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.