If I had a nickel for every time I said 'hello' in response to one of my students in the lunchroom, well, let's just say it would solve a lot of my problems. Since those coins aren't showing up on my doorstop anytime soon, I'm slogging through the days teaching English in rural Korea. Stepping off the airplane blind to the place, culture, or customs, I've come to take solace is the most unassuming of places - the school cafeteria.
Mirroring its mother land, Korea is loud, abrasive, organized in some kind of chaotic design I will never wrap my mind around. Yet, daily, I couldn't wait for 12:20 to roll around. To the masses who annually flock to this small peninsula, it is important to know a smidge about this memorable part of the day before embarking in the delicate adventure that is Korean school lunch.
Eight long tables span the length of the crowded room. Sixteen seats to a side totaling, roughly, two hundred fifty six people, all under the age of fifteen shuffling in, out, and around at any given time. Adding to the pandemonium are the ever present boys sprinting through the lunchroom gauntlet with trays of scorching hot soup, leaving behind a dust cloud of disciplining teachers.
Ready for Nuclear War
At one end of the room, lunch workers stand behind open windows next to their tubs of food. Only exposing their eyes to the outside world, the servers seem more prepared for all out chemical warfare than simply serving up kimchi. Perhaps smiling, one can never tell, and with a friendly, Annyong haseyo (hello), the lunch warriors individually greet their customers from the two opposite lines snaking down the aisles. They gingerly grab a handful of their rations from giant metal containers and place them in their very strictly enforced section of tray.
Usually, on some wall you will find the ubiquitous Asian animation depicting the oversimplified food guide pyramid. Four divisions, based on colors, is the backbone of the guide. One must eat from all the colors: red symbolizes peppers, apples, strawberries; orange represents sweet potatoes, pumpkin, bananas, green is the lettuce and other vegetables, and finally black, the staples of rice, noodles and bread.
Standing in line, and avoid slipping on any errant kimchi that may have fallen off a tray in transit, there are several pieces of mental 'homework' that can be done to ensure a quality meal experience. At any point in the journey you feel confused, a fail safe method is to find a Korean example, mentally record every movement that person does, and, robotically, do exactly everything that person does - literally everything. This also works with just about any other situation you may run into during your stay in Korea.
First, unless you want the whispered conversations of, 'where is the foreigner from,' a premeditated tray rotation to accept your goods is a must at this point. That is, the appropriate section of tray is to be extended over the vat of food. Rice, served daily, finds its home in the bottom left division, soup is always the bottom right, and your daily dose of kimchi usually claims a top corner. The top three partitions are for the more variable and noteworthy sides, so plan your rotation accordingly (please see paragraph beginning, 'Even before you get those darn chopsticks…').
There is an optional, but helpful strategy I have developed that takes only a split second, but may take several weeks to perfect, depending on your level of chopstick dexterity. As the grub is getting dished out, and while you cordially exchange 'gamsa hamnida's,' you need to mentally assess the number of chopstick necessary items. The reason for this is fully explained below, but to summarize, the higher the dishes requiring chopsticks rather than a spoon, the faster you need to eat. A quick mental calculation of this can pay dividends at the table.
At this point, you've survived the process of getting your food, now you've got to find a seat. If you don't have a teacher take you under their wing by this point, this can be a little intimidating. A quick glance at the ocean of black heads bent over their trays, you will notice the homeroom teachers eating with their classes and a table or designated area for the secretaries/ maintenance and 'other' teachers. This is where you should start heading. With the lingering rift between the sexes slowly disappearing, try to find a seat on the appropriately gendered side of the group, but don't be too concerned if Kindergarten students butt right up with this group and you cross contaminate. Just give a polite bow to the group, sit, and begin.
Down the hatch - On your mark, get set, go
Congratulations, you've made it, but this is where the real action is.
If you haven't already noticed, and unless you're a seasoned world traveler, you will be looking down at some of the most unfamiliar and adventurous cuisine you've ever seen. Fish often comes cooked with all parts still seemingly functional; skin, eyes, and take extra care with the bones. Beef and chicken, although looking far less life like, still contain many of the bones, so think twice before you chomp down. Anything red is an instant warning to your mouth screaming, red pepper! Kimchi and all its variations will most certainly grow on you. Trust me, I didn't give it a chance and now I swear by it. Truly, as far as the food itself goes, keep an open mind and you will come to look past the sharp bones, the kimchi spice on everything, and even enjoy things originally dubbed as, let's say, 'dirt soup'.
Your neighbors will almost certainly heighten the dining experience. Lunch, is not treated as the social hour it often is back home, save that for the post lunch coffee. It's business as usual. Don't be surprised with hearing noises you thought may never come from a living human, and be on the lookout for spat out animal bones flying through the air. The slurps and lip smacks are a main stay. Table manners, as we know them, are virtually nonexistent, but I recommend familiarizing yourself beforehand on the Korean versions, they will score you huge points with everyone.
Even before you get those darn chopsticks situated in your hand so they're usable, you may find the person you sat down with is already sucking up their remaining morsels of rice. Yes, this will happen; Koreans have been described as 'voracious' eaters. They may finish a day and a half before you, but are always quick to complement or give chopsticking pointers. Of course, you could always visit a few sushi restaurants before getting on the plane.
When the dust settles on the eating extravaganza, you may notice what I've coined as: the kimchi tie. This happens when an inexperienced Korean eater, pairs their chopstick ability against the wide range of potent spices found here. So many times, and I speak from experience, I have gripped those slippery pieces of fermented cabbage or radish cubes, and bring it to my mouth just as it slips free, marking a scarlet racing stripe from my breastbone to my lap. Along the same lines, be careful of the soup, the spicy splatters make a cute polka-dot design. You may want to ask your mom to send a box of red lobster bibs as her next care package.
Now all you have to do is say 'hello' every three seconds to eager eyed students, navigate your way through the lingering crowd, discard your leftovers, tray, putting silverware in their appropriate containers, and start preparing to do it all over again tomorrow. Bon appetit!