Lunch Boxes, Anyang, S.Korea, 1995

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I had very unimpressive junior high school years. Nothing was particularly fun and I probably read the least amount of books for fun during those three years in my life. Pressure started to set in to study for tests, to enter good high school, and eventually good college.

Yet, there still was a fun part. It was during my sophomore year I had such a good time eating lunch with my best friends before lunch time, and again, during lunch time. Teenagers are always hungry. Supposedly we were growing, I guess. Nowadays, school cafeteria is a norm, but we didn’t have cafeteria back then and we were supposed to bring our own lunch boxes everyday. When we came to school, early in the morning, we would open our lunch boxes together. Mmm…we sipped the smell of still warm and steamy delicious lunch, saw what each of us brought for lunch, had a bite or two, or three, and put them away for later. (Otherwise, we would have been very sad during the actual lunch time.)

It was so much fun because everyone brought different food and we all shared. Traditionally, Korean meal consists of rice, soup, and side dishes (called banchan). Since packing soup is trickier, and it alsomakes lunch box heavier, in addition to already heavy book bag we carried around on our shoulders, a lot of kids skipped soup. So a kid would bring 1-3 kinds of banchans, but with friends, you get to taste a lot more than what you bring. During lunch time, a group of friends would all gather and cram around one kid’s desk with all different food and containers, making the boring wooden desk all colorful. Since everyone has different family recipes and their “specialties,” sometimes you get to try something you have never tasted before. If you like your friend’s banchan so much, you can keep a tiny piece of it in your lunch box, bring it back home, then your mom or dad whoever cooks for you can figure out what that is and cook it later.

My all time favorite banchans were sliced egg omelet (you can put anything in the omelet, but my favorite always has been with dried seaweed – ah, so yum!) and mini hot dogs with ketchup. My favorite banchans from my best friend’s lunch box was grilled spam and seaweed salad. I tried seaweed salad for the first time from my friend’s lunch box, and I did bring a piece back home. Since then, my mom made seaweed salad whenever I wanted!

During winter, a lot of students carry thermo-lunch boxes that keep food warm for a few hours. So when you open your lunch box in the afternoon, rice that was packed in that morning would be still steamy and banchans still warm. So good to eat warm food on cold winter days! During summer, usually lunch boxes get lighter, as kids don’t care so much of cooled off rice and banchans. Kids bring all different kinds of lunch boxes, all cleverly designed to accommodate right amount of food, several banchans not to get mixed up, along with chopsticks or spoon/fork combo! Some kids would bring a separate container with fruits for dessert, which we always shared.

Since moving to New York, I got used to eating alone, especially lunch. Everyone is busy, everyone has a different schedule, and everyone wants to do something different during lunch time other than chatting and sharing food. It’s nothing to be sad about and I never mind it. It actually makes occasional gatherings to have meal together extra special. Yet, thinking of those old time in junior high school lunch time does make me think of the time when sharing food and stories with friends on a regular basis was such a norm and a part of everyday life.

 

 

Coffee with Half & Half in New Haven, 2005

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I stayed in New Haven briefly over the summer of 2005, subletting a modest studio apartment from a student writer who was spending her summer in New York. It was my very first time living completely on my own, in a “real” apartment, not a dorm room. Though it was only for three months, I felt pretty cool. Until then, my experience in America had been limited to visiting friends and relatives or living on campus, which were all very safe and not so “independent”. I was pretty excited with this new setting and enjoyed every bit of it. When a close friend came to stay with me for a few weeks, flying all the way from Korea, even going grocery shopping became a fun activity (probably because we treated ourselves with crispy crème donuts whenever we went grocery shopping).
Then one day we went into a corner store. It was then when this small package of milk with a picture of coffee on top caught my eye. I instantly thought ‘Oh, they have coffee milk in America, too.’ By “coffee milk,” I mean “coffee flavored” milk, just like chocolate milk or strawberry milk. Coffee milk was my favorite choice of drink as a teenager in Korea, regardless of the fact that it basically was just sweet milk with a hint of coffee scent. Upon graduating high school, I had evolved into a sophisticated grown-up who drank coffee instead of coffee milk. Yet I felt very happy and nostalgic seeing coffee milk, I immediately bought one. When we came home, I opened it and drank right from the packet as I always did in high school. Of course it wasn’t sweet, coffee flavored milk I expected, that came pouring into my mouth. I stopped drinking, with my eyes wide-open, and my friend looked at me puzzled, probably because I must have had the most confusing look on my face.
That was the first time I learned about “half&half”that it was cream for coffee. And during that summer, I enjoyed my iced coffee greatly with half&half. When summer heat cooled off during the evening, my friend and I would make iced coffee, with half&half, come out of the small studio apartment, and drink the coffee outside, pretending we were old time local residents of the building. Though no one would have thought so, we liked to think that way. And my friend would praise that I made excellent coffee. (It was instant coffee with half&half.) A few years later, we got to spend another couple weeks together over the summer and I made iced coffee. When she tasted it, after a moment of silence, she said, “Your coffee in New Haven was so much better.” And I agreed my coffee tasted better at that time. Then, we realized, it wasn’t that I had made good coffee in New Haven – it was the magical half&half that we hadn’t known before, that made coffee so tasty!
Alas, I don’t enjoy half&half any more, (I like to think I evolved even more into more sophisticated grown-up, who likes one’s coffee dark and bitter) but I just cannot forget the first time I encountered half&half. And it certainly made our summer of 2005 better with tasty coffee.