Walk 40 miles in my shoes – or – the Korean weight loss program


Seriously.  Who needs a stairmaster when you’ve got Korean subways and streets?

Been on my feet for like 24 hours straight it seems.  I must have lost a couple pounds already, just from having to spend (literally) about eight hours *standing on subways, walking to them, transferring, walking from them, repeat from across *  Any of you who have been to Manhattan can relate.   To give you some perspective:  In 1998 Seoul, at 10,323,494 people, had a population density of 75,825 per square mile.  New York, on the other hand, had a population of 2,332,000 people with a population density of 83,286 per square mile.  It’s close to the same, it just goes on and on almost five times more…

I’ve studied so many faces the past two weeks, and I am convinced I have been transported to this surreal Alice in Wonderland kind of mirror world.  For every face in America, there is a doppleganger or parallel counterpart in Korea.  Except in Korea, even the slobs are neat…hard to explain – but – there is no lint on anything black, nobody looks like they slept in their clothes, all the t-shirts look like they’ve been ironed, nothing is faded or old looking, no pants are walked out in the back, nobody smells like body odor, etc., etc., etc.

I see a lot less eye makeup than in the states.  I myself never used the stuff most of my life until just recently, because it’s just too time-consuming to do the perfect job necessary to work around that Epicanthic fold.  Almost none of the teachers at my school seem to wear it.  They might wear liquid eye liner.  They almost all wear lipstick.  Pink shades.  and pink blush.  You do see a lot of those eyelid operations everywhere you go.  Even a lot of older women have it.  Some even make the crease-line darker with brown eye liner.  Maybe I’m a purist, but I still think it looks weird.

And here is something that is no exaggeration – Koreans keep asking ME for directions.  This has happened half a dozen times already!  I’m trying to figure out what it is about me that makes me look like I’d know where to go. So there are a dozen Koreans to ask, but for some reason they come to me.  Is it the TATE brand black teacher coat?  I was told by foreigners (waygooks) on the teacher board that it didn’t matter if I was ethnic Korean or not, my mannerisms would be western and stick out like a sore thumb.  Wrong.  Everyone approaches me like I’ve been here my whole life.  From the checkout girls to the restaurants to – everything.

Speaking of mannerisms, Koreans point with their whole hand – it looks like the same hand you’d put forward to shake hands with someone – and then they do this kind of karate chop in the air – and that is pointing. A lot of times it is with fingers spread.  I must learn to do this for classes.  Fortunately, patting a child on the head is considered a sign of affection, so the Buddist practice of not touching anyone’s head, since it is the seat of the soul, does not apply here.

All the crap I have read about Koreans on EFL teacher boards and on the internet don’t seem to be true:  yes, there are a lot more pencil thin girls, but it is wrong to say Korean girls are all sticks.  Most of them are sturdy, like myself, but the younger ones are just active enough to not carry extra weight, like I used to be. And not all Koreans have flat asses.  On the contrary, I’d say most of them are well padded.  Now, that is not to say they’ve GOT BACK like African Americans do, but it is not fair to characterize them all as having no butts either.   Actually, they come in all shapes and sizes – OF COURSE.  And, even in Korea I am on the small side.  True, they are in general shorter than Americans, but there are some rather tall Koreans as well.  Yes the guys all are carrying “man bags.”  But in no way does this make them unmanly.  They’re just messenger bags of various sizes.  I swear, some of those guys on the EFL boards must be really insecure in their masculinity to criticize such things.  For the most part, the young guys look terrific.  They’re mostly all stylish, clean, and well groomed.  They CARE.  And they are not all metro-sexual or feminine looking, either.  In fact, it’s hard not to molest them when sitting next to them.  Some of the young men and women, but especially the men, are just too cool for school.  Arrogant in their narcissism, trying to and succeeding in exuding attitude.  But the majority of people just seem sweet.  Neither would I agree with the characterization of how rude Koreans are.   Just like in Manhattan, they just seem busy, and there is a constant crush of people, so I don’t know how you are supposed to make your way past them without sometimes having to be pushy.  At the same time, I haven’t seen any evidence that Koreans deserve this reputation I read about of bending over backwards to be hospitable.  Nobody’s invited me over to their house for coffee or dinner.  Nobody’s taken me out to experience their culture.  Nobody’s taken me out for a drink.  In fact, aside from the provisions, I’ve pretty much been left to rot by myself – and that with me being here two weeks early.  So far this jury’s opinion is that Koreans do not deserve the superficial harsh criticism they get, but at the same time they do not deserve the praise they get for making up for these supposed flaws by being the most personally accommodating of the Asian cultures.

