This is a very belated post! It’s been over two months since I got back from Korea. I can’t believe how much time is flying by me right now, but I want to share a little bit about that experience before it’s too late and I forget it entirely.
My experience of Korea this time was worlds apart from my first trip back in January. The way I see it, this difference boils down to a few very key points: the weather this time was significantly better than the sub-zero winter temperatures, I managed to sleep through the night almost immediately (thank you melatonin), and I ate proper amounts of protein the entire time. I became very very sick on my first visit, which obviously hindered my experience, but I suspect if I had simply been able to eat and sleep properly, I would not have gotten nearly that ill in the first place.
I also owe a lot of my enjoyment this time around to my hosts Erin and Yoon, the couple who own Pilates the Fit, the studio that hosted me. Erin and I are the same age and had met previously in Toronto while she was studying, and she also took me out for dinner when I was in Seoul in January. We hit it off really well on this trip and had lots of fun together. Yoon is super sweet and generous too, and they both made it their absolute mission to make sure I was well taken care of, knowing how sick I had been my first trip, and wanting to give me a better impression of Korea this time around. We had some great dinners together, and they put me up in a super modern hotel with a full, if somewhat odd breakfast buffet selection, and my room was on the 19th floor with great views of the city.
Not a bad view on a sunny day!
Seoul, June 24th
It’s the second morning of the course, and my host Erin picks me up outside my hotel. The first day of any course is always the hardest – my opportunity to ‘prove’ myself and also the method – so I’m eager for feedback when I get in the car. I don’t ask, but I kind of hold my breath and wait for her to spontaneously say something about how Day 1 went. I’m in luck! Erin tells me that she talked to a number of the students last night, and that “they all said that they love you…”. Immediate relief. I felt like I did a great job, my delivery was smooth and confident. I’m so glad. Erin finishes her sentence “…because you’re so pretty.”
Oh. Well there’s something I can feel good about. I’ve earned that.
I mean, I’m grateful, obviously. It’s not like I’m saying oh poor me, people treating me well and liking me for no good reason is really hard on me. No, of course not. It’s obviously an advantage, but let’s just say this comment touches on a nerve for me. I also have a suspicion that when Koreans consider me to be “so pretty”, a big part of what they’re really saying is “she’s so white”. Ugh. What a messed up thing to be validated for.
In reality, I know I’m good at my job, and I know I did a great job yesterday. I know my sh*t, I’m articulate and reasonably confident, and I believe 100% in everything that I am teaching them. It looks as though I’ll have to get by on my own assessment of my performance for now, which is actually not a bad skill for me to develop. That being said, of course I’ll eagerly examine the training evaluations when they come in at the end of next week.
Over the course of the first week, I got to know the students gradually, and we all got more comfortable with each other. They started actually asking me questions through Jenny, the interpreter, and became more outgoing and engaged in the sessions as we went along. I could also begin to get more of a sense of their personalities, which was fun. I made a point of working on my Korean expressions as well, at least my hellos and goodbyes, which seemed to charm them or at least make them laugh.
By halfway through my trip I was confident in my delivery of a polite hello, the two different forms of goodbye, as also yes, thank you, yummy, and cheers. Those seemed like some important bases to cover! In terms of Pilates specific phrases, the Korean expressions for “inhale” and “exhale,” as well as “quickly, quickly”, and “squeeze your bum” came in handy a surprising amount of the time. At first the students would laugh every time I said something in Korean, but by the end of my second week there, they didn’t even seem to notice anymore, which I took as a sign of my good pronunciation.
The weather was pretty up and down, with some brilliantly warm and sunny days, and then quite a few rainy grey days, which unfortunately always seemed to coincide with my days off. Because of the rain, I wasn’t able to do much sightseeing, but Erin and I visited a few crazy shopping centres and I had my first and second experiences with another Korean speciality; the 4D movie. That’s right, 4D. We saw Independence Day: Resurgence on my first rainy day off, and The Legend of Tarzan on my final one. They were both fun and fluffy, mindless entertainment filled with beautiful people and crazy special effects.
