Trot music blaring, news in Korean at 40 volume, old ladies using that machine from the 1920’s that jiggles all your bits: this is the scene I enjoy every morning at my local Korean gym. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of more “western-style” gyms in Korea that you can choose from, especially in a heavily populated city like mine (Daegu). But, I wanted to go to the gym that has an enormous picture of Arnie on it circa 1980; who can resist that?
My real reason was the fact that I wanted to support my localized Korean community, and the gym is a business that I could support to benefit the area I live in. The owners’ daughter even goes to my elementary school! But, it’s old-fashioned, and in my experience, old-fashioned things in Korea are not generally foreigner-friendly (traditional Korean restaurants, shijangs – those things scare the ish out of me). There was also a more practical issue looming: the idea of benefiting my local area was nice, but what kind of a workout could I expect from a place with old-fashioned equipment and limited space?
There are some questionable machines present, but everything you could need for a good workout is also present at the local gym. There are treadmills, dumbbell racks, indoor bikes, bench presses and every conceivable machine necessary.
All of the amenities are there and more: clean drinking water (both hot and cold) fresh towels, hot water for showering, lockers for the important things and plenty of space to leave your sneakers and showering amenities in the changing room (which all the ladies choose to do). I’m in and out without EVER having an issue with traffic in the gym: hulky guys thinking they own the place, or judging eyes of women my own age. There are also towels and hair dryers provided. It is always a good temperature in the gym, and always very clean.
There is also an extra special element present. I will never forget the morning that I was trotting along on the treadmill, iPhone blaring Snoop Dogg in my ears when a lady came over to me, opened up my hand and placed a tea bag and 3 dried persimmons, looking very pleased with herself (there was nowhere for me to put it for the next 30 minutes, so it stayed in my hand getting a bit sweaty, but it’s the thought that counts right?). Now, you may be able to pay 7,000 won for a green juice at a fancy “western-style” gym, but no one is giving away dried persimmon for free. Just saying.
Perhaps you are saying to yourself: “I still don’t know about how navigable this is” or “my Korean skills are poor, how can I ask questions if I need help?” or “I don’t like persimmons.” Well! There is a much more practical reason I chose the local gym: The price is 50,000 won less for THREE months than a “western-style” gym is for ONE month. The bottom line is it’s much cheaper for less hassle, and that is a win in my book!
Some Korean gym rules
How does one navigate the local gym, however? Anyone who has lived in Korea for more than a week knows that there are lots of unwritten rules about things that Koreans sometimes take for granted are universal (you don’t eat rice with your chopsticks, you only mix bibimbap with a spoon, your school lunch tray should be facing a certain way, etc etc etc!) So I compiled a short list as a local Korean gym “code of conduct” to help you navigate the new terrain – all of these ideas were foreign to me when I showed up at my gym, so don’t feel overwhelmed!
Your key stays at the gym. As long as you don’t keep your wallet or iPod in your locker even when you aren’t there (who does that?!) you have nothing to fret about: no one wants to steal your smelly gym shoes!
Gym shoes stay in the gym. These sneakers are never to be worn outside, and they should also be brand new before you wear them inside. It keeps the place incredibly clean.
Showering amenities are safe to stay at the gym. You can buy a little basket at Daiso and keep your amenities stowed safely in any nook or cranny of the changing room. Don’t worry about anyone using it, they won’t.
Shower BEFORE you work out. I know it seems strange but it is hygienic and keeps you from stankin’. I also shower again after I work out of course.
Accept what is given to you, bow and say “gamsahapnida”. It is very rude in Korean culture to deny gifts of any kind, so just take it. Do whatever you want with it afterwards. I have a wheat allergy and the ahjummas almost always give me cookies of some kind, so I just give them to my students when I get to school. They’re stoked at all the goodies teacher brings them and I didn’t even have to buy it, win-win!
I know not everyone’s experience will be the same, but I implore you to try out a local gym in your area. If your Korean isn’t very good, apologize and use an app like Genietalk to help the conversation along. I was so worried about stepping into this gym the first time I went there, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made yet. It costs next-to-nothing, it is a source of healthy stress-release, it sets my day off right, I have lost 10 kgs without even noticing and it keeps the heating bill down in the winter (showering at the gym!). I hope you are inspired to venture into the wonderful world of the local Korean gym soon!
Jasetyn is an American expat teaching in Daegu with her awesome Kiwi husband of 7 years, Jared. They keep a hodgepodge of a blog over at annyongandtherestless.blogspot.com. Feel free to contact her via facebook at Jasetyn Hatcher or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.