Complications of School lunches
By Jimmy McIntyre
School lunches are a straight forward affair aren’t they? You walk to the cafeteria, choose your grub, sit down, eat your grub, scrape off your plate, put everything in its correct place, and leave full. Easy! Yet somehow I fail to do the majority, and sometimes all of these tasks each day. Let me take you through today’s lunch time.
The bell rings. It’s loud. It’s not actually a bell. It’s more like a primitive jingle; dee-dee-daa-daa-do……I start to get nervous. What’s going to go wrong today? They aren’t the type of nerves you have for a job interview or a driving test. They’re more like the butterflies you still get when you’ve been doing a new job for a couple of weeks. I start walking to the cafeteria. Students are everywhere. I hear my name being shouted and people saying ‘hi’. Koreans can’t pronounce a consonant without a vowel following it (the vowel sound they use sounds like the ‘u’ in mud) so my name, ‘James’, isn’t easy for them to say. Instead of ‘James’ I hear ‘Jamuhsuh’. In fact, ‘James’ in a Korean accent sounds a lot like ‘James-sir’, which makes me feel important. It’s interesting how a one-syllable name can just as easily have three syllables.
The corridors are long so I have to say ‘hi’ and ‘nice to meet you, too’ to the same people I said it to yesterday. I don’t think they get the meaning of ‘to meet’ yet. I’m nearing the cafeteria, everything is going smoothly until my stupid slipper slides halfway off my foot, right in front of the lunch queue, causing me to do a half-trip which I hide with a blended half-run. In school all teachers and students have to wear slippers. They’re not like the house slippers we have in the West. They’re more like dressy slippers. I’ve lost my slipper in this way about five times now. Each time it was going to lunch in front of the queue. I have a theory why this happens. When I know people are looking at me when I’m walking I tend to start feeling awkward. I kind of lose the ability to walk properly. I think during this phase the change in foot movement causes the slipper to come off.
Forgetting the slipper incident I smoothly push against the wrong door to the cafeteria. I quickly move to the door that actually opens. I can’t hide this error. Act cool Jim. My confidence is starting to sway. I walk to the teachers queue. Shit! There are no teachers for me to copy off. I look down at the all familiar metal tray. There are never any plates; just one metal tray, with five inbuilt bowls, two large and three small. I pick up the tray. I look at today’s offerings; Kimchi, rice, fish, vegetable stuff with red sauce on it, soup, rice balls, and something unrecognizable. I’ve noticed that the rice and soup goes in the two large bowls, and everything else goes in the three others. I put some kimchi in one small bowl, rice balls in the other, and the fish in the last. Soup and rice went into the big ones. I walked the length of the teachers table and sat down on a seat. As I lower myself onto the seat, I somehow spill some of my soup into the compartment holding the rice balls.
Looking at my colleagues’ tray, I was able to confirm that I had placed the food in the correct compartments. I start to eat. There are always only spoons and chopsticks. Knives and forks are unheard of. I’m slowly getting used to chopsticks, but in the eyes of my Korean colleagues I still look like an infant when I eat. In fact, it would probably be safer for me to use the ‘training chopsticks’ that young children use. My brother actually sent me a knife/fork/spoon contraption to help with my lunch time difficulties. If my students ever saw me using it, they would destroy me.
Things are going well at this point. I like most of the food. Even the kimchi is bearable. I decide to try the fish. This is a whole cooked fish fried in batter. In appearance, it’s not unlike the famed fish found in the heart-attack-inducing English dish, fish and chips. The bones inside are long and spiky but completely edible, according to my co-teachers.
Without a knife, or even a fork, I knew this was going to be a challenge. How do you cut with chopsticks and a spoon? I start trying to part the fish with two chopsticks like the other teachers. I can feel my concentration deepening. I’m focused on the task at hand. All outside noises fade away. I’m about to eat some fish.
Sadly, the chopstick strategy isn’t working. Instead, I’m uncontrollably flicking bits of fish around the table. Don’t look up Jim; they’ll be laughing at you. Next I try using a spoon and a chopstick together. At its most basic level I’m stabbing the fish with a spoon. I’ve started to free up a bit of meat. It tastes good which is a bad thing. It makes me want more. I keep at it for a while then switch to rice and soup. This is nice but the fish is calling. I go back for round two with limited success again.
My brow is furrowed and I’m hunched over the food. This isn’t lunch time. It’s a daily battle. I can hear people laughing, probably at me. At this point I’m past caring. I’m at the stage where I’m too focused to laugh. I don’t even know what laughing feels like. I just want to eat this flipping fish.
After a few more minutes of hacking away, I give up on the fish and move on to the rice balls. I pick one up with my chopsticks. It’s covered in soup. No big deal. I eat some. It was a big deal. These weren’t rice balls. They were some sort of super sweet desert. I had just eaten cake and soup. What must the other teachers be thinking?
I finish the rice, soup, and desert. I don’t bother trying to eat the rest of the fish. I want to eat it but I also physically hate it because I’m not as full as I could be. I widen my focus of attention a bit and look at some of my fellow teachers. One of the teachers from my office is looking at me smiling. I look at my tray and notice food thrown all around it. The table all around my tray is littered with rice and fish. I must have looked like a very special person.
I get up, say goodbye, scrape my tray, put it away, and go back to my class. Yet another failed lunch time.