I kind of expected Engrish to be widespread before I came to Korea. I understand that English is not everyone’s first language, and I don’t expect everyone to speak it perfectly. But, I do think that the internet has helped the world become more connected, so you can find practically any service online. A translator, a proofreader, someone? Nope, despite having tens of thousands of native English speaking teachers (like me) and U.S. military personnel (like my sister) living in the country, there are still plenty of professionally printed and circulated signs, websites, and products that have bad English on them. (Could you ask one of us for help?) But, even more often than that, I find things that are either funny when translated into English, funny to me for other reasons, or just inappropriate for their target audience.
Here’s a list of things that I’ve seen firsthand:
I went to get my hair cut for the first time since I moved here. I scoured forums for the places foreigners have had the most luck. I didn’t think my hair was that different from Korean hair but apparently I was wrong. I could have gone to a local barber, but I figured that was too risky. Also, places with two barber poles signify brothels, and I really didn’t want any “extra services”. So, I found a chain of salons that some foreigners recommended. I even brought pictures of the style I wanted so that English wasn’t a requirement.
Here’s what I got:
The higher the hair, the closer to God I guess. It wasn’t the best cut of my life, but I got an awesome shampoo and head massage, so it was worth it.
Because my school tells me as little information as they possibly can, I found out that I had a two-day break the week before it happened. So, I stressed myself out because I knew that this was one of the few opportunities I would have to travel somewhere for longer than a weekend. Since my school is private and driven only by money, it has the power to tell me when my vacation days are. I have no say.
I looked for last minute flights somewhere abroad like Japan or Thailand, but there were no good deals remaining. Luckily, my good Judy Nick had me covered. He had the same days off and proposed a trip down to Busan (pronounced Poo-sahn) to stay with his friends. Korea’s second largest city and the fifth busiest seaport in the world (according to Wikipedia), Busan is located on the country’s southeastern coast. Although the city has beaches, the temperatures were not ideal swimsuit weather while we were there unfortunately.
That gives me more time to be up in the gym and work on my fitness (he’s my witness).
Nick and I woke up early Sunday morning to take the four and half hour train ride down to Busan. There is a high-speed train that could have gotten us there in half the time, but it’s twice as expensive. Neither Nick nor I are classy or rich, so we were perfectly fine taking it slow and steady. I surprisingly slept for a good chunk of the ride down. Nick, on the other hand, had been feeling sick, so his train experience wasn’t as relaxing.
Once we arrived in Busan, we made our way to the Seomyeon area where Nick’s friends, Stacy and Rob, live. They took me to see some of the city while Nick stayed home and rested.
We went to Jagalchi Market near the port.
Then we went to Yongdusan Park and the bottom of Busan Tower (because we didn’t want to pay to go up).
So we went to the rooftop of a nearby mall, which offered great views for free.
The weather was perfect for walking around, a nice break from Seoul’s brutal winter. Stacy and Rob were great hosts/guides. Both have been in Korea for a while and are really knowledgeable and involved in the community. Stacy’s all-encompassing personal website is here. Rob’s part of a band called Robsanity. Listen here.
My most memorable experience of this trip was going to my first jimjilbang. A jimjilbang is a public Korean bathhouse. Conan O’Brien even went to one.
Many foreigners get nervous because the JJbang is segregated by gender and you must be completely naked in the bath area. After acclimating to dat Korean gym lyfe in Seoul, I was pretty immune to the fear of being naked in front of other people. I kind of wanted to be naked all the time.
Beforehand, I did feel a little weird about being naked in front of Nick because he’s a friend. But I didn’t want to go to a jimjilbang by myself at first, so I had to suck it up. We went to Spa Land, which is attached to (allegedly) the biggest department store in the world. After paying 15,000 won (about $12.50) to get in, we went to the locker rooms, got naked, and then headed to the baths.
This is what they look like at Spa Land:
Before getting into the baths, you have to take a shower. Then you just basically lounge around for as long as you want. There are multiple tubs to choose from. They have different water temperatures and some include salt, minerals, or tea. There are also sauna rooms with different levels of heat. The two temperatures at Spa Land were hot (40°C/104°F) and Satan’s ball sack (80°C/176°F). After the baths and saunas, you can also lounge around the common area for both sexes (with clothes on) and buy snacks and enjoy more heated and therapeutic rooms.
My first jimilbang experience was great. It was a super relaxing and fun to just hop around between the different pools and saunas. I even splurged for a scrub where an old man wearing only a pair of shorts and white rain boots wrapped cloths around his arm like a cast and then scrubbed my entire naked body.
I saw a lot of dongs at the jimjilbang (thus the title) and learned a lot about Korean men’s bodies. I would like to complete some further research on this topic before I come to any conclusions (wink wink), but here are my initial findings based on both my JJbang trip and the time I’ve spent in my gym’s locker room:
Koreans don’t typically trim their pubic hair. Like at all. As my sister warned me, they voted for President BUSH. Their body hair isn’t as course as white people’s so rather than curl, it just sticks straight out and forms a bouffant that leads the way when they walk. I’m not judging it. It’s just different than what I’m used to. Especially the gay guys I’ve known who treat their pubes like bonsai trees, ever so carefully shaping and preventing them from growing to their full potential.