The fourth D would be best described as “touch”, I suppose. The seats in these movie theatres move like crazy, to the point that I was worried about getting motion sickness and/or spilling my drink all over my lap. We also got jolts in our backs from the seat when someone was electrocuted on screen and puffs of air pressure to the side of the head when there was a fight or any commotion on screen. Perhaps the most surprising was being hit with a small jet of water in the face when an alien’s guts sprayed all over the screen. I think I actually jumped out of my seat at that point. The whole experience was super cheesy and over the top, and also awesome and completely engaging. I will definitely go again on my next visit!
Taking a walk with Erin along the Yangjae Stream
I had so much fun getting to know Erin better day by day, on our rides to the studio, dinners, and little outings on my days off. We actually became real friends, having honest conversations about everything from our fears about having children, to the racism she experienced during her school years in Australia. It was so nice to just be real with someone so quickly. We covered some serious conversational ground over the weeks, and it made me realize how starved I have been for female companionship ever since leaving Toronto.
Because talking to Erin was so easy, I was able to ask her more about the great elephant in the room, North Korea. She admitted that it is a big concern, but that it has always been that way, and people don’t really enjoy talking about it. I also learned that through her church she has done some work helping North Korean refugees settle in South Korea, which I thought was really interesting. As a result of this, she has become friends with a girl who escaped North Korea, but whose path to freedom included being raped, and also witnessing her own mother’s rape and murder by the Chinese “broker” who smuggled them over the border.
Such heavy stuff that I would have never imagined possible, but of course this is happening. Wherever there are vulnerable populations, there are those who seek to exploit and abuse them. It’s horrendous. Such atrocities seem so distant to us in North America, but in Seoul they’re less than 40 miles away. Although there seems to be very little the people or government of South Korea can actually do to assist their neighbours, I feel like North Korea must be a big shadow hanging over their collective psyche.
I always feel like it is my responsibility to learn at least a few key phrases in the language of a county that I am visiting, in order to be polite and respectful. I didn’t even bother to do this with certain countries on our trip because the language was so incomprehensible and English was so prevalent, but in general I feel it is arrogant to arrive in a foreign country and expect other people to speak to me in English, simply because that is my language. To some extent, English as the international language is just a reality of the world we live in, but I guess I try to minimize my “white guilt” by learning basics like hello and please and thank you. That’s often about as far as I get, but I try to do it out of respect for the people I am speaking to.
Ironically, it often seems that people prefer to be addressed in English. In Korea, I got the impression that people believed my addressing them in English demonstrated my respect for their ability to speak English well. So there I was, trying to use the local language to be respectful, and people almost seemed offended, as though I didn’t think their English was good enough. Erin also pointed out that a lot of people are eager for opportunities to practice their English, rather than struggle with me awkwardly trying out my Korean.
Erin’s husband Yoon is learning English, taking sessions a few times a week, so I kept encouraging him to practice with me as much as possible. It was fun to see him get more comfortable over the time I was there, making a point of asking me questions in English and engaging as much as possible. I know from my own attempts with Spanish (and now Korean) that confidence is such a major part of actually utilizing what you know, and that you just have to force yourself to say the words out loud until you stop feeling ridiculous.
After about a week of mostly western food, Yoon and Erin took me to a well-known restaurant for a traditional Korean dinner. It was a beautiful spot with traditional architecture and even a little stream and waterfall running through the courtyard. We ate in our own little room at a low table, seated cross-legged on the floor, and I marvelled at how much cultural behaviours shape people’s bodies, thinking of how many people at home can’t even sit like that because their hips are so tight. I noticed this on our trip too, that while so few North Americans can sit down into a full squat, in so many countries in Asia we would see men in their 60s ‘sitting’ like that to eat and chat with their friends.
Check out all those side dishes!
Our table was laid out with tiny dishes of various pickled and fermented vegetables, some spicy beef and pork, as well as makgeolli, traditional Korean rice wine. We were also presented with Doenjang jjigae, a traditional soup that had an insanely strong and not entirely pleasant smell. I have a super sensitive nose, so I basically had to hold my breath when I was getting the soup close to my face, or I never would have been able to try it. I was honestly afraid that I was going to gag from the smell. It was fermented soybean soup, which was crazy flavourful and crazy salty, and I liked it a lot, but I had to take small spoonfuls because it was so potent.
