You may have read about the time I joined a Korean gym (if not, I highly recommend you do, if only for your own pure entertainment). I decided to let my gym membership lapse recently, though, not because of the belly poking–he was smart enough not to try any of those shenanigans again–but more because the pint sized bodybuilder owner had a tendency to eat his kimchi for breakfast and smell up the entire gym with his pungent meals. With Daegu’s insane heat in full force and the gym’s lack of air conditioning, the gag-inducing aroma began suffocating me in a slow, fermented chokehold, so I sought another cooler, and less smelly, place of exercise.
I found a pool and promptly signed up for a swim class.
You would think swimming would be relatively the same across cultures; after all, how different could swimming laps really be? And at first, it all seems roughly on the same page. You’re still swimming freestyle, breaststroke, the butterfly, and backstroke. The pool is the same size, everyone wears swimsuits (albeit the extra tiny kind for the men), and a coach leads you in the exercises.
But you first notice the difference when, at the top of the hour, the speakers boom with a dramatic orchestral piece and a man bellows out an assortment of chants and grunts. The swimmers all stand around the pool and perform a choreographed routine of arm swings, squats, and bizarre breast shaking to the sounds of, “Hui! Heh huh huh HUI HUH!”
Once the fat man (well, presumably fat; he just sounds like a big guy) has crescendoed into his grunting finale, everyone hops in the pool and commences the swim class. All seems to be rather standard until halfway through the class we are instructed to walk across the pool in a massage train. Because walking in a pool isn’t hard enough, I now have to rub some stranger’s shoulders, while being rubbed by another stranger, and while trying not to slip and create a domino effect on the rest of the class. Fantastic.
Next, the swim instructor attempts to teach me the butterfly stroke. First of all, I do not understand the purpose of this stroke; it is exhausting, slow, and completely inefficient. It’s certainly not going to help me if I’m being chased by a shark. Nevertheless, in an effort to make my butterfly beautiful, the teacher calls me over to the side of the pool and indicates I should lay on my stomach with my upper body hanging over the edge into the water. Before I can even protest, he has summoned some fat 10 year old Korean boy and told him to sit on the back of my legs. Then, with the chubby kid weighing down on my backside, he starts shoving my face in the water and flailing my arms around in circles like a rag doll. Did I sign up for swim lessons or water torture? I’m not too sure at this point.
As the class comes to an end, we line up in two rows facing each other and, with a partner, start what I can only describe as excessive high-fiving. We smack our hands repeatedly as hard as possible until they are red and raw. Then we circle up, hold hands, the teacher speaks some seemingly inspirational words, and then we all raise our hands together and shout, “FIGHTING”!
Finally it’s off to the showers where the old ladies try to demonstrate to me how to properly wash my lady bits, before I eventually head home in a stupor and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. The people in my class are quite nice, though, and although their English is limited (and my Korean nonexistent) we communicate through broken English and charades and they even invited me to their monthly swim class dinner. Yay for swimming and fried chicken! The butterfly stroke is still a work in progress.