If I had a nickel for every time I responded ‘hello’ to one of my students in the lunchroom, well, let’s just say that 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 in the most unassuming of places - the school cafeteria.
Mirroring its mother land, it’s loud, abrasive, and organized in some kind of chaotic design I will never wrap my mind around. Yet, every day, I couldn’t wait for 12:20 pm to roll around. To the masses that 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.
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 strictly enforced tray section.
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 - symbolizing apples, peppers, and strawberries; orange - representing sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and bananas; green – which is lettuce and other vegetables, and black – representing the staples of rice, noodles and bread.