You know it’s 김장 (kimjang) season, the time when kimchi is made in large batches to last throughout the winter, when you see the following outside every market:
For a cooking exercise with our kindergarten students, we made 깍두기 (Kkakdugi), radish kimchi. Obviously they can’t use real knives, so their task was cutting pre-cut strips of radish into small cubes with plastic knives.
Here’s our steps for radish kimchi!
red pepper powder
minced ginger and minced garlic
chopped green onion
a pinch of salt (not pictured)
After you’ve cubed the radish, apply a good helping of the red pepper powder:
Mix the red pepper powder with the radish:
And continue adding the rest of the ingredients:
Mix all that up and you’ve got your radish kimchi! It tastes delicious fresh, but let it sit overnight in a sealed container to really become delicious!
We got up early and our director took us to the testing place, a parking lot across the street from a health clinic. They had set up several tents and were very thorough. You got a pair of disposable gloves while waiting in line (socially distanced of course) and wore them throughout the entire ordeal, which involved going and filling out some minor paperwork to being handed the two vials and ushered up to a booth where a health professional stood, only their gloved arms protruding from two holes.
The test was not like the test I’ve heard some people in the US have gotten. This was not a mere nasal swab; this was a brain poking. I was honestly shocked that someone could stick something that far back into my sinuses. It wasn’t painful, just really uncomfortable.
All of us tested negative, fortunately, and it was back to business as usual.
The question that has always lingered in my mind is: what happens if one of the students gets Covid?
Unfortunately, a little over two weeks ago, a student did test positive, albeit asymptomatic. Her father had tested positive and when they tested the entire family, she was the only one who also tested positive.
I feel really bad for this student because she had already missed two weeks of school because there had been a positive case at her elementary school, and now she would be missing yet another two weeks of school.
It was determined that only a few of us would get a Covid test: her immediate classmates (there were three) and her two teachers, which included myself. CCTV footage showed that she and her classmates remained masked up the entire time they were at the hagwon, which no doubt helped keep everyone safe.
We were closed Wednesday through Friday of that week, and on Wednesday I went by myself to get tested for Covid again. I had been informed that the center opened at 9 but when I got there at 9:30, I discovered that they actually open at 10, so I was the first in line to get swabbed. It went super quick and was only a little more uncomfortable than the last time.
Fortunately, everyone tested negative and we could open up school the following Monday.
This week we closed Wednesday through Friday because the neighboring town of Okjeong has a massive outbreak involving at least 20 students in a high school. There was also an outbreak in the neighborhood of Hongdae in Seoul that was linked to foreign instructors, including one at another branch of the hagwon I teach at. That outbreak was confirmed to be of the Delta variant.
I’m hoping that all of this can be held at bay and we can reopen on Monday–if not all the way, then at least kindergarten can be in person and we can do online classes in the afternoon. With every day that the school is closed, we lose one day of our holidays, and as selfish as it is, I don’t want to have to lose my summer holiday that I’ve been looking forward to (as I didn’t have any holidays last year because of Covid).
While explaining a lesson that involved the story of two students running for class president, one only having a motto and the other having actual policies, I asked my students to think of policies that they would want to implement in their schools. I gave the example of free lunch.
“Isn’t lunch free in the US?”
It’s in these moments that I realize how backwards my lovely home country can be. What’s even worse is how we view stories of good samaritans paying off school lunch debt as “proof that there’s still some kindess in the world” instead of “proof that our country isn’t doing enough to provide for its children.”
At the hagwon where I teach, lunch is served each day for the kindergarten students. It’s a separate lunch to the teachers’, which usually features some spicy things. The lunch is provided by a catering business but we make our own rice and food for snack. When I taught English to Tibetan refugees in India, we had simple lunches that usually featured a Tibetan bread called tingmo, and dinner was almost always rice and dal. Fruit was provided once a week and if you happened to get to lunch late, you were left trying to find the least rotten piece of fruit. As to be expected, the lunches served at my school in Korea are much different.
Tibetan college food pictures below, left to right: a bowl of steamed green vegetables and two pieces of tingmo; a bowl of rice and dal with some spinach and tomato; the special Losar (Tibetan New Year) breakfast of a large circular slice of Tibetan bread, a hardboiled egg, and a mug of traditional butter tea (with added tsampa I had).
