She had brought a cake. A thick, sweet cake to commemorate our final meeting.
Her black eyes smiled and we rotated our chairs, ready to partake. I flushed, embarrassed to have forgotten the plates and silverware. As the teacher, this was my job. I excused myself, ran to the kitchen, piled plate upon plate on my arms, and walked slowly back. Entering the classroom, I nearly dropped the plates.
Laughing and joking in mother tongue, chopsticks clicked together as the students brought the fleshy morsels of cake to their mouths. They didn’t need my hard plastic plates. The cake was enough. Like a sun, in the center of their universe. A sweet communion. I humbly picked up some chopsticks and partook.
Korea taught me a lot about the art of eating. Food is a gift, not only to our bodies, but to our souls. Everything is eaten in community. As glasses clink and heads bow, food is served first to the eldest and then down the line of ages. One hand crisscrosses another in the traditional form of respect shown when serving another. An elder’s glass is never to go empty. When drinking, one is not to look one’s elder in the eye. Children are trained in the art of eating from a young age, by grandparents who share the same home as them.
The cake is finished, save for a few crumbs. “Gundaye” we toast, lifting our plastic glasses of rice wine to our lips. I tuck this memory into my anorexic heart to take home with me.
To take home to Canada. To contrast with my nation’s fast-food hallways and litter-strewn drive-thru’s. To pit against the lonely grandparents with their TV dinners and their Price is Right programs. To hold up against the teenager in the bathroom holding back her hair while she regurgitates the ice cream she hungrily consumed in angst. To compare with the cold aisles full of properly stamped “Blue Menu” items in the grocery store, and the manicured hands that only choose “organic” or “lite” or “free-range” or “low-carb” or “high in Omega 3” without really knowing what any of it means. Only knowing it appeases another worry in an un-manicured life.
I will take this memory and treasure the holy symbolism of food. As a recovering disordered eater, this symbol has breathed new life into me. No longer is food an object to be feared. It is to be enjoyed and embraced. It is another form of communication, another way of relating with God and with other humans. It is the breaking of bread.
And I can only pray my children will learn to view food in this way. In this healthy, beautiful, communion-type way. That they will never abuse or use food as anything but what it is: a gift. Manna from heaven. Amen.