The first time I ever broke curfew was a few years ago as a college freshman during winter quarter. We stood outside in the dark, chatting excitedly and freezing. The smells within the tteokbokki restaurant simmered salty and spicy hot.
Up until that point, I’d never gotten the opportunity to stay out past midnight—nor much interest in doing so. As the first-generation daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, I was expected to work hard and earn good grades. I also needed to set a good example for my younger sibling.
Roaming around during the late hours of the night wouldn’t quite constitute that. Add in the fact that I leaned towards introversion. I much preferred reading comics and watching Netflix in bed.
I definitely wasn’t fit for nightlife.
And my teenage self would wholeheartedly agree.
As an incoming junior now, though, that all changed. The college experience gives us an overwhelming sense of freedom. What do we want to become? What careers do we intend to pursue? Most importantly, what do we want for dinner, chicken or beef ramen?
College is the time to test the waters and try out this newfound independence. For me, that seemed to imply dipping a toe into new hobbies and experiences. So of course, I did none of that.
Even in college I felt the need to return home before 10.
I didn’t like parties, hadn’t come of age in order to drink yet and wanted to finish homework fast so I could go to bed. I even chose not to join the taekwondo club (a martial art I’d taken for eight years) simply because their meetings ran too late.
Scary stories I heard as a teen about alcohol-induced accidents and after-hours encounters didn’t help. So I made exactly zero plans of ever staying out late. And by winter quarter of freshman year, I found plenty of fellow hermits to extol the comfort and ease of actually sleeping at night.
I did end up joining the Korean Language Society. My first exposure to the people of South Korea stemmed from my experience in taekwondo and I wanted to learn more about the language and culture. We held weekly general and social meetings; for the latter, our club president suggested that we head out for Korean food one night. Everyone reacted with great enthusiasm, myself included since I rarely got to try genuine Korean cuisine.
The only drawback? The club president told us that we’d go to a restaurant in Koreatown. We also needed to catch a bus to get there. At that point, I could easily count the number of times I used public transportation on one hand.
But I wasn’t about to let that stop me from hanging out with new friends and eating delicious food. So I promptly signed up for the social meeting. At 7 p.m. on the night of the event, I met up with six other members in the chilly campus square. We joked around about sharing jackets and huddling together for warmth like penguins. Then our club president showed up and we set out as one.
The bus ride took about 20 minutes. None of us stuck out amongst the passengers, comprised of weary adults in coats and fellow students on their phones. Despite my own hesitance and total lack of experience, I felt my heart race with anticipation.
For the first time in my life I was out and about as an adult, no parental guidance, heading deeper into the heart of the city. Looking back on this, it seemed like such a silly, simple thing for me to get excited about. I leave campus to grab dinner or go shopping with friends almost on a regular basis now. Yet that night it was something brand new and wondrous to me.
When we arrived at the tteokbokki restaurant, we realized our club president chose a popular spot for our dinner. Cars piled into the parking lot and a long line of young people stood waiting outside the door. Korean pop music spilled out each time a waiter came out to call names.
All around, the buildings bore signs marked with hangul. Customers flocked in and out of a neon karaoke bar. When the waiter called our name, we filed in to find a square, silver dining area, stocked with high tables and stools. Jugs of ice-cold water and yogurt drinks filled a refrigerator off to the side. The six of us let the club president guide us through the menus. The smells inside contrasted sharply with the outside air, salty and spicy hot.
Tteokbokki is oblong rice cakes stewed in red pepper paste, garnished with almost any sort of toppings. The menu offered everything from fish cakes to cheese to vegetables and even curly ramen noodles. In other words: it made the perfect dish for a cold night out.
Even the “mild” flavor tasted hotter than any of us could handle. That’s how we discovered why the restaurant carried chilled yogurt drinks. By the time we finished, we looked red-faced and sweaty but wonderfully full. Then the club president suggested we head out for dessert.
Walking through the streets of downtown L.A. at that hour seemed at once thrilling and soothing. The air felt so good on my face after such a spicy dinner. The city shone bright around us and the shopping center we entered reflected pastel shades of pink, green and white.
Like the restaurant, the bingsu shop also packed tight with customers. Between the seven of us we split two bowls of green tea-flavored shaved ice. The dessert tasted light and fluffy, generously topped with powdered tea, condensed milk and red bean. As I ate, I found that I brimmed with an odd mix of energy and contentment.
We got back to campus at last after 1 a.m. The bus back home held no one but us. On the quiet ride, nearly everyone in the group got drowsy, not used to the late hour. But I think we felt happy. I certainly was.