One thing I’ll agree with, and that is the food isn’t that spicey.  I DID, however, get overwhelmed by how hot some of the panchan I bought was.  I realized later (with a horrible case of indigestion) that it wasn’t spice heat – but garlic heat.  And that’s why I had the indigestion.  I’ve you’ve ever eaten multiple cloves of really strong raw garlic, you’ll know how it can double you over in no time.

Supposedly kimchee is supposed to be really really good for you, due to its anti-oxidents, vitamins, and because it is probiotic due to the fermentation.  There’s even a kimchee museum in Seoul, and everybody’s all proud of it.  Also supposedly Koreans have the world’s highest rates of stomach cancer, so I don’t know what contributes to that.  I also heard on the radio before I left for Korea that the amount of belly fat a person has is indicative of future health problems ESPECIALLY with Asians, ESPECIALLY regarding cancer.  Okay.  So I better get hot on some belly exercises stat I guess.

The visit to the residential palace of the last dynasty was okay.  The Art museum is within the same compound, so I really enjoyed that.  Just like my favorite tv thus far is file footage or black and white movies from the past, the art really captured a culture one can only imagine.  The landscapes (and I normally hate landscapes) were especially arresting.  Paintings of Seoul in the 50’s show another world.  A world of one and two story houses, winding streets, trees, and the mountains visible from everywhere.  Most everyone still wearing traditional clothing.  It must make the old people here cry, to have witnessed such dramatic changes.  The palace itself is remarkable in how rustic it is, for all its elaborate roof and painted decoration.  Interesting to me was how the entire buildings were like lanterns, with all the walls basically perforated/latticed wood panels.  The layouts were all rectangular, with the corridors behind the panels and the rooms, separated by screens ran the length of the buildings at the center.  An inner panel of solid screen to protect from the winter cold was hinged at the top, hoisted by some chain, and rested upon a bar near the ceiling. The guards, infantry, and musicians all wore various colorful many layered costumes.  I wonder how authentic they were, since they are all held together with velcro fasteners…and their boots had modern soles on them.

The lecture for foreigners I had to attend was somewhat interesting.  They gave us a couple of books – one on the history of Hanguel, the Korean writing system, which truly is a remarkable feat of simplicity and logic, and one a collection of short stories from way back on filial piety, which I look forward to reading.  Learned that when doing the deep head touching the floor bow, for men the left hand covers the right hand which are held at the waist, and the right over the left for women.  Yet for funerals, the hand position is reversed.

Walked around the museum at the exhibits.  The Shilla dynasty was where Buddism was adopted, so most of it consisted of Buddist dieties, statues, and reliqueries.  I found the other exhibits more interesting, since too much of anything gets old.

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2 thoughts on “Walk 40 miles in my shoes – or – the Korean weight loss program

  1. I really enjoyed this! There are a lot of good observations, and I really enjoyed your perspective.

    The first few weeks I was here I thought everyone was really, really thin, but now when I look around I see all kinds of body types. I think maybe the thin body type just stuck out to me since it is not the most common in the states.

    I have been so sore since I’ve been here from all the subway stairs, and standing in class for so many hours straight a day. I don’t think I’ve lost as much weight as I should for how sore I am though. Maybe it’s all the galbi.

  2. Thanks!

    It’s funny, this blog. Some of the observations I made I wish I could take back (like fan death!) but ahh, it’s a document so I left it!

    I lost a little weight after arriving, but it has all come back – my lazy nature has managed to eliminate all excess strenuous activity, and I’ve also found myself finding rich food to eat (that I wouldn’t have eaten in the States, but that somehow calls me here)

    I think it’s also the school food. Even the Korean teachers talk about how it’s too easy to take too much, and that the institutional way they cook much of the meat = too much fried food.

    Anyway, enjoy your stay in Korea! It’s taken about four months, but I’m finally starting to get comfortable. Hopefully, you don’t have birth family searches and t.v. documentaries upsetting your acclimation process like I have, and you’ll be up and running and loving it here sooner than later.

    Stay cool- literally

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