Fat in Korea

Koreans are some of the worlds thinnest people and Americans are, well, not.  For example, it’s not much of a stretch so say that several of my Korean co-workers have waists not much larger than my thigh and I have a difficult time getting my clothes to stay on Korean hangers, which are designed for jackets and skirts much smaller than my own.

This actually makes no sense to me, as a diet which features tons of sodium, white rice, fried foods, meat, and regular heavy drinking should not equal thinness.  I’ve been pondering this for awhile now, and besides fresh fruits and vegetables, there is one thing distinctly lacking from the Korean diet: dairy products.  And the more I think about it, this just might be the thing that, pardon the pun, tips the scale in a more Western diet.  It’s not necessarily the carbs in the baked potato or the quarter pounder or the pasta that we should be turning down–it’s the dollop of sour cream, it’s the “with cheese”, it’s the alfredo sauce.

Of course, it’s also important to realize that the metabolism and bone structure of an American and a Korean are (more than likely) radically different.  This fact however, seems to escape most Koreans.

Example 1: A few weeks back, I was asking another foreign teacher about gyms in our neighborhood.  She recommended one to me and advised against another.  She’s from the UK and seems to me to be an average-sized and healthy girl but when she went in for her initial meeting with a trainer at fitness center xyz, was told she needed to lose an amount that equaled over half of her total weight.  She tried explaining to the trainer that she is British and was never ever going to weigh what he suggested she should but since he didn’t get it, she just revoked her membership lest the trainer attempt to starve and cardio her to death.

Example 2: Today after a bit of trick-or-treating and a Halloween performance for the parents, one of my kindergarten students informed that her mom said I was fat (note: I’m 5′ 3″ and weigh around 150 lbs).  I told her that that wasn’t a very nice thing to say and tried to shrug it off, but it’s not the first time something like that has happened and it really got under my skin today.  Like really badly.  I can’t stop thinking about it and the time another student told me I was a pig at lunch.  The kids seem to particularly enjoy this insult as I’m not the only foreign teacher that has been called this.

Things like this happen outside of school too and it makes me feel really self conscious about what I order in restaurants, buy in shops, eating in public, and just generally existing.  I know that most people that stare or point at me are doing so simply because I do not look Asian but it’s sometimes difficult to not wonder if people’s thoughts are much more negative than the fact that I look foreign.

I guess now would be a terrible time to mention that I’ve lost around 30 lbs since getting here because you readers are going to think I’m developing an eating disorder under the judgmental eyes of excruciatingly thin Korean women, but that’s just the flow of the writing at this point.   I walk so much every day and my diet has radically changed based on availability and price of food items.  As I’ve mentioned, dairy is not really present here (yogurt is fairly popular and the kids drink milk with snack but that’s about all I see regularly consumed) and as you’ve probably assumed if you know anything about Asian cuisine, there’s not much bread, pasta, baked goods, or potatoes to be had.  That change alone was about 15 lbs and then I started doing bikram yoga.

Getting back into yoga was one of my goals for my time in Asia and when I stumbled across the Yoga Palace site on Dave’s ESL Cafe, offering bikram instruction in English, I just knew this was something I had to try.  If you’re unfamiliar with bikram, you might know the term “hot yoga.”

Controversial for it’s developer’s efforts at copyrighting his poses, bikram is practiced in rooms that are heated to around 104 F and 50+% humidity and consists of a beginning breathing exercise, 26 poses, and a closing breathing exercise in a 90 minute period.  The poses are both compression and stretching and work everything from your lungs to your lower back to your big toes (no, I did not make that last part up).  Often by the end of class, I have a hard time achieving poses because I’m so slick with sweat that my legs or hands keep literally slipping out of their postures and I drink on average 2 liters of water a session.  It’s amazing.

I really don’t care if it burns 300 or 1500 calories (I’ve heard anything in that range), 90 minutes of silence after chasing around 5 year olds half the day and teaching grammar to pre-teens after that is nothing short of golden.  It’s not entirely silent, but the lilt of the Thai instructors voices just washes over me as I “kick…. keep kicking… the more you kick your leg up, you can stand like this forever annnnndddddd downnnnnn….. savasana….” and my body is being worked so hard, it’s like it separates from my mind.  It’s the closest thing to thinking about nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life and it’s refreshing.

Next week begins my studio’s 11 day challenge: sign up with a teammate to attend 11 days of classes in a row with no sitting out on poses.  My teammate Laura (a teacher at another ECC) and I probably won’t win the prize–a free month added on to your memberships–because our work schedules only allow us to attend one evening class a day, but we’re both looking forward to the physical and mental benefits of 11 straight days of yoga.

As a closing note, I love the sign on the door to the classroom: Close your mouth, open your mind.


(PS. If you’re in the Seoul National Area and looking for a studio or back in the US and interested in what I’m up to, go check out Yoga Palace.  The pictures of poses will not disappoint!)


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