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A student takes a break from a long, cold day with a hot cup of noodles.

“Get ready to leave!” the teacher announces from the front of the bus. Most students pack their bags, put their electronics down, and untie their seatbelts. The station is only 500 yards away. We can hear the wheels slowing down, like a steam of gas escaping through an inch-wide hole. Kids start to push each other to try to get off the bus first. After a long day at school amid winter, every student yearns to go home to a hearty meal, but in Korea, the day is not over yet. I stay seated and think about the rest of my day—how I have to go to hagwon, or a Korean cram school, to study math even after studying all day at school. The thought alone is enough to exhaust me and send shivers down my spine. I look out the window and see trees struggling to hold on to their last leaves of the year. They are like me, I think, trying desperately to hold on to the last reminder of warmth, but winter is already here. Today, more than ever, I am eager to rush to the convenience store—seeking some comfort before I’m sentenced to hagwon.

“Rriinng!” the transparent door slides open, letting a cold breeze onto the bus. My classmates and I race to the door, pushing and wrestling to be the first ones to get off. I jump off the bus, for a moment glancing up at the lonely winter trees. Then I run down the street with the icy wind piercing my skin and dodge all the passersby and motorbikes until I see the familiar neon-green sign of the convenience store greeting me. I climb up the wooden stairs, each plank tainted with cigarette butts and ashes. I push open the glass door and stroll across the narrow corridors. I squat down and try to decide what ramyun to eat today. My eyes flow through the different ramyuns, from the sweet and tangy Saeu-tang to the spicy Shin Ramyun. Finally, my eyes set on Neoguri, a ramyun with a rich seafood broth, and I grab it.

“Beep!” My navy-blue credit card slices through the card reader. I pull out a set of wooden chopsticks and puncture the bottom of my ramyun cup to take off the plastic wrap. I peel off half of the lid, and the hot water machine pours boiling water into my little cup. With my hands wrapped around the heated cup, I momentarily feel as if I’m at a campfire in the middle of the frosty woods. I pull out my phone and set a timer for three minutes.

Waiting for the noodles to cook is always the hardest part. I peek at the window. The windowsills are covered by dust and the bodies of the little insects that fly around wherever you go. Outside the window, I see people passing by on the street, tightly holding on to their thick jackets with their noses facing downwards. They are all still wearing masks, so I can’t see their faces. It always seems like no one cares about each other. They seem too cold and busy to acknowledge anything else but themselves. I’m lost in thought when my timer rings.

Sapling Shadow

The burning steam spouts up from the open crack in the lid and warms my face. My anticipation grows as I slowly stir the noodles and smell their savory scent. I lift up my chopsticks to see the noodles, drenched in red, curled around each other like a group of vines in an abandoned garden. As I twist the noodles up into my mouth, they smoothly blend in and explode with flavor. Eating broth is my favorite part of the process. I fold the ramyun lid into a spoon, dip it in the warm soup, and taste the rich seafood flavor. Although it’s just a cup of ramyun, it feels as if a meal from a five-star restaurant was delivered to my mouth. The warmth from the broth and noodles is enough to melt down the bitter fatigue I was feeling after school. Now it’s time for me to go to hagwon. I promptly get up and clean up behind me. A gust of wind blows as I walk out the doors of the store, but I am no longer feeling cold.