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Monday, 23 March 2009

The Art of the Korean School Lunch - Page 2

Written by Jon W. Wick
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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.


As you stand 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. If 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 makes, and, robotically, repeat every motion exactly… literally everything. This also works with just about any other situation you may run into during your stay in Korea.

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.

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. This is because, 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.

The Art of the Korean School Lunch, teaching English, rural Korea, kimchi, korean table manners, the school cafeteria, Jon W. Wick 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. After a quick glance at the sea 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 eat.

Down the hatch


Congratulations, you’ve made it, but this is where the real action is.

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 lifelike - 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.’

(Page 2 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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