A few months ago, I was reading the New Yorker's food issue, and I saw Chang-Rae Lee's short piece, "Immoveable Feast." He writes about the cafeteria food at his New England boarding school and how the only way you could like it was if you were "clinically insane" or "had just been airlifted there from the Soviet bloc." Meanwhile, he compares it to his mom's awesome Korean cooking -- she makes pig trotters with gochujang that's so good it makes him cry.
Dude, I thought. I wish he'd meet my mom.
Chang-Rae and I share a last name (no, we're not related) and cultural background (Korean). But he was the son of a doctor, grew up on the East Coast, and had, in his own words, a "standard suburban American upbringing." I grew up in L.A., my parents owned a liquor store and fast-food restaurant, and my upbringing was definitely not standard or suburban. My mom didn't make me pig trotters with gochujang when I was growing up. She hated cooking, and plus, she was too busy working. My sister and I ate whatever they couldn't sell at their restaurant. So that meant a lot of soggy french fries, chicken strips, and expired dessert cups (which was how I was introduced to "Boston Cream Pie"), all washed down with Orange Bang!
When I went to college, everyone told me the food was going to suck. This was news to me. I remember walking into the dining hall and practically falling over at the choice and plenitude. Chicken Kiev was a miracle to me. So was the frozen yogurt machine and the cereal bar. Nothing was spoiled or expired. My husband still remembers seeing me for the first time, making a beeline for the dessert table. I came home for winter break, fifteen pounds heavier. My aunt saw me at Christmas, slapped her ass, and yelled, "You fat!"
I loved dining hall food. I guess I was clinically insane, or I'd just been airlifted there from a home where instant ramen, microwaved hot dogs, and kimchi was called "dinner." I'm also 10 years younger than Chang-Rae Lee, so maybe cafeteria food had improved substantially in the meantime.
But still, something about Lee's piece bothered me. I think a lot of it has to do with being a Korean woman in a culture that tends to indulge its sons while restricting its daughters. Chang-Rae could eat up and be full. I had to stay skinny.
But it was something else, too. The Korean-American experience is varied, and it's varied by gender and geography and class. I wasn't just a Korean-American woman. I was a Korean-American woman who grew up on the West coast and whose parents weren't in the professional class. Lee talks about how he found the dining hall an oddly democratizing experience -- everyone ate together, and everyone ate the same thing. I didn't find the dining hall democratizing at all. It's a different experience when you're the one serving the food instead of the one eating.
I was a work-study student, and for the first two years of college, I worked in the dining hall, loading the massive dishwasher or dishing out Swedish meatballs in the hot food line. Most of my fellow dining hall workers were people of color -- and not just the full-time staffers, but also the students. We were the ones asking our dormmates if they wanted sour cream on their baked potato, or if they wanted one or two slices of honey-baked ham.
I was used to working behind the counter from helping my parents out at their store, but there's something different when you know the people you're serving. The illusion of democracy that exists in the classroom very quickly disappears. One of my classmates saw me working brunch and couldn't contain his surprise. Another guy, one of the few white dining hall workers, always loudly announced he didn't have to work in the dining hall -- his dad was forcing him to, in order to learn the value of hard work.
Chang-Rae Lee now teaches at Princeton, where I went to college and where the dining hall food is still, I'm sure, astonishing in its variety and abundance. I'm now teaching at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a commuter campus where most of the students identify as a racial or ethnic minority, and everyone has a full- or part-time job, often at the buffets and restaurants at the local casinos. The UNLV Student Union doesn't have many options -- a Taco Bell, a Subway, a Panda Express -- but the student body, dashing in and out on their way to class or work, is a true moveable feast.