Friday, October 19, 2012

The Korean Spirit

On the wrong day, Koreans piss me off. Sometimes it’s for “good[1]” reasons like my Korean girl students turning their backs to me and playing on their cell phones during class, or because sidewalks are chaos, ahjummas are pushy, and ajhusshis are handsy and smell like old, old, old sweat. Koreans gawk, but cute Korean boys are scared of Western women, possibly because we have hips and refuse to engage in “egyo” to make their skinniness seem manlier than it could ever be.

Other times it’s for “bad[2]” reasons such as Koreans’ inability to understand sarcasm or pronounce “zombie.” Koreans act and talk like children, sometimes on purpose (to look cute), sometimes because that’s how their dialect sounds compared with English, and sometimes because they are looking for freedom after their high school exams. They’re obsessed with appearance; they don’t have garbage cans. They can’t abide confrontation, are bureaucratic, and their views on women’s abilities and social roles are outdated enough to make my grandparents look like radical progressives.

At the end of these days, the wrong days—when Koreans can do nothing right—I watch American t.v. shows, eat peanut butter, and try to create a cocoon of anti-Korea. Ask any ex-pat who has been here for more than a year and I think they’d agree: this country wears on you. And sometimes even the anti-Korean cocoon doesn’t help.

So I run. On days when I work out in the gym, it’s a power trip. While everyone else is strolling on treadmills while talking on the phone, and generally soaking up “work-out atmosphere” without all that nasty business of perspiration, I am huffing and puffing, putting the treadmill through its paces, smelly and sweating. RAWR! I feel like the Hulk in a puppy shop (in a good way).

It is running outdoors, though, that really brings me back to peace with Korea. Sometime in the past two days, sunny summer slipped and broke into a chill autumn without letting me know and despite the subsequent cold I’ve contracted, the weather is perfect for exercise. Yesterday I ran for two hours and by the end I was so tired I could barely remember which country I was in or why I was in it or what could possibly be frustrating about Korea.

Every time I’ve gone running outside, at least one person—usually a genial older gentleman-type—gives me a huge smile and thumbs up. If the same man gave me a thumbs up when I’m wearing a skirt and make-up, I’d be running for home to form the anti-Korea cocoon. But when my face is the unattractive color of an overly-pesticided Fuji apple, I feel a surge of affection for the Korean people. There is something in them that loves to encourage the downtrodden. Their natural inclination to cheer and fist pump a person into “Fighting!” mode is an impulse Americans lack and it is one I find most admirable. One of the few phrases that most Koreans know is “cheer up.” That is what I try to remember when an ahjumma shoves me into a wall while exiting the subway.

[1] By this I mean that I would nod sympathetically if someone else were complaining about this.
[2] By this I mean that I would remind people that these sorts of things are what they sign up for when they live/travel abroad. These two distinctions are extremely arbitrary and subject to abrupt changes of heart based on mood and menstrual cycle.


  1. Replies
    1. probably the worst part of Korea. hands down. horrid on so many levels