Asians are tiny. There is just no other way to explain it. They are, for the most part, short people with skinny legs and narrow hips. When most white people move to Korea, they realize that the clothes they brought along are the only thing that they’ll fit in for the length of their stay. For white people who shop in Korea, the pants sold are too short, the bras are too tiny, and the largest shoes will fit snugly.
Occasionally a foreigner will find a sweater or t-shirt that seems as if it may fit. These people are often told by a shop owner “no,” when they try to purchase the item. White people are rarely allowed to try on clothes, which could be because Koreans think we’ll stretch out the clothes, or stink up the armpits (Koreans don’t have stinky pits, and deodorant baffles them), or both.
One of my friends spent a weekend in Seoul. Seoul had a large enough foreigner population that there were stores that actually sold large clothes. When my friend went shopping there, a saleslady brought him a Korean-sized large shirt. Though he’d lost eighty pounds since his arrival in Korea, he still was unable to fit into a large.
“Too small,” he told her when she offered him the shirt.
“No! It will fit,” she said.
When he attempted to try it on, the seams on the sleeves screamed out, ‘help me!’ So he gave up and took the shirt off. He gave the saleslady an I-told-you-so look, and she was surprised.
“You are much fatter than you look!” She said.
When he later re-told this story to his Korean girlfriend, he was informed that that was actually a compliment.
It seemed as though foreigners looked super-sized to Korean people.
Sometimes while traveling with friends, we would try to find a taxi that would let us fit four people in the back seat. Few taxi drivers were okay with this. After splitting our group up, one driver tried to explain to us why he wouldn’t allow us to ghetto-pack his car.
“Korea people, five, okay. Foreigner, large size. Four people just. Four people. Large size!” He said excitedly as he drove.
“Oh that’s nice, he’s calling us fat,” my friend laughed from the front seat.
The driver continued telling us that five foreigners were too large to fit in his car and we tried to ignore him.
Many of my foreign friends did lose weight while living in Korea. For them, they felt weight loss encouragement first hand from the Koreans that they knew.
“You look thinner,” my friend heard from her coworker.
“Oh, I’m on a diet,” she explained.
The Korean slowly looked down her body and back up to her eyes. “Good,” she said.
Another friend lost quite a bit of weight. “I lost ten kilos,” he announced to his coworkers.
“You should lose ten more,” one replied.
I even had a friend who decided it was time to start dieting when his coworker offered to buy him a girdle.
I had it pretty easy at my work, as my Floridian coworker was much larger than me. She’d had to deal with random old ladies coming up to squeeze the fleshy part of her upper arm on a regular basis while living in Korea. They would look at her as joyfully as a child who has just discovered silly putty, and she would patiently endure their prodding hands. By the time I’d arrived at our academy, our coworkers and students were used to seeing voluptuous white women.
One day I had a student try to explain the difference between “toong toong” and “tong tong,” the Korean words for fat and chubby. “Like you, teacher, you are not toong toong. You are more cute fat. Tong tong.”
My boss sold the academy to a new owner and bought a health shop. When she called me about a weight-loss contest that her new company was promoting, I was intrigued. “First prize, $200, second prize, $100, and third prize, $16.”
“$60?” I asked, familiar with the frequent number confusion that Koreans had.
“Ah yes,” she laughed. “$60!”
I was forever trying to lose weight, but with money as inspiration, I thought I might do a little better. “I’m in,” I said.
After my first weigh in that night, I’d learned more about the contest. There were 25 people competing (all of them Korean except for me), and we would have one month to try to lose the highest percentage of body fat.
I doubled my workouts the following week. I tried to eat more protein and combine strength training with cardio. It was exhausting, but I felt confident.
The following Monday, I was pleased to learn that I’d lost about four pounds. My former boss said, “Good job! Did you skip meals!?”
I laughed. “No, that’s not healthy. I just exercised more.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. Then she turned to one of the old ladies beside her. She began streaming out Korean, of which I could understand a few words, like ‘teacher’ and ‘American’ and ‘2 kilos.’
I smiled at the old woman, who was both tiny and flabby at the same time. She smiled back, revealing side-by-side gold teeth on the upper left side of her mouth. She spoke back to my boss, and I recognized the word ‘beautiful.’
My boss nodded in agreement when the woman finished, and then turned to me to translate. “She says that after you lose your fat, you may be beautiful.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. After all, this probably was meant to be a compliment. Thanks, Korea.