Today at lunch I realized too late that one of the lunch ladies was scooping a suspicious looking salad with red sauce onto my tray. The salad was at the end of the line, but usually greens are somewhere in the middle of the line of steel food tubs. And when I sat down and started poking at it, I noticed some even more suspicious globs of slimy dark colored not-vegetable or salad-worthy possible unidentifiable raw sea creature parts floating about. It just looked very suspect of something I might not eat. When the school nurse noticed my uncertainty, I asked her in Korean what it was and she said "gol bang ee." Damnit. Cold snail salad. Man, I eat a lot of strange food, excessively strange foods. I've covered Korean specialty cuisines to an extent that I'm sure would satisfy those guys from No Reservations or Bizarre Foods. In fact, I've had a chance to try more barely edible oddities than they did in their respective South Korean episodes. Of course, I do live here, and also, I live in the countryside where you have to eat these types of things sometimes by default, or just not eat at all or face looking like a weirdo for not eating them. But in the middle of the average work day I don't normally get the urge to eat cold snail salad.
I'm usually able to spot things like this and just tell them in Korean to withhold it to save the troubles at the end of the meal. Today was a "no waste day." Every Wednesday at the elementary school I work for everyone is supposedly obligated to finish every last speck of food off their stainless steel trays before leaving the cafeteria. The lunch ladies place an upside down steel tray over the hole we usually throw our unfinished food into to help make sure we follow this barbaric custom. I learned this a while back when one day I was placing my tray down on top of the stack with maybe one-third of the plain rice left uneaten (that day there was nothing to mix it with, and eating plain rice is another barbaric custom in any culture in my eyes): as I placed the tray down a third grade girl, who usually follows me around school and calls my name over and over again, reached both her arms out in some pleading shock gesture and said "teacher!", as if to tell me that I had accidentally stabbed her mother or something. At this same moment the head nutritionist was just walking out and saw what I had done. She shook her head at me like I was a disgrace to everything she cherished in life and muttered a Korean expression of exasperation under her breath as she walked by. She would have confronted my outright defiance more strongly but we already had a confrontation similar to this one last semester, and I made it abundantly clear to her that they would have to deport me from this country if they wanted to make me finish food I didn't want to eat.
At first I was sort of taken aback by this behavior, but now I really enjoy this type of conflict when it happens. And sometimes (although I don't normally admit it) whenever I have food left over on a "no waste day" I even try to time my exit of the cafeteria to when the nutritionist is walking out to clean up the excess trays left by the other students. That way she may see my food that I did not eat and realize that she is powerless in this situation to stop me. She is powerless because of certain freedoms in my life that I not only embrace but choose to freely execute at every chance possible. I am an adult. We are forced to eat all manner of foods we don't want when we are children, and one of the great things about being an adult is that we don't have to do that anymore. The other teachers who follow this barbaric custom and shovel unwanted food down their throats are choosing not to execute some of the basic freedoms that come with adulthood, and sometimes this bothers me. Although it probably happens in every institution in every country in the world. But, in any case, the mindset of Koreans living in the countryside being largely conservative and traditional, I feel it's important for the ladies in the lunch room as well as the other teachers to observe my defiance sometimes. I am in this country not only to teach English, but to teach my culture. And culture has a lot to do with how a language is shaped and how it flows. And being able to choose freely what I will eat or not eat or waste is a part of my culture.
There is a fine line, somewhere, though. I don't agree with the mindset of wasting freely and openly and excessively just because you can, or just out of apathy. And that would not be the part of my culture that I would want to spread, or give the impression that I am a part of. I guess I just don't want to eat cold snail salad or feel bad about wasting it some days. That's all.
What's also interesting is that Koreans would sooner leave half a steak behind than not finish nearly every grain of rice served to them. I mean rice is what has kept this culture from starving when it was going through hard times, so it's not surprising that they look at it this way. I have heard people in the states who grew up during the depression with poor families behave in similar ways (although they might go for the steak before the rice). In fact, you don't ask someone "How are you?" in Korean, you ask them "Have you eaten rice?" Although to them, the word "rice" is synonymous with meal. So they're actually just asking each other whether they've eaten or not.