November: Getting my Volleyball Legs

Dating and relationships seem to be a pretty big deal over here. Introductory conversations with my coworkers at Samil can be summarized like this:

“How old are you?”
“I’m 23.”
“Oh, you’re so young! Are you married?”
“Haha, no, I’m not married.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Hmm, nope.”

Age and boyfriend/marriage are always the first two questions. Typically in that order. Being in a relationship seems to be pretty important to people over here. When it comes to romance-based holidays, there’s Valentine’s Day (2/14), White Day (3/14), Black Day (4/14), and Pepero Day (and maybe more, but that’s all I’m aware of so far). As explained to me by my co-teachers: On Valentine’s Day, the female half of a relationship gives a gift to her guy. One month later is White Day, when the guy gives a gift to his girl (relationships outside of the girl-guy spectrum generally aren’t recognized). These holidays are shortly followed by a holiday in which those without a significant other get together and eat cold, black noodles to represent the cold, black state of their hearts without a significant other. I suppose in the US all of these things happen simultaneously on Valentine’s Day, although in my experience cold, black noodles are usually replaced by chocolate and/or alcohol for those significant-other-less.

Beyond the holidays, couples dress in matching outfits. Underwear stores that sell matching are very popular. Maybe all this matching is a manifestation of the Asian “cute culture,” but it seems kind of like the public exhibition of coupledom is also important. Or perhaps it’s a PG way to make up for the lack of PDA acceptance. But whatever the reason, being in a relationship – and being able to show it off – is of utmost importance.

I’ve been able to gain a bit of insight into the dating lives of young Koreans through one of my co-workers, who is just around my age. One day, my normally very sunny co-worker looked rather down. She informed me that she had had a very bad weekend – she had just broken up with her boyfriend. Her parents felt they weren’t a good match, and a parents’ satisfaction with a significant other is of utmost important to a young Korean, she informed me. Parents actually play an integral part of Korean dating shows. So, although they were truly in love, and she actually felt that this guy was ‘the one’ for her, she decided her parents knew best and broke it off. But if it was true love, why had her parents decided they weren’t a good match? Apparently they found his choice of employment unfavorable. He worked as a co-captain on a cruise ship, and spent most of the year away captaining. Cruise ship employees also carried a reputation for cavorting with some of the more unfavorable locals on Southeastern Asian islands. And so, her parents felt they were not meant to be.

But when she told him they had to break things off, he promised her that he would “better himself.” He would change – he was testing to become an honorable public officer. He would wait for her to change her mind, to come back.

It all sounded quite dramatic, and I sympathized with her. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” she lamented.

Out of curiosity, I asked her how long they had been together.

“One month.”

Now, I shouldn’t be one to judge, but marriage and heartbreak and all this drama after a month??

Not to over-analyze, but could it be that the importance placed on having a relationship that I sense is there in the culture, magnifies the importance of a relationship in an individual’s life? Generally, this culture seems to be more community and relationship-based than the individualism of American society, so maybe that plays a part in it as well.

Some aspects of dating life are all too familiar:

Five days later, I saw my coworker again. She looked rather upset. “He hasn’t texted me for two days,” she confided, “and I don’t know what to do.”

Ah, the lament of girls around the globe. We may be different, but it’s somewhat comforting to know that even on the other side of the world people are playing these silly courtship games.

Two hours later, he texted her back, and all was well in the world.

But a bit more on Pepero Day.

11/11 is Pepero Day over here in Korea. People give each other pepero (빼빼로), which is more or less the same thing as Japanese Pocky.

This is Pepero:

Happy Pepero Day!

With the way stores were decorated, I figured the holiday was something like Valentine’s Day. And it mostly is, as you’re supposed to give Pepero to people you love. But lucky for me, students also give pepero to their teachers on Pepero Day! I’m a pretty big fan of any holiday where people are giving me chocolate.

