of a program offered by the Seoul city government to teach people living alone how to cook to maintain a healthy diet and make room for friendships.
"I enjoyed last week's class, so I decided to come again before I forget the recipes," said Lee while flipping his golden side of green pumpkin pancake steeped in flour and egg.
South Korea has seen a rapid growth in the number of single-person households from 2.25 million in 2000, to 5.2 million in 2015 and 7.16 million in 2021, accounting for nearly 33 percent of all households.
As single-person households become a new norm, the way people celebrate national holidays like Chuseok, in which people usually travel to visit their hometown and spend time with their family, has also gone through significant changes in recent years.
Kim Hyun-sup, 27, who has been living alone in Seoul for nine years, said he already paid a visit to a late family member's grave last week, a tradition on the Korean Thanksgiving day to show respect and appreciation for family ancestors.
But he said he doesn't have any special plans for the rest of the holidays.
"I think I'll probably just rest at home watching Netflix, or go to the gym," Kim said.
A recent survey found that 1 in 2 people would not visit their families in their hometowns during the Chuseok holidays. Of them, 34 percent said they had no plans, while 22 percent said they will watch streamed content or play games, and 17 percent said they will take care of long-overdue house chores.
But Byun Geum-sun, a social welfare researcher at the Seoul Institute, said it is perfectly normal for those who live alone to spend the holidays by themselves.
"It's not that they deliberately don't visit families," she said. "They've been leading independent lives for some time, so it may be even more awkward for them to suddenly be engaged in family activities, just for the sake of the holiday."
Byun also stressed that a different approach should be taken to one-person households depending on their age and characteristics.
Middle-aged people or seniors, who live alone normally, had had other family members but separated due to divorce or death, whereas young people break away from their parents to temporarily live alone, or simply choose to live by themselves after securing enough financial capabilities.
The cooking programs offered by the city reflects these differences, and separate classes are provided for youth and those aged 40 to 64, respectively, with the latter focused on not just making healthy dishes, but also on building bonds.
"Cooking is a medium to start conversations," said Woo Mi-sun, a freelance chef who has been leading the weekly and seasonal cooking classes in Jung-gu district from July.
Woo said it is rewarding for her to see people, who usually have their guard up and barely share a word with each other at the beginning, loosen up and ask how others have been doing for the past week.
"I've been living alone as well for 15 or so years, so I know what it's like," she said.
Leaving the three-hour session on Tuesday, Lee smiled, his hands full of lunchboxes packed with traditional Chuseok cuisine.
"The best part of the program is the interactions we get to have with different people," he said. "I'll definitely join again next time."
Source: Yonhap News Agency