Midday metamorphosis

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Midday metamorphosis

It's half past 11 on Monday morning, and Shin Jung-hoon and his co-workers are already agonizing over where to go for lunch - the question Korean office workers like Mr. Shin face every day. But Mr. Shin doesn't worry about having a good lunch as much as using his lunch hour as efficiently as possible. As his workdays become longer and more irregular, he wants to take full advantage of his lunch breaks by doing something productive - besides eating.

"Most of us work in the office from 7 in the morning to as late as 11 or 12 at night," Mr. Shin says. "We just don't have enough time for ourselves; people are slowly learning that the lunch hour is the only time we have to invest in our own lives."

Mr. Shin, 32 and single, is a systems analyst for an information technology start-up. His office is in Teheran Valley, Korea's venture-firm capital, in southern Seoul. He and his co-workers take their lunch breaks in split shifts. The first team is out from 12 to 1, the second from 1 to 2. Mr. Shin is in the first group.

The employees in Mr. Shin's office aren't that adventurous when it comes to choosing lunch menus. They often go to the company cafeteria for a quick lunch, then repair to the smoking room to play go or watch a baseball game. Mr. Shin has a passion for billiards, so he tends to grab a gimbap and a 7-up for lunch, then head to the nearest pool hall for a few games.

Today, though, one employee moans that he skipped breakfast and asks that the four men in Mr. Shin's team take a "real" lunch break at a "real" restaurant. That means the men will break their unspoken rule: Avoid all lunches that take more than a half-hour. They're not the only ones making a habit of quick lunches, judging by the lack of authentic Korean restaurants near Teheran Valley and the profusion of fast-food joints like Pizza Hut and gimbap houses and convenience stores selling instant noodles.

As always, the group makes sure to jump the gun and leave the office at a quarter to noon. If they don't beat the crowds, the consequences can be disastrous. After polishing off their soups, two of the group bolt to a pool hall, while Mr. Shin and the other co-worker bask outside in the sunlight and have a smoke.

"Eat as fast as you can and do something for the rest of the lunch hour is the motto today," Mr. Shin said.

A 28-year-old woman who works as a magazine editor, Kim Hye-jin, is also determined to use her lunch hour efficiently. Since last month she's been taking yoga lessons at noon. "I've seen some of the older people in my office overwork themselves so much they get sick or even hospitalized," she says. "I don't want to follow in their footsteps; they should realize that health is not just one of many things they should be concerned about ?it is the key factor to ensure their productivity. They should start taking some control over their lives."

According to a recent survey by an Internet portal site specializing in services for Korea's office workers (www.salarymen.co.kr), the majority of white-collar workers opt for quick lunches over elaborate meals. Of the 3,128 office workers polled, 34 percent said they eat in the company cafeteria, 11 percent said they have food delivered or order take-out from fast-food restaurants, and 8 percent said they bring their own lunch.

The same survey indicated that most workers also try to do something besides eat during their lunch breaks, such as surfing the Internet, exercising, walking at nearby parks, taking language classes and even attending religious services. "About 130 to 140 office workers around here attend our noon service every Friday," says Ha Seok-bum, the evangelist at the Youngnak Presbyterian Church in downtown Seoul. The church offers a light meal after the service.

Some white-collar workers devote their entire lunch hours to hobbies or educational pursuits. At the Dongsung ESL Institute in Yeouido, for example, students who take English, Japanese or Chinese conversation classes during the noon hour arrive at the school about 10 minutes early and gobble down sandwiches or gimbap before the classes begin.

"I don't know how they do it," says Lee Ji-hyeon, who teaches Chinese at the Institute. "They sacrifice their entire lunch break for studies. I know some of them also take evening classes after work, when they should be home having dinner. No one in my class ever misses a lesson or falls behind in the work. They work really hard." According to the institute, the lunch hour classes fill up the fastest before the beginning of each new session.

But by not using the lunch hour to relax, are office workers coming back in the afternoon stressed out or sleepy? Do they need a pick-me-up? Not surprisingly, the quicker-lunch-and-do-something-else phenomenon has spawned a big rise in take-out coffee shops within the last few years. Much of that boom has been fueled by the Starbucks chain. According to Yang Jae-sun, a sales manager at Starbucks Korea, the peak sales time for the main Starbucks branch in Yeouido is 12:30 to 1:30, when the store sells an average of 300 cups. "About half of the shop's daily sales come from just that one hour," Mr. Yang says.

by Park Soo-mee

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