Thursday, May 14, 2009

"You are up and down."

I was just remembering another example of culture clash in the cafeteria. Quite a few months back. There were about 5 or 6 other teachers and administrators sitting at the same lunch table as me, and I noticed they were all having a conversation about me in Korean. It's never hard to tell when this is happening, since they always end up saying "David'uh-shee" over and over again for some reason (the "shee" being an attachment to indicate respect, almost like "Mr."). I couldn't understand their words, but by their gestures and completely unveiled finger pointing, it seemed like they were talking about my stainless steel food tray. I hadn't even noticed until then, but mine was upside down.

School lunch trays have two sides: one side with three small bowls meant for panchan (korean side dishes), and the other side with two larger bowls for soup and for rice. The soup and the rice side is always and at all times supposed to be closest to you. Deviation from this apparently causes a great stir at my school. Check out my friend Andrew's blog: He has a picture of one of the trays.

As soon as I realized how much my deviation stunned and confused the other teachers (and made some of them chuckle), I really felt good inside. This was kind of liberating and this was an awesome thing for them to observe. It became clear to me that it was very possible none of these teachers or administrators had ever eaten with their trays turned the other way. Or at least since they were admonished for it early on in childhood. And until that moment, I hadn't even realized that this was a trangressional or backwards thing to do at all.

I could tell that Elvis (the school accountant) was trying to formulate and connect the right English words in his head to explain what I was doing wrong. He always looks down at the floor and appears to be concentrating very hard when he's doing this. He finally looked up at me and pointed to my tray and said "You are up and down." Wow. What I was doing sounded so much cooler when he put it like that. I told him I was OK. I preferred to be "up and down" today. Because I didn't show any embarrassment or even hint at wanting to flip my tray around, he took that as my misunderstanding of what he said. So, failing to think of a more accurate English expression he actually reached over and started to turn my tray around for me. No way was this happening, I thought. So I stopped his hands and told him I liked it that way. And again told him, with a little more force this time, I was OK. Now they never say anything when I eat with my tray is "up and down."

Sometimes I just like the side dishes way better. Panchan is my favorite thing about Korean cuisine. Every dish comes with a multitude of small dishes of all sorts of pickled or unpickled vegetables, meat, pancakes, or whatnot. And if you want more, all you have to do is ask. So they're like bottomless little bowls of delicious (and occasionally things like raw clam or snail salad that I don't like). And so when I turn my try around it is because I am focusing on the panchan, rather than the rice and the soup. It's definitely not a purposeless deviance. It's just sometimes they serve things like "fish bone soup." What would be a psychotic health hazard in any elementary school in North America is commonplace here, they couldn't find a fish with more tiny bones, or have figured out a better way to make sure more bones end up in the soup. Not one piece of fishmeat left untarnished. And I can't mix it with the rice either that way, so there's really nothing for me on that side of the tray except plain rice and mouthfuls of esophagus piercing fishbones. And that's why I flip it around sometimes.

Sometimes the cafeteria offers sights to remind me that I'm living in a place that is really different from where I grew up. After living here for over a year, it's really easy to start taking things for granted, day in and day out. But the other day we had pig bone soup, and there wasn't much meat on the bones, although it did have a good flavor. I looked up and saw this third grade girl with no front teeth trying her best to dilligently suck all the marrow out of one of the pig bones. You would definitely not see that in a cafeteria in the States that often.

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