Below are some photos of the school lunch here in Korea. In the first picture, there’s tofu and mushroom soup, white rice, chicken nuggets, bean sprout salad, macaroni, lotus root, and spicy slaw. In the other photos, there’s various foods such as steamed green vegetables, sliced potato, spicy pork belly, acorn jelly, burdock root, anchovies, cubed radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, omelet, fish with tartar sauce, spicy cucumber, tuna salad, apple salad, fried wonton, and tteokbokki.
Here is an example of what the kids eat for lunch. They each have their own lunch tray with chopsticks and a spoon, and this kid has a chopstick training kit (which she’s now graduated from yay). There’s rice and some bulgogi with cabbage, bean sprout salad, not-spicy cabbage kimchi, and quail eggs.
I give lunch twice a week, which entails putting food in their tray, helping them pray (a very unbiased “pray, pray, thank you for the food”) for all the food, watching over them while they eat, and scraping leftovers into the empty soup bowl to be disposed of by the kitchen teacher. Usually I will take my tray to the kitchen to get spicy kimchi and anything that was delivered just for the teachers, such as spicy beef or fish filet.
Below is a view of our kitchen at school. In the first picture is the lunch set-up for teachers. If the kids ask for more food and we run out in the class, we send them to the kitchen to see if there’s any leftover. Usually it’s sausage, meat or seaweed. Once a student came into the teachers’ room to ask if anyone had any leftover sausage because the kitchen had run out!
Our kitchen is equipped with a stove, microwave, kettle, and a large rice cooker. There is a kitchen teacher in the kitchen getting everything ready and washing the empty teachers’ plates and the containers; the kids pack up their lunch trays when they’re done and take them home for their parents to wash.
Once a month, we have a birthday party for any students whose birthdays fall in that month. In this day, we have a special lunch, which includes several types of fried chicken, pizza, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.
Sometimes a student’s parent will order us food, such as a couple of pizzas. We also have leftover chicken from Class of the Month chicken parties. We also get pastries, and sometimes iced americanos.
Our school closed for three days at the end of August, and were forced to close by the government the weeks of August 31st and September 7th. We reopened September 14th. We were closed because we were under a level 2.5 out of a 3-point system.
Under a 2.5, all chain cafes must do take-out only, and restaurants and bars must close after 9pm. I didn’t wander around Uijeongbu past 9pm during the 2.5, but I imagine downtown was completely empty. For the most part, people stayed home during the semi-lockdown and ordered take-away or only ventured out to buy groceries. (I was the former. I prefer calling it “supporting the local economy” not “sheer laziness.”)
Some examples of more permanent changes include checking your temperature whenever you enter a building and either writing down your name and phone number or checking in with a QR code connected to your KaKaoTalk account. KaKaoTalk is a messaging app, first and foremost, but functions like an all-in-one app for almost everything else. This level of contact tracing would be fought against by your average American, but I will gladly give up my information because, let’s be real, my phone is already tracking my movement and at least this kind of tracing is for the greater good.
There are also hand sanitizers everywhere. Including ziptied to a tree along a nature trail and to a lamp pole, as seen below.
Several weeks ago, my school closed for two days because a child was a confirmed case that had Taekwondo with two of our students. Everyone at the Taekwondo academy tested negative, but we closed out of an abundance of caution, and the two students are quarantining for two weeks and not attending classes. We were sitting at a level 2 in the greater Seoul region, but with strict measures implemented: for example, no cafes (including small mom-and-pop) are allowing dine-in and all restaurants and bars must close at 9pm.
And now, as I write this on the 17th of December, we have been without work since the 8th. We are at a level 2.5 with rumors that we may eventually hit level 3, as cases have been creeping up on 1,000 new cases each day. We will hopefully go back to school on December 29th, but if they raise the level to 3, then we may be out of work even longer. Going online is not an option; only two parents have requested it, while a number have confessed that they would be unable to have their students be taught online, so our hagwon loses less money just closing rather than trying to figure out a new system for virtual learning.
For the most part, people here are wearing masks and taking precautions. I feel safe, which I can’t guarantee I’d feel back in the States. Wear your masks, people. Stay at home as much as possible. Don’t be stupid.