I’m overweight. This is not a feeling due to cultural or media pressures. This is not a self confidence issue. This is not even something one of the mean girls at school wrote about me on a bathroom stall wall. This is simply a medical fact that I was alerted to after my check up. I recently got my results back, and in the back of the very long list of numbers and acceptable ranges were the problems that they found with me. Apparently I am in need of diet and exercise. I do not feel bad about this. In fact, I was not overweight before I stepped off the plane and onto Korean soil. I’m 6’3”, and when I first got here I weighed about 190 pounds. While this is the heaviest I’ve ever been it’s a far cry from overweight in America. But South Korea is not America. There are no fat people here. This is not really hyperbole, more like an engineering approximation. You can go for days walking through Seoul and never see an Asian person over 200 pounds. And there are some good reasons for this. One of them is not exercise.
When I first got to Korea, I realized my workload mirrored what people expect from a semester abroad. Because of this, I found that I needed to find other activities besides homework to fill my time. While sleeping, watching movies, reading, and drinking certainly do succeed in this endeavor, they’re not appropriate all the time. Occasionally getting out of bed for something besides class, food, or whiskey-cokes is generally accepted by many self-help authors as one of the most important habits of highly effective people. With this in mind, I found the gym in the basement of my dormitory. Back home I can use the gym at the school next door, where a noticeable portion of the students seem to spend more time working out, gelling their hair, and popping their collars than they do on homework. This means that I am blessed with using a gorgeous gym donated by a gracious family of benefactors that also believes, in line with the beliefs of many of the students, that well shaped pecs are an integral part of a good college education. The gym in Korea is noticeably lacking in comparison. Much of the equipment is rusty, the floors are so dusty and slippery as to make wearing sneakers on them the equivalent of wearing socks on a linoleum floor, and is unheated, in what can only be an attempt to scare off many of the students into the adjacent ping pong room. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the ping pong magnates of our day) this seems to be a successful venture. Much of the time spent in the gym is spent pleasantly alone, or, at worst, in fairly sparse company. It is this company, however, that gives me a great deal of joy.
Watching some of my classmates work out is an exercise in keeping a straight face. The first thing one will notice in my gym is a complete lack of proper attire. The first time I noticed it was when one student was wearing a black, puffy, Northface vest while running on the treadmill. This, by itself would almost certainly win the award for most unlikely gym clothes. On that day, however, it wouldn’t even warrant much notice, as walking next to him was a kid dressed in a wind breaker, Dockers khakis, and most astonishing of all, flip flops. I understand that there is something to be said against the exclusive nature of many exercise groups. Bicyclists wear prohibitively expensive and prohibitively ugly cycling gear, and then shoot nasty looks at people in regular shorts riding by. But I think that sometimes these emotions come from an important place. Flip flops are not acceptable on a treadmill. This is not due to snotty elitism or some overblown sense of exclusivity. This is due to the fact that anybody who goes to an elite engineering school, or for that matter an elite preschool, should be aware that you are not intended to run in them. However, even this is not the most entertaining thing I’ve seen. The winner by far would have to be the person I saw one day wearing jeans with a belt, flip flops, and a button down shirt. Ordinarily this would be an amusing thing to see, but he managed to take it to a whole different level. Most of his workout consisted of standing in front of the mirror while making sure to keep what my friend refers to as his “Playmobile haircut” perfectly in place. He would then occasionally do a few sit-ups, and then return to petting down a few strands of hair on the side of his head. Finally, he swung a stick around like a golf club for a bit before retiring back to his room after 30 minutes. I don’t mean to sound like a jackass, but it was one of the funnier things I have seen in this country. I am a simple man and I believe in some simple things: the right to earn a living wage, to a decent education, to privacy, and that wearing a belt, a button down shirt, or flip-flops in a gym should be punished by a mild flogging.
As exercise is clearly not the reason for the amazing lack of obesity in this country, the clear frontrunner for the reason that people here are so skinny has to be the food. It is all things diet food should be, while at the same time tasting immensely better than anything in America labeled “Light.” That is not to say that it tastes particularly good, just that I would pick Korean food over a microwavable diet TV dinner any day of the week. There are very good reasons that this food is good for losing weight. The first is that it contains very little actual food. I don’t care what you say, but seaweed soup is not a breakfast food. It is hot water with fish food thrown in. Judging from this, I would say that the concept of calories escapes Koreans. Beyond this, Korean food is physically difficult to eat. American food is designed for easy consumption. Most cheeseburgers are greasy enough that with minimal chewing you can slide whole chunks of meat and cheese down your gullet. Korean food is the exact opposite. It is always hot and spicy to an unbelievable degree. Eating it wears you out. You end up finishing your meal not because you are full, but because you are tired of trying to force sustenance into yourself. On top of this, they have devised perhaps the most ingenious dieting device of all time. This device is known in the Western World as chopsticks. If you ever decide to crash diet I would suggest eating noodle soup with chopsticks for a week. Trying to eat noodle soup with chopsticks is akin in difficulty to a Korean making it in the NBA as a center. In fact, feeding prisoners of war noodle soup with chopsticks is banned under the Geneva conventions. As nearly all of the food in this country is difficult to ingest for one reason or another, you are almost guaranteed to lose weight as soon as you get here. In the first month I lost about 10 pounds without even trying. I believe it is this semi-masochistic diet that does the trick for the Koreans. Nearly everybody in this country has the body of the geeky kid with huge glasses who, in high school, spent too much time on the computer reading about the latest graphics cards (and I would like to point out that I only did that before high school). They are skinny, but certainly not in shape. But what do I know? I’m overweight.