The food connection

We have a deep connection with food. It keeps us alive and, when in abundance, allows us to focus on other aspects of our life. Have fun with others or do something creative, like painting or writing stories. Though the experience of food may culturally differ based on the country you grew up in; humanity shares a history of commensality (the act of eating together).

One of the most well-known examples of eating together is the last supper. When you look at Da Vinci’s painting, it shows one of the arguably most recognisable people in the most humane setting. When observed without (religious) context, we see these people share a table filled with food. We assume they’re telling stories and by doing so, they are working on their interpersonal relationship. Because food provides connection. 

Eating in media

We see it as well in contemporary media. There are a lot of holiday films with “the dinner scene” to either strengthen the bond of the people around the table or to put their differences under a magnifying glass for discourse to further the story.

Because of their limited runtime, most films don’t have a proper way to tell its story with the help of food. But there are series that do this most excellently. As an example, I would like to take the Korean Drama My Mister. While I am not familiar with Korean culture, this series boasts a level of humanity that is recognisable because of the use of food. In My Mister, the act of commensality is integral to the development of the relationships over its 16 episodes. 

Since I won’t go into detail about the premise of My Mister I hope my examples are clear enough for those that haven’t seen the series. If you want more information, you can read my earlier piece on the show. Just be warned that there will be spoilers! 

As a personal note: I highly recommend the series. It may not be an easy watch, but the well-developed characters and plot are very rewarding for those that stick with it. 
Each episode averages around 70-90 minutes and the story masterfully disguises itself as a slow-burner. When in actuality each episode covers a lot of ground with its cast.

My Mister and the food connection

My Mister requires and demands your attention. There is a lot of focus to little details like hands, breathing and staring that are recognisable across cultures. Things that we often only notice ourselves doing. 

Should you miss these details or lack a cultural understanding about a certain custom or behavior, My Mister usually provides understanding. Be it by explaining or showing the same in a different context. And doing this is certainly required, because this show is ‌rich in symbolism and unspoken desires1

It uses all aspects of the character’s life to strengthen the plot. As metioned earlier: eating and drinking are a big part of it. So let’s see how eating and drinking are connecting characters in My Mister.

Serving with Ms Byun

Dong-Hoon’s mother is always doing one of two things. She is either preparing food or serving people food. A strong character whose job it is to care for her three adult sons. Because these boys need it. While her role may be traditional, I think Ms Byun is the strongest of the family. A pillar if you will. She’s always working to provide food for those who need it. Be it her sons or her adopted daughter and the bar. In a way she is keeping the men in the neighborhood alive because they drink at the bar. We see these two aspects play out in episode 14 where she offers Jun-Hui food before she lectures her as a mother. 

Since the clip doesn’t have have subtitles I‘ve added them below

MsB: “What are you doing? Why are you not getting ready for business?”
JH: “It looks like you were here earlier. Why did you come back?”

MsB: “To cook for you. Come out and eat.”
JH: “How come getting changed is so annoying? My body can be so bothersome.”
MsB: “You’re too young to be saying that in front of me. Come out.”

JH:  “Mother, Aren’t you tired?”
MsB: “Of course, I’m tired.”

JH: “Don’t you get irritated? When I’m tired, I get so irritated that I want to smash everything. I really want to cry. “

MsB: “Among your customers, just pick a man and like him. Think about feeding him; and seeing him won’t make you irritated even when you’re tired.

You’re so stubborn. 
The breakup was 20 years ago. You could’ve married several times. Why are you still holding on to someone you can’t be with?

If this was the Joseon Dynasty, they would have built a gate of chastity for you.”

JH: “That kind of gate is useless.”

MsB: “Come out and eat!”

Ms Byun is the embodiment of commensality in this show. If she would have a one-liner, it would be: “Come out and eat!”

Ji-an and the power of sustaining herself

Ji-an has a weird relationship with food. In the early episodes she looks pale and undernourished. This is the result of only eating the scraps she steals from her second job. She is always on the brink of exhaustion due to all the work she does. Being malnourished doesn’t help her situation either. 

This is why she asks for dinner as payment for her services before requesting money. She has the realization she needs to eat to keep working. She can only care for her grandmother when she keeps herself alive.