Yoon taught me the proper way to hold my cup when someone is pouring me a drink, either taking it with two hands, or touching my free hand to the inside of my arm as I held the cup. This is because using two hands to pass something or pour a drink is a sign of respect, and of course you want to reciprocate. I also impressed Erin and Yoon with my chopstick skills, which made me feel good. Thanks Mom and Dad for that weird insistence on us eating stir-frys at home with chopsticks when we were kids! After dinner we moved on to the Harbor Café, a beautiful little spot by the river, and ate Bing Soo, a Korean desert of shaved ice topped with sauce and/or fruits, with which I am now obsessed.
Yoon pours some makgeolli
Over the course of the three weeks I also had quite a few solo dinners at the Outback Steakhouse beside my hotel, one time even opting for the ‘California Steak Salad’. How very American of me, I thought to myself, to be halfway across the world and still eating western food. A salad named after my own state, no less. But sometimes a girl just needs to eat some protein and vegetables in a recognizable format, and it had to be done. Korean food can be a bit intimidating, and I’m much more comfortable eating it with people who can give me a bit of guidance.
Gagnam, Seoul, July 10th
Towards the end of my stay, Erin and the students take me out in the heart of Gagnam for traditional Korean Barbeque. We sit on wooden benches around little rectangular tables with charcoal grills in the centre kicking off serious heat. The first plate arrives, piled high with what looks like extremely thick-cut raw bacon and a few mushroom caps. Dong-Hee, one of the student leaders of the group, starts grilling. Apparently it is both a sign of respect, and also an honour, to grill meat for someone special, and I am the VIP for the evening! After a few minutes, Erin and I are presented with grilled mushroom caps filled with crazy hot ‘mushroom water’. As the VIP, I’m given the mushroom that released the most water upon being grilled, because, apparently mushroom water is very healthy. We wait about a minute for the steaming mushrooms to cool, and then I manage to spill most of the precious water on my plate in my attempt to eat it with chopsticks.
Once the pork starts sizzling, there are flecks of hot old spitting all over the table in front of me and also occasionally into my face. I, of course, begin to worry that this might stain my clothes, but no sooner does this cross my mind than some aprons appear for us all to wear. It is lovely being a guest in a culture with such generous hospitability, but I also feel badly at times, knowing that I don’t hide my feelings well, and that if I am even slightly uncomfortable, Erin feels it is her job to somehow fix it.
I make a few faux pas like stepping on the bench with my shoes on, and also attempting to put my purse on the floor, and quickly learn that Koreans consider the floor to be very dirty, so these things are simply not done. I make sure to touch my left hand to the inside of my right arm when accepting a plate or a drink from someone, and I can tell the students appreciate this. Lots of beer is poured over dinner, and Erin tells me that I am “so good” at drinking beer. I take the compliment, but I’m not really sure this is something I should be proud of. I also gladly consume a ridiculous amount of meat, which seems to please everyone as well.
We grill delicious thinly sliced beef, and eat it wrapped in lettuce leaves with rice, radish kimchi and onion stems. The whole meal is a meat and salt and spice overload and I couldn’t be happier. The students, especially Dong Hee and Sa Min, the two student leaders in charge of picking the restaurant, seem so pleased that I’m enjoying the food.
After the grills are taken away and cold noodle soup and spicy cold noodles are served, the students inform me it’s now time for phase two. Erin has told me this before, that there is always phase two to any evening. Unlike North Americans, apparently Koreans don’t like to linger somewhere after the food has been eaten. They move on to a new place for more drinks or dessert, or both.
Phase two sees us all seated in a private room around a large square table talking and laughing. Someone arrives at the door and things are ordered, I have no idea what. Two pots of makgeolli and shaved ice arrive, along with a plate of meat skewers and a plate of French fries, as though there was any way we could have needed more food, specifically more meat. Sa Min, being polite, is pleased to present me with a meat stick, and though I am completely stuffed from dinner, I accept and slowly eat it. It’s delicious.
Erin is the only one who speaks English fluently, so she sits next to me and conveys things once in a while. The students can understand me to varying degrees, more so than I had realized at the start of the courses, and we talk and laugh well enough. Once we’re into the makgeolli, Erin tells us it’s age sharing time, so we go around the table, everyone stating the year that they were born. We use the birth year to ensure there is no confusion between their age and their ‘Korean age’, because Korean’s define age slightly differently that we do. For example, Erin is 32 like me, but is 33 in Korean age, which includes her time in utero. Kind of a funny concept.