A bit on the history of Pepero Day: It’s on 11/11 because the date resembles a bunch of Pepero sticks (perhaps that is obvious). According to my co-teacher, the holiday originated with high school girls giving the cookies to each other to encourage themselves to keep their figures chopstick-thin. Eating cookies seems a bit counter-productive to their message, but I guess Pepero are pretty small, so maybe if you only have one…

Really though, it’s not like Korean high school girls – or Korean women of any age – need encouragement to be skinny. As far as I can see, Korean skinny is a whole nother level from what I’m used to in the US – even skinny Americans seem to have trouble finding pants that fit over here. But of course, this doesn’t mean Korean women are free of weight worries.

My second Thursday teaching was the first (but certainly not the last) time weight came up with one of my co-workers. She had a very important date that weekend, and she asked me how she looked in her skirt.

“I’m a bit worried about my thighs.” She explained, “Korean men are very skinny, and they like skinny women.”

Skinny is a word my co-worker uses a lot. She is definitely petite, but always wants to be thinner. Perhaps it’s because I’m an American, or because I grew up in a time wary of eating disorders, but all this focus on being skinny strikes me as being a bit unhealthy. So my response naturally comes out something like this: People have different body shapes. Even among Korean women, not everyone can be the same kind of skinny. Certainly Korean men have different tastes. Etc etc etc.

“You can say these things, because you’re American, and you’re probably average for an American size. But it’s different in Korea. Men want chopstick legs.”

Ah, the pepero sticks.

I tried to make my case that I really didn’t think it would be possible for every Korean woman to achieve this “chopstick leg” ideal, and that some men certainly appreciated a curvier variety, but she didn’t seem very convinced.

“It’s nice of you to say that,” she said, but I could tell she thought I just didn’t get it. And I guess she’s right. Because I don’t. Good health is certainly important, but striving for a super-skinny ideal just to attract a man is not something I can understand. And I guess that’s the western in me.

Our discussion of chopstick legs came on a rather crucial afternoon, as I had just found out that the following day was ‘Teachers’ PE Day’ where we were going to be playing volleyball, and I was going to need to buy some athletic-ish pants. Considering Korean women tend to have chopstick legs (as pictured below), and I, well, do not, I had little hope for finding anything that would fit.

I took my very un-chopstick legs (I’ll call them ‘American thighs’) to HomePlus – Korea’s Tesco (Europe’s Wal-Mart) – to see what I could find. And I did find pants that fit! I stayed away from the trendier track suits and opted for a pair of sweats, figuring they’d do.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect of this “Teachers’ PE Day,” and was especially unsure of my volleyball abilities. The last time I touched a volleyball was the summer after my freshman year of high school, in summer school gym. My co-workers were all convinced that someone as tall as me would be an awesome volleyball player, and their high-expectations only

The volleyball we played didn’t look like anything I was familiar with, though. First of all, the net was low, tennis-net high. Also, the ball could bounce once after every hit. And, the male teachers could only use their feet or heads – no hands allowed.

I figured this would all make it easier, and it did, I think. But I also fell over quite a bit, one time in which I went sliding nearly into the teachers seated on the sidelines. Which was all very embarrassing. I figure about half of the time I fell over I did actually hit the ball, which may have been able to pass off as an epic dive than me just losing my balance. But the other half of the time, I would just fall over and miss, or make a bad hit. So I figured my days playing volleyball were finished.

But the next day at school, I could tell my co-teachers were raving about my volleyball abilities in Korean. This was also incredibly embarrassing. “You’re even better than the last foreign teacher – and he was a guy.” I think I was supposed to be embarrassed by this, but it just made me proud. I guess these American thighs are good for something.

And apparently hitting the ball half of the time was good enough, because I was recruited to play volleyball every Wednesday and Friday. Which starts with this lower-net ‘foot volleyball’ version, and then becomes more American-style volleyball, where the ball isn’t allowed to bounce (but you can still hit it with your feet if you really need to). I do still tend to fall over a lot, though, which I dont’ remember being a problem when I played on the volleyball team in 7th and 8th grade. Perhaps I should work on my balance…


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