Matador Network

Chaos, culture and Kim Chi: A Korean cafeteria

photo: luke hoagland; feature photo: iowa spirit walker

Stepping off the airplane blind to place, culture or customs, I’ve come to take solace in the most unassuming of places… the school cafeteria.

A Korean school cafeteria is a loud, abrasive, and a chaotically organized mirror of its motherland. In the cafeteria, I see threads of culture interwoven: the graceful balances of young pop culture and old traditions, modernism and traditional methods, a blend of east and west

Simply put, it’s chaos.

At one end of the room, lunch workers, better suited for chemical warfare than serving kim chi, stand by stainless steel tubs. The other end of the room is a never ending eruption of children. Adding to the pandemonium are 40 yard dashes down the lunchroom gauntlet with trays of scorching hot soup and a trail of stern teachers.

Despite all the madness, those in charge exude a sense of normalcy. This ability to function amidst chaos is common in Korea.

Take a walk down any street in a Korean city and the chaos envelops you. Snarled up spider webs of electrical cables hang precipitously overhead. Driving is a suicidal mission of speed from point A to point B, and forget about walking if you like your ankles in a working order.

Although looked upon as wild, and sometimes dangerous, this country’s waltz with disorder works like a well-oiled machine.

The Evolution of Tradition

Old seamlessly meets new, Eastern traditions draped in Western clothing.

Back in the cafeteria, tray in hand, the journey to your lunch table reveals cultural currents.

First, while rotating your tray to accept your food, you will notice the evolution of Korean traditions. Students wearing Nikes and Mickey Mouse t-shirts will bow as they shuffle along the windows. Old seamlessly meets new, Eastern traditions draped in Western clothing.

If you’ve survived the process of getting your food, you’ve got to find a seat. This is a great opportunity to peer through the window of social climate. There is an unyielding sense of pride from the people here. Each individual is accommodating to a fault, as if they personally want to be the reason you take home an appreciation for Korea.

Don’t be shocked to see a symphony of “Come here” gestures when you begin your navigation of the lunchroom.

Where To Sit?

Try to grab a seat on the appropriately gendered side of the group. Don’t be too concerned if you cross contaminate, though; you are a foreigner, after all. Just give a polite bow to the group, sit, and begin.

Slurp, Slurp, Smack

If you haven’t already noticed, anything on your tray that once had a skeleton will still have it, so think twice before you chomp down. Kimchi will most certainly grow on you. Keep an open mind.

Your neighbors will almost certainly heighten the dining experience. Koreans have been described as voracious eaters. Don’t be surprised by deafening lip smacks and other open mouthed noises you’ve never heard from dining companions.

Of all places in Korea, the lunch room is where I discovered my niche with the genuine and thoughtful people here. The enthusiastic pace of national pride and prosperity is echoed by the attitude of its citizens at the dinner table. They thrive in the frighteningly chaotic world around them, and the richness of culture and history is akin to the cuisine I find on my tray.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION:

Thinking about teaching English abroad? South Korea comes in at #2 on our list of the top 10 places to teach English. If you’re looking for other types of jobs, though, check out our top 10 resources for finding a job in Asia.