Peanut Butter

Kimbab Factory

By Rachel E. Brooks, ETA ’14-’16

On my first Saturday with my homestay family, my host mom, Heeyang, and I visited the grocery store. Too overwhelmed by the options and too timid to request anything from the woman kind enough to take in a foreigner with the Korean language ability equal to that of her toddler niece, I just tagged along for bonding time. Heeyang was careful to watch my reaction to each item put in the cart. I doled out dozens of toothy grins to confirm I was having as much fun as one can have at a grocery store. She spotted me reading a carton of grapefruit juice, which she then threw into our cart before swiftly adding a second one. Grapefruit juice became a staple of our meals together. Now satisfying 300 percent of my daily intake of vitamin C, I didn’t yet have the heart to confess I enjoy other beverages, too.To pair with the juice, my host mom prepared an impressive array of side dishes, rice, and fishy soup for my host sister, Hyunsol, and me. It all looked mouth-watering for dinner but less enticing for breakfast. For over two decades, my stomach had been trained to eat small breakfasts of an apple or a piece of toast before rushing out the door. After sipping my juice, I picked up my chopsticks and threw on a grin. Two options presented themselves: I had to ask my host mom for a smaller and more familiar morning meal or adapt. I chose to adapt, but Heeyang seemed to pick up on my discomfort as I hesitantly spooned seaweed soup into my smile.

Starting to miss certain foods from home, I gathered the courage to ask Heeyang if she could pick up a small jar of peanut butter next time she visited the store. Elated by my request, she asked what kind I like best. Before coming to South Korea, I didn’t understand the fuss about peanut butter. When I moved to Jeju, however, peanut butter became a heartening reminder of home and my host mom’s unrelenting kindness.

April, spring semester. Around 7:15 a.m., I entered the kitchen to get water out of the fridge and found a pack of individually wrapped cheese slices.

Unlike peanut butter, I didn’t actually ask for cheese. Rather, two friends and I indulged at a pizza restaurant a few nights prior and split a giant, classic-style Chicago pizza. When I returned home, I raved about both the pizza and cheese in general to Heeyang. Based on my monologue, she must have picked up on my affection for the dairy product.

In the car on the way to school, I removed the sandwich Heeyang made me from its plastic bag and took a bite to find the contents: peanut butter and cheese. Heeyang, knowing two food items I adore, combined them into one sandwich. I looked over to Hyunsol to share a laugh. Instead I saw her happily chewing her own combination of hazelnut spread and cheese between two buttery bread slices. I smiled to myself.

The car pulled to the side of the road, and Hyunsol and I hopped out. We dreamed about what we’ll do when she visits the U.S. one day as we made our way up the hill past some newly planted daisies. We headed to the second grade classrooms where I would teach Hyunsol first period. In the classroom, I peeled off the slice of cheese from my sandwich and thought about how much I enjoyed cheese, peanut butter and these morning car rides. But not all together.

March, one year later. At 7:45 a.m., I scurried down the stairs and out of the house to plop into my usual spot behind the driver’s seat. The car was already racing forward as I clicked the seat belt into place. We were running late. A hand from the front seat passed back a peanut butter and hazelnut spread sandwich followed by a cup of homemade strawberry milk mixed with honey. This was a treat since Hyunsol had an exam soon. Next to me, Hyunsol nibbled on her sandwich filled with the same contents. The hectic race to the car contrasted the calm of the backseat.

Third grade of high school in South Korea is chaos, and our morning routine mirrored Hyunsol’s school life. When I first moved in with my homestay family and met Hyunsol, she was a freshman in my English conversation class. Now she was a third grader in her final year of high school, preparing for the college entrance exam, the suneung. Sadly, I didn’t teach third grade.

Hyunsol and I talked briefly about the upcoming sports festival, a treasured break from studying, and chewed away at our breakfasts. Despite the mayhem of mornings, I adored the sleepy car rides together. We hardly got to see each other outside of the backseat that year since she and all of her classmates were consumed with studies in preparation for the test to determine their futures. For them, success was directly proportional to the absence of free time. Hyunsol was rarely home. When she was, it was to get a few well deserved hours of rest or some quick nutrition between math and English academies.

The day was just beginning, but Hyunsol already looked drowsy. She lifted her glasses and vigorously rubbed her eyes as if test answers hid under those heavy eyelids. Her eyes were glued to the worn chemistry notebook on her lap. These daily moments in the car were precious time to cram. Good grades rewarded hard work at the expense of happiness and health. Thankfully for happiness more so than health, Heeyang never let a jar of Hyunsol’s beloved hazelnut spread go empty without having another in the cabinet next to the peanut butter.

The car pulled to the side of the road, and Hyunsol and I hopped out. We speed-walked past the daisies and quickly climbed up the hill to school. At the top, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Though it was Friday morning, I wondered if Hyunsol and I would see each other before sharing Heeyang’s hazelnut spread and peanut butter sandwiches on Monday morning’s commute.

Rachel E. Brooks was a 2014-2016 ETA at Shinseong Girls’ High School in Jeju-si, Jeju-do.