I understand that there are cultural differences between Americans and Koreans. I understand that these differences may at times be hard to understand. However, I do believe that there are universal cultural norms that are true all over the world. For a long time, I thought that these cultural norms included many hygienic standards, such as, say, not hawking up loogies at every possible juncture. It appears I was incorrect. At all hours of the night you can hear Koreans (and even a French kid or two) treating the sinks as if they were modern day spittoons rather than what I incorrectly assumed were washbasins designed for tooth brushing and hand washing. They spend so much time hacking up phlegm that you would assume that they were auditioning to be an extra in the bar scene of an upcoming Western flick. Beyond this, though, the difference in what I assumed to be universal norms spreads to other areas of everyday dorm life.
I know that I have touched on strange Korean behavior in the gym before, but I have seen enough disturbing new things that I felt I needed to outline them here. Together, they seem to demonstrate a clear lack of understanding about the purpose of a gym by students at this school. As not everyone is apparently clear on the concept, I feel that it may bear repeating that gyms are for working out. Despite what you may gather from people here, they are not bedrooms, beauty parlors, cinemas, or anything else. The first clue that a person is not doing the right thing is readily apparent. If somebody is wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants and does not have a drop of sweat on their face after 5 minutes, much less 30, they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing in a gym. Unless you are somehow genetically crossed with a golden retriever, and are therefore physically unable, sweating is part of the process of working out. It is fairly infuriating to have to use the broken exercise bike while the kid on the good bike right next to you spends 20 minutes watching anime on his portable media player and breaking as much of a sweat as he might if he were standing outside the Saint Basil’s Cathedral during a snowstorm. Another clear sign that you’re doing it wrong is using the machines without putting any weight on them. Doing 10 pound leg curls is neither impressive nor productive. I’ve seen mimes lift more weight during their routines. There are paraplegics who could do more impressive leg presses than some of these kids.
One of the more shocking things I’ve seen was kids playing ping-pong on the floor of the gym. At first, I assumed it was just a quick joke while they were grabbing a drink. After about a minute of hearing that ball clicking against the floor, then a paddle, then back, it started to get annoying. When they started really whacking it back and forth across the room it began to be too much. The final straw was when they started using a barbell as the net for their impromptu game. At that point, I had to inform them that there was a fully functional ping-pong table in the adjacent room, which I was sure, would be adequate for all of their “sporting” needs. Perhaps the most distracting thing I have seen is the unbelievable uses of the gym mats. It would seem to go without saying that the gym mats are for exercising, but once again, that would be assuming too much. I have seen people walk into the gym and plop down on the mats without moving for the next 15 minutes. One kid has a routine of lying face first on the mat with his knees tucked up by his side and feet against the wall, looking like a frog ready to jump, while he remains lying there looking asleep until some multitude of minutes later he decides to actually start doing something. However, I don’t begrudge him, as it appears he may be actually stretching, or at least pretending to stretch. This is far better than the kids who just flop onto the mats after a 5 minute stint on the treadmill and then seem to “catch their breath” for the next 10 minutes. By far the worst I have seen, though, was outright cuddling.
This inappropriate “personal displays of affection” as it would have been known in high school was truly an assault on decent gym behavior. It began when two guys came into the gym and after a bit of jump roping flopped onto the gym mats right next to each other. Considering that the number of mats in the gym exceeds one it seemed an odd choice at the time. Just as any man should not use a urinal adjacent to somebody else if there is another option available, sharing gym mats is something that should be done only as a last resort, and not as a first choice. I imagine it’s akin to sharing needles, in that you would do so in a pinch, but even heroin addicts wouldn’t prefer it. Of course, as weird as it is for the two of them to be that close, if it had stopped there it wouldn’t have really been anything worth noting. It started to escalate when one of the kids put his arm around the other. By the time I was finished he had his legs over the other guy. It looked like they were playing some bizarro form of two person twister in which the arrow was being spun by an invisible man with a twitch. I don’t have a problem with two people being so intimate with one another, but I do have a problem with the choice of venue. I shouldn’t have to watch anybody’s pre or post-coital snuggling, or whatever that display was. That’s why God invented rooms.
While I’ve established that Koreans tend to not be the fittest, it certainly doesn’t stop them from thinking they are. Perhaps the best example of this occurs when watching or discussing baseball. Koreans have developed a national delusion that they are masters of the sport. The first thing they will tell you is how well they have done in the World Baseball Classic (a tournament that all but the most involved baseball fans will be surprised to know exists at all). When you state that any tournament that shows Japan as the premier baseball nation in the world over, say, the Dominican Republic is clearly not the best show of skill they remain undeterred. They will continue to tell you about their amazing baseball league. Then they will conclude that it is massively popular in the country. This last point I certainly cannot deny. You see people practicing pitching nearly nonstop. Unfortunately, it becomes readily apparent that they have never actually learned to throw a ball properly, as most of the “pitches” come sailing out like a toss from a middle-aged man in a slow pitch softball league. However, the lack of quality pitchers does not deter them, as there are batting cages nearly everywhere. I must say, this is a excellent idea for late night after bar outings, assuming one can remember to head in the proper direction rather than stumbling into a cab after downing too much soju. Despite the national lack of ability I have learned to generally agree with anybody when it comes to baseball. It’s just much easier. One evening I had a viciously drunk man tell me that the Lotte Giants (the team from Korea’s second largest city) were the best in Korea. Having recently seen a game, along with the league standings, I attempted to explain to him that the Lotte Giants were actually terrible. After he once again hopefully yelled at me that that Lotte Giants were the best I simply agreed and went on with my drinking. If I’ve learned one thing in Korea, it’s that it’s sometimes best to cut your losses. I definitely didn’t learn to be politically correct. I call it a wash.