I feel more comfortable about my body in front of Korean strangers than other white people. Nick and I were the only foreigners when we arrived. However, while there, two more pink dicks* showed up, and I instantly felt more insecure. I think I compare myself less to Korean people because their bodies are so different than mine. Back in the U.S., I always wonder if other guys are fitter, cuter, or have better skin than me. But with Korean guys, I just know I’ll never be as tan or have the same thick hair (on their heads) as them. So, I guess I’ve realized there’s no point in comparing myself to them. That should be a lesson I take home with me. Stop comparing.
The Korean booty game is strong. I guess I had just assumed that Asian guys were stereotypically short and skinny and that’s about it. But, butts here are so bubbly and not just the buff guys who are always at the gym. Maybe it’s because they walk everywhere. Maybe it’s a magical side effect of eating kimchi all the time. Either way, I am in awe and now insecure about my sad pancake booty.
So thanks to Busan – for new friends and new experiences. I’ll be back when the weather’s warmer and my Korean ass grows in.
*One of the white guys had completely shaved his pubes off, which contrasted SO MUCH with the rest of the bushes there.
Of all the things that I anticipated missing from America, I didn’t think that being fit would be one of them. Since I was plopped in my apartment in Seoul two months ago with no help from my school on adjusting to basic life (like advice on where to go to the grocery store, what’s the closest subway station, how I can make my bathroom stop smelling like cigarette smoke and vienna sausages), I had gotten super out of shape. And I felt bloated and constipated all the time. Looking back now, it was silly of me to think that my work would help me find a gym. Nope. Despite putting out lots of feelers and asking questions, I got nothing. It was super cold outside though, and I figured that I could get by doing the 7 Minute Workout app and some yoga videos in my apartment every once in a while.
I eventually realized that this wasn’t going to cut it. I noticed a significant change in my body composition and I didn’t like it. So, a gym membership was a must if I was going to avoid gaining a Buddha belly. There are forums for expats that I scoured looking for some foreigner-friendly gym that would hopefully be nearby. I found multiple Crossfit gyms that were only a short bus or subway ride away. But, I was shocked by the cost of a monthly membership at these places. The prices were comparable to those of “boxes” in DC, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. The class times didn’t really line up with my schedule either. I know in theory I could wake up early and go to Crossfit before I go to work at 1 p.m., but I know this is unlikely to happen in reality.
Two months worth of walking the streets of my neighborhood helped me realize that there were two second floor gyms super close to both my apartment and my work. One morning, I finally decided to scope these places out by myself. I was nervous because I expected no one at either place to speak English and I know nothing about discussing gym memberships in Korean. The first gym was closed, I think permanently. The second place was cheap (about $20 a month with a four-month membership) but it was really cramped and dusty. And it looked like they didn’t even have one complete weight set.
I walked out of the second gym feeling super defeated and sad (I was missing those exercise endorphins). I just wanted to work out. Was this my only option? I vowed to wander the streets everyday until I found a promising gym. A few minutes into my walk of self pity, I saw a sign that looked promising right next to an Outback Steakhouse. I followed it into the building basement where a very nice Korean guy helped me. He didn’t speak much English, but he grabbed two random people from the gym to explain the membership process to me. I came back the next day and bought a four-month membership for about $40 a month.
As part of my membership, I apparently got two free personal training sessions. I was told it was just an orientation, so I was confused when I showed up after work and got a full body composition scan complete with a polite lecture about how I should gain more muscle. “Nick”, my personal trainer according to his name tag, was super cute and did speak great English. However, I think I would have preferred an ugly person telling me to work out more.
Nick was really nice about helping me my first few times at the gym. Although I had done weight training in high school (believe it or not), he walked me through the free weight exercises and gave me pointers on how to improve. He knew a lot of body terminology although he did say “niffle” (for nipple) and “scaffula” (for scapula). Typical Korean-English mistakes, but that made him that much more endearing. He even helped me bench press one time after I had used up my two PT sessions, but I think that was more embarrassing than anything.
It’s now been about a week and a half since I’ve joined the gym. I’ve been a handful of times and things are going really well so far. Here are some things that I learned about Korean gym etiquette, which is different than my experience in the American fitness world:
Koreans lack the same personal bubble that I am used to back home, and the gym is just one example of this. Nick was very up in my business while helping me. When I was bench pressing and he was spotting me, his thighs were basically squeezing my temples. And I’m 1000% ok with that. You know, cultural immersion and all.
A lot of gyms in Korea provide clothes for you wear when you work out. It might be gross to some people to wear public property clothing, but it saves me from having to do more laundry or bring more stuff to the gym. They do smell really strongly of bleach though.
^^Do you see that guy walking behind me?^^ Do you see what’s on his feet? Ok, that brings me to my third point: Korean people sometimes work out in flip flops. Around those heavy weights? No thank you.
Everyone gets 100% nake nake in the locker rooms. And they don’t just get undressed and hide behind a towel right away. Their towels are the size of washcloths, so that’s not really an option. But, Koreans overall just seem to be way more comfortable being naked. They stand in front of the mirror and blow dry their hair for like 10 minutes naked, and no one cares. I love that. (I also love the way their blowdryers make my hair look). Sure, I’ve learned a lot about Korean anatomy (which I will cover in a later post about my first experience at a Korean bathhouse), but I also just feel confident that no one is looking at my body. And if they are, it’s because they’ve never seen a dick as pink as mine.
So, I love how my quest to find a gym finally worked out. I love the body confidence of Korean guys. It doesn’t hurt that my gym’s close to a university so a lot of the guys are young and attractive. Many of them are also in good shape too. Thanks mandatory Korean military service!