I Respect Your Culture, But That’s Whack


I remember way back in the day, every once in awhile I’d go to a friend’s house to spend the night and learn that my friend’s family didn’t flush the toilet when they peed because they wanted to save on the water bill.  My reaction would be, “Really?  That’s how you roll in this place?”  I was disturbed, quite honestly, but since it wasn’t my house, I would abide by the rules.  I’d pee and just leave my urine there to chill and hang out in the bathroom while my friend and I played Atari.  Yeah, personally I didn’t understand it – not flushing was something people did because they forgot, not because they made a conscious decision not to – but I would adapt and I wouldn’t judge…at least not until I got back to the safe confines of my very pro-toliet-flushing household.

Living in another country is sort of like that.  Especially, I think, when you take a big leap in cultures as I have, going from Charlotte, South Carolina to Seoul, South Korea.  There are an amazing amount of differences in the way people behave.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve always taken a very “when in Rome” type approach to things; differences are only differences and I would by a jerk to start thinking that the people here do things wrong or inferior to how folks in the States do things.  In all honesty, I was anxious to leave the USA because I was agitated by people.  So, to start bashing the Korean way of life would be strange, sort of like an escaped convict criticizing the heck out of life on the outside.

Still, I do whine about things on occasion, as do the other ex-pats.  We love Korea, I’m sure of it, and at the same time, it’s impossible not to bitch about it every now and then.  The funny thing is, I quickly realized that I was totally fine with the big outlandish differences.  Yes, they eat dogs and living sea creatures here and the teachers carry sticks which they’re allowed to hit the students with.  I’m okay with those things.  They also sometimes have a garbage can next to the toilet, and after dropping a deuce, they wipe, fold the toilet paper up into a neat little square, and throw it away in the garbage can instead of flushing it.  Great.  I mean, I’m not going to do that myself, but if you want to do origami with your used TP, by all means, make me a little bird or something.  It’s cool, man.  Even though my legs go numb, I’ll sit on the floor during dinner, and even though I feel awkward doing it, I’ll put my hand on my arm when I pour soju for someone who’s older than I am (it’s a sign of respect).

Oddly, it’s the little things that start to wear on the nerves.  Especially if they have to do with manners.  I get annoyed at how people constantly push me and bump into me on the subway.  I also feel irritated that there’s no friendly door flip when I’m leaving a store behind somebody; the person in front generally just lets the door swing back freely at me.  I miss that courteous little door push and never realized how nice it was until it was gone.  And when people spit in public…I can’t help but find it gross.  Even cowboys, who were some crass motherfuckers, used a spittoon.  My students in the public school used to cough up mucus onto the floor in the classroom.  It was at those times that I wanted badly to have a beating stick of my own.

Complain as I might, I go along with everything.  When in Rome, shut up and eat the kimchi.  There’s so much to love about the experience here, a little lung on the floor isn’t anything to break a sweat over.  Even if I find something slightly annoying, it’s usually kind of funny and interesting at the same time.  However, the gym is stressin’ me out and, for the first time, I find myself refusing to comply with the society I’ve chosen to live in (mind you, I’ve never gone to a gym before, so this might actually be gym culture and not Asian culture, although I tend to think that it is).

I should start going to the gym in giant bear slippers. "What?! I can't do the treadmill in these?!"

I first got my gym membership in September of last year.  I had a pair of Converse on at the time I opened my membership, and even though the lady that worked at the gym didn’t speak much English, she made it clear that my shoes were not appropriate to wear in the facility.  She did this by pointing at them and saying “No.”  So, after I used the lack of shoes as an excuse to avoid the gym for a few weeks (I wrote a whole post about that), I finally caved and bought a pair of Reebok trainers.  To my surprise and horror, the lady at the gym approached me upon my return to tell me that these sneakers weren’t kosher either.  I didn’t get it.  I could understand how the Converse were bad, but what was wrong with the Reebok trainers?  They were athletic workout shoes.  I decided she was crazy and ignored her, wearing my Reeboks in every time I worked out (which wasn’t very often).

Recently, I had to join a new gym after my old one couldn’t swipe my bank card (it’s not a long story, but it’s extremely uninteresting, so let’s move on).  Again, I was told that my Reebok trainers – purchased by me specifically to work out in – were not good.  The guy at the new gym spoke a little more English, at least enough to point at them and say (in addition to ‘no’), “Outside shoes.”

Well, I asked a Korean friend about this and she gave me the low down.  I thought I’d bought the wrong kind of trainer, but she tells me that there’s nothing wrong with the sneaker itself.  The problem is that I’ve worn them outside, turning them into “outside shoes.”  I’m apparently supposed to take my “inside” gym sneakers with me in a bag or something and change into them in the locker room.

“That’s insanity,” I said, flabbergasted.  “I have to wear one pair of sneakers to the gym, and then change into a second pair of sneakers?  That is sneaker insanity.  What difference does it make?”

“Your outside shoes are dirty,” she said.

“Dirty?  I don’t even think they’ve ever touched actual dirt.  I walk around on concrete all the time.”

To any extent, she told me the right thing to do would be to go buy yet another pair of sneakers, one that I could carry into the gym with me like they’re precious jewels or something.  The thing is, I really, really don’t want to do this.  Had I of known about the outdoor/indoor shoe to begin with, I never would have allowed my Reeboks to touch the fifty feet of pavement that separated my apartment from the gym.  Even if my friend is completely wrong about everything, now I’m paranoid that I’ve been doing it wrong all along, walking around indoors in my foul outside shoes.

Anyways, I respect Korean culture big time, but this outdoor/indoor shoe thing is whack.  Please, people of Korea, I only want to bench press 30 lbs in peace.