Once the students realize that I’m their elder, they tell me that I’m Karen Unni, “older sister”, the phrase another sign of respect. Sa Min, the only male of the group, calls me “Nuni” (the male way of referring to an older female). All the girls giggle, as do I, and he is visibly pleased.
It has been so fun getting to know the students these last few weeks. They are such diligent students, so focused and so quick to understand the subtleties, they have been a real pleasure to teach. It’s really fun seeing them outside of the studio, as people, and having them see me that way too. The girls all tease Sa Min about his girlfriend being so much younger than he is, and he blushes and seems pleased. The girls tell me that Korean guys always like younger women, and I laugh and tell them that’s true everywhere.
Tonight I can tell how much the students like me, and that is such a nice feeling.
They told me to smile and that they’d make me look extra pretty by making funny faces…
I am so glad I had this second chance to experience Korea and Korean students, otherwise I probably would have painted the whole of the country with my first impressions. I came back to Toronto in February with the impression that Korean students were exceptionally shy and simply didn’t ask questions, which I realize now was a completely unfair generalization. The group I taught this time was much more confident and willing to ask questions, which, I suspect, has more to do with the age of the students than anything else.
Despite the differences between these two groups, I do feel it’s fair to say that Korean students are very different from the students in Toronto in some core ways. My experience has been that the students in Korea are extremely respectful to me as the Instructor, are willing to work very hard, and come to class prepared. They have paid to be there to learn, and they work hard to do exactly that. In the courses I teach at home, there is almost always one ‘problem student’ in any group. This student is either constantly pulling focus and wanting to discuss themselves and their own body the entire time, or they are trying to challenge either me or the validity of the STOTT PILATES method.
I saw no traces of these behaviours with the Korean students. They seemed so grateful for whatever individual feedback I gave them on their bodies or their teaching, but they would never seek this out, and appeared shy and embarrassed when they were made the center of attention. It seems like it might be safe to say that there are some cultural differences at play here, both in terms of attention-seeking behaviour and also respect for ‘authority’. During my Korean visits so far, the students were also remarkably helpful, both to one another during the courses, and also to me afterward, staying late to put away all the props and mats and help clean up the studio.
All in all, this group was a dream to teach and were so sweet to me, taking me out for a second goodbye dinner and even giving me a farewell gift on the final day of the course. One of the students, who had seemed the most shy during the course, wrote me out a wonderful goodbye message, had it translated to English, and read that out loud to me from her iPhone. It was so sweet I almost cried.
Being silly with the students on the last day of the Matwork course. Teasers for all!
This is the part of my job that is deeply satisfying. To spend such an intense period of time with a group of people, to challenge them, to watch them learn and grow, and to witness their transformation over the course of only a few short weeks. It is intensely gratifying to know I have had a hand in their development, especially when I remember how hesitant and unsure I was when I began studying Pilates. In Toronto, we always share courses with other Instructor Trainers, so there have been only a few of times where I really felt fully responsible for guiding the group along on their journey. It is such a treat to have a group like this all to myself, to get to feel proud of how far they have come, and know that I was their guide.
I am learning and growing too, with each course I teach. With every group, I am challenged to become a better Instructor myself, to be more clear, more concise, especially with the challenges of a language barrier. It’s a pretty awesome thing to get to do, an honour even, and it was hard to say goodbye to my wonderful students on our last day together.
I was feeling sad my final morning in Seoul, and the sky responded accordingly, sending down the gloomiest rainstorm I’d seen my entire time there. I knew I was going home to an empty apartment that wasn’t even home yet, which wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect. It felt strange to say goodbye to my little room on the 19th floor, and I could hardly believe it was already time to go.
I head back to Korea on October 1st, and I can’t believe how quickly these last few months have flown! It’s been a really great summer of visits home and family weddings, but all of the back and forth has really started to wear on me. As much fun as I have been having, I am very ready to be settled somewhere for a length of time. I am craving stability in a big way.
Plus I have my own new city to explore, so that will be my mission going forward!