Binge Eating Stars

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

I have written before about “slow TV”, exemplified by Norwegian television, with shows on stacking firewood and watching slow-moving ships. Another country with interesting video productions is South Korea. Well-known are the video productions of contests of online gaming, which have a substantial viewership outside the country. Recently NPR had a story on the popularity of eating shows, or mukbang. It profiles one of the better known binge eaters, Rachel Ahn, who goes by “Aebong-ee”. Every weeknight, she gathers a huge amount of food — noodles, dumplings, seafood — in front of her and starts to eat and broadcast. Her fans expect not just a large volume of food to be devoured at a sitting, but also to have it done in a particular way:

The demands on Ahn and other mukbang stars like her are high — she can’t just eat, she must eat ferociously. As she devours noodles, loud slurping is a must. Audiences offer feedback on a live stream, asking how spicy the noodles are, suggesting she move dumplings closer to the camera or do a dance in excitement. The stream continues for three hours every night.

The most successful binge eaters can make a lot of money and become quite famous. It may be that such shows offer a way for Koreans living alone to have a kind of companionship, even if it’s virtual. According to Ahn, most of her fans are women, many of whom are on a diet; she speculates that the eating shows are popular as a way for those women to eat vicariously. A professor of Asian Studies at UC-Irvine, Kyung Kim, has a different explanation:

Eating is something one activity that is strongly identified as being natural, and spontaneous…You think about K-pop or K-drama [and] they’re very artificial, they’re all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this — mukbang — to be the exact opposite of all the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.

Of course, describing the huge volumes of food consumed in the eating shows as “natural” might seem a stretch. I’d be curious if the binge eaters ever include a strangely popular food in Korea, Spam, the U.S. processed pork product from the 1930’s, which is particularly used to make a spicy soup known as budae jjigae, or army stew.

Brother Orange


Brother Orange and Matt Stopera from Buzzfeed

As a language teacher, I emphasize the importance of language in cross-cultural communication. It’s one of the direct pathways into another culture – it can mean that you’re looking from inside, not outside. However, connecting with someone from another culture without knowing the language is certainly possible – and it happens all the time. I am reminded of that fact by the recent story on NPR about “Brother Orange” and the lost cell phone.

Matt Stopera, from Buzzfeed, had his cell phone stolen last year from a bar in New York City. Then, months later, he noticed pictures showing up on his new phone that he hadn’t taken. They featured selfies by someone who looked Chinese and whom he started referring to as “Brother Orange” because a number of the photos included orange trees. Stopera posted one of the pictures on Buzzfeed, and the story was then spread on the Chinese social messaging service Weibo. Users of Weibo tracked down the man in the photo, who turns out to be a restaurant owner in the Southern Chinese city of Meizhou. In China, the story went viral and both men became minor celebrities. Brother Orange and Stopera started exchanging messages, and Matt decided to travel to Meizhou to meet him. On Buzzfeed Matt has described the experience. It turned out that the two found that they got along very well and despite neither speaking the other’s language, they became close friends. In the NPR interview with Stopera, he talks about the importance of non-verbal communication in their relationship:

We had two translators, but, you know, you’d be surprised about how much nonverbal you can do with each other. You know, how much you slept. Did you sleep well? We also, in the middle of the trip, we developed this, you know, symbol where we tapped our hearts and said happy, happy, happy, happy whenever we, you know, had a moment. And so when I think about that, that’s just big.

On the Buzzfeed page, Stopera also talks about the role of technology, describing the last day of his trip, being together with Brother Orange:

The last morning of our trip. We don’t have a translator for this part. This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me? It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything. Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

In the end, the stolen cell phone seemed to Stopera to align with an aspect of Chinese culture he had learned about:

I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.

The experience leads Matt not only to insights into Chinese culture, but through the natural tendency to compare cultures to think about U.S. cultural practices:

He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It’s fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!

The sense one gets from reading Stopera’s account of his visit to Brother Orange is that despite the language barrier, there was a deep connection made between the two men. That happened in large part because of the welcoming nature of the Chinese people, and of Brother Orange and his family in particular. But it was also made possible by the openness Stopera demonstrated in experiencing a variety of Chinese cultural experiences very different from his normal way of life and his willingness to share those together with his new Chinese friend.

mudbathThere’s a nice segment, for example, about his experience in the mud baths. From the many pictures included in his travel account, it is clear that for many of those experiences, no verbal exchange was necessary.