When I visit my in-laws, they usually greet me by asking, “Have you eaten?” Even when I call them, they usually greet me by asking, “Have you eaten?” When my parents were alive, that’s how my parents greeted me when I visited them or called them. I experience this when I visit other Koreans as well. That’s how many Koreans greet people they care for.
Before Korea became an advanced industrialized country, it struggled for many years in poverty. So, whether one ate or not was a real issue. I heard that when starvation was rampant during the Korean War, the greeting was more often, “Have you not eaten?” or “Have you been starving?” Poverty begets a way of caring. Poverty begets an expression of love in a practical way.
Koreans do not greet everyone like that. But, if you visit their home or if they care for you, they will often greet you by asking that.
It’s not like the American greeting, “How are you doing?” That greeting does not actually expect a real answer. We usually say, “I am fine. Thank you. And you?” Or, at most, if we are honest, we might give a vague answer like, “Hanging in there.” “How are you?” is a vague greeting, and so, we give a vague answer.
However, if a Korean greets you by asking you if you have eaten, they expect you to answer. And if you have not eaten, they will start making something for you. Every Korean usually has at least some instant ramen in their kitchen. Of course, I am sometimes tempted to say, “Yes, I have eaten,” even when I have not, because I don’t want them to feel obligated to make something for me. Yet, I usually answer honestly because that is what they expect. If I don’t want them to feel obligated to make me something, I would usually say, “Thank you, but I am not hungry” or “I already have plans for dinner.”
This greeting is embedded in Korean culture. It says, I care about your physical needs, and I want to make sure your physical needs are met. This is an example of Korea’s communal culture. In the West, we expect everyone to take care of their own needs because we live in an individualistic culture. That’s the water we swim in: Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap!
The beautiful thing about this Korean greeting is how practical it is and how communal it is.
For those of us who live in Western culture, I wonder if there is a way for us to initiate care and love in a practical way right from the get-go. What would that look like? It’s hard to think of something that does not seem overbearing or nosy. Does our individualism limit ways of caring for one another in a practical and in a communal way? Does our individualism make us dishonest about how we are really doing because we don’t want to seem dependent or vulnerable? What could love look like? We know that the Bible was written in a communal culture. What are we missing in the way we love?
Kevin Haah is New City’s Lead Pastor. He went from being a young urban single out of Cornell Law School to getting married to his wife Grace, having three children, making partner at a prestigious law firm, then giving up law to pursue a Master’s of Divinity at Fuller Seminary, and becoming a pastor and church planter.
Kevin lived in a loft and worked in the US Bank Tower in downtown LA before it became fashionable. And he ministered to residents of Skid Row for several years before planting New City.
His vision has been to build an inclusive, gospel-centered community in downtown LA, which not only shares the good news of Jesus with the people of downtown but also becomes good news by serving the neighborhood. He also co-leads a church planting movement in Los Angeles.
Kevin also teaches at Fuller Seminary as a professor. He is also one of the authors of the book, Starting Missional Church: Life with God in the Neighborhood (IVP 2014).
In his off hours, you might find him reading a book, having a theological conversation with his kids, running a marathon, or biking with his family.