Because no one ever really took care of her for a longer period of time, her mental and physical well-being are intimately tied together. She looks and behaves better when properly fed and when her grandmother is being cared for. When she’s on the run, her mental and physical state decline rapidly. We see the exhaustion in her eyes and the familiar pale complexion of her face.

Only at the conclusion of My Mister when Ji-An has learned to take care of herself we see her shine.

Dong-Hoon’s relationship status indicator

For Dong-Hoon it’s really simple. When he is interested in being with a person he eats with them. That is a relationship starter for him. After that moment he is more comfortable being with them and caring for them.

For example: episode 7 is where Dong-Hoon accepts to buy dinner and drinks for Ji-An. At this point in the show, she is still a stranger to him and he openly refused dinner earlier. 

But during this specific dinner we see both characters open up to each other. Later in the same episode they have drinks a second time and they talk, laugh and share a heartfelt smile. As a result of this personal connection, Dong-Hoon gets invested in Ji-An which leads to the fight in episode 9 between him and Gwang-il.

Another example: while he constantly eats and drinks with his brothers and never declines food from his mother, he rarely eats with his wife. They both have demanding jobs, but it’s clear they are estranged from another. That doesn’t stop Dong-Hoon from trying to connect with her2, even if it is hard for him to do so.

Dong-Hoon also occasionally celebrates with his colleagues, but only in one of the latter episodes eats with the Chairman3

Eating and drinking is an indicator of how he values his relationships. It is unclear if he’s just being careful about connecting with others (over food), or that he’s scared about the connection itself. And it’s this connecting element between Dong-Hoon and the surrounding characters that takes him further on his path of healing.

Clear connections

I was not really aware of the potential that commensality has. When used correctly, it can be a great asset in life and writing. Though it is not always easy to add to a story. For example: it’s not very practical in my current story. People are on spaceships and eating scenes are easily cut out in this setting. The knowledge of commensality made me aware of how important these scenes actually are. I will take extra care in the few food related scenes that I currently have. It is also something that I will take to heart in my future writing. Food is energy. It is fuel for life. Not just in the literal meaning.

So it is not just a writing lesson. It is also a life lesson. Spend your time at the table wisely. Give your attention to the ones you are eating with. They deserve your attention as much as you deserve theirs.


  1. If you want to deep dive, I recommend the fan-site Give me Slippers. The writer(s) there delve deep into the behaviors and symbolism of My Mister.
  2. He does this by calling her and asking if he should bring something from the store
  3. Note that I’m excluding his camping experience, since we do not fully see what happens there.

Sources used:

The humanity in My Mister

Life is a complicated mess. We all have challenges and traumas that we carry with us on a daily basis. It might feel that the world is a hostile place and you keep asking the same questions. “Why am I here? Why does it feel like the whole world is laden upon my shoulders?”

These are questions that belong to what I call the greater mystery of life. Questions that we often see asked by characters in books, films and tv shows. These are not easy to answer, especially when we struggle with them ourselves in real life. But through exploration of options, by the act of trying different responses based on the encountered situation we may gain a level of insight in ourselves. An insight into our morality if you will. The Korean drama My Mister is such an exploration. 

Premise of My Mister

My Mister follows the characters Lee Ji-an and Park Dong-hoon* as they form an unlikely connection whilst dealing with the misery in their life. The character of Ji-an is a 21 year old dealing with massive debts left by her mother while at the same time caring for her sick, deaf grandmother. 

Dong-hoon is the manager of Ji-an’s department at a structural engineering company. He is under constant scrutiny and manipulation by his supervisors, family and friends. We see him carry that weight tenfold because he is viewed as the only one from his neighborhood who made it big since he works at a big company. 

The plot starts moving when Dong-hoon receives a bribe that was not intended for him. Dong-hoon’s rival in the company sees this as an oppertunity to get rid him. Both our characters get involved from different angles which causes an exploration and eventually deepening of their relationship.

Besides the main characters there are at least 10 interesting side characters who interact with these main characters whilst dealing with their personal issues. While the drama is layered with Korean social norms the problems of these characters are distinctly human. Situations at work and relationship issues with family and friends. This is what makes the show accessible and recognisable. **

The human condition

When I was searching the internet to get a broader perspective for this drama I stumbled upon this article where Brazilian author Paulo Coelho praised the show for its portrayal of the human condition. In My Mister we see this human condition play out and the characters deal with it. And whether the viewer has experienced similar problems or not, it is clear that life is a complicated mess. It is the morality of the characters that decides how they deal with this mess. For Ji-an it is to work like a crazy person and take no shit so she can care for her grandmother. For Dong-hoon it’s carrying his burden and that of others without complaint in the hope that someday, somehow things will change for the better. In fact, this behaviour is rooted in the very core of these characters as their respective names mean (if I recall correctly): “to (reach) comfort”  and “the strong pillar”. Behaviour which turns out to be their saving grace.

Morality as saving grace

Our moral or ethical behaviour is constructed by our view on life, our view of the human condition. It does not matter if its basis is rooted in a particular philosophy, religion or culture. Our first morality is always constructed when growing up. It is learned through family, peers and the media we consume. In simpler terms: it is learned through our environment. So it is fair to state that we are our environment

It is only natural that when we change our environment, our morality changes. This is what happens in My Mister. With the encounter of Dong-hoon and Ji-an, combined with the events of the show, the personal environment of these two respective characters start to change. Through their interactions they gain a new perspective. A new insight into their character. Insight that was hidden beneath the surface. Something that could have been suppressed or simply never manifested in this way before. For Ji-an it is as simple as learning to have tfaith in another person, and accepting that there are people who want to help and support you without anything in return. For Dong-hoon it is to take less shit from the people around him. He stands up for himself, because it is the thing that needs to happen so he can follow his own path. 

Real life introspection

My Mister provides us with a level of introspection that can be applied to real life. Not just because some situations are common to happen in everyday life but because it shows that we humans can adapt. Through interacting with others we can feel support in our cause to help a sick family member, pay our debts, or even learn that if we take a stand for someone we care about we also take a stand for ourselves. We take a stand for what we believe is the right thing to do. Humans are adaptation machines if they realize that they don’t need to invent the wheel themselves. They just need to be open to learn from others, even if you hate those people the most in life. 

If you are able to see the starting point, the process and reasoning behind decisions, you will learn from it. That’s why interaction with people and media on a deeper level is important. So that we can deduce what our own course of action would be. This way we can implement reasoning in our system and become stronger human beings because of it.***

Subtle but powerful

What I like most about My Mister is the subtleness of the changes. Over its 16 episode runtime we see characters slowly realize how they’ve been living over the past years and that a simple change can be meaningful. Take for example Dong-hoon’s younger brother Ki-hoon. At the start of the show he is a person who is stuck in his past, thinking about who people said he was 20 years ago. He never reached the potential people said he had. He feels depressed and scared because of a bad experience connected to that time and has become an inactive person because of it.

But with the single, subtle decision to start working as a cleaner with Sang-hoon we see him grow as a character. He becomes a person who learns to stand up for himself and talk more open about the things on his mind. A seemingly small choice but with powerful consequences. 

The switch from dying to living

Another subtle change is that Dong-hoon’s older brother Sang-hoon stops talking about their mother’s funeral. And this might be the most powerful change in the entire show. For at the start, the characters are concerned about death. Death of others and themselves. Especially since their life feels dead to them. They are wondering if their life would’ve been worth it when their time would finally come. But when at the show’s end enjoying life and caring about the people around you is the most prevalent sentiment. A dichotomy best shown in the football game after the funeral. 

“Life is a complicated mess, but we cannot let the negatives control us” is one of the simple and powerful messages of the show.**** We can only fully experience our humanity when we are alive. So live. And I hope that you may experience the beauty of life for yourself.

*Note that Lee and Park are the Korean family names, so for ease of reading I will refer to them by their first name

**It is also part of why the critical reception has been good. With 21 award nominations overall and winning the category best drama and screenplay at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards. Not forgetting the 9.1 IMDB and MyDramaList rating

***The critical Drinker has something sensible to say about meaning in contemporary films

****Have some more life lessons from the show

Other sources and further reading

Francisco J. Ayala (2010): The difference of being human: Morality

My Mister fansite: give me slippers!

3 Quarks Daily review of the show

Motivational video: Humans as adaptation machines