Every day like clockwork, I’d quickly stride to the bathroom to empty the contents of my intestines in a rather undignified way. Each time I stepped foot into the bathroom I’d crouch down to see if there were feet under any of the stalls and then make my way to the last one in hopes that it was free. The stall at the end had a western style toilet, whereas all the others had two place footings for the feet and required the depositor to squat and then accurately aim into the white porcelain hole.
I had been in South Korea for one month and my stomach was still in the acclimating stages. My diet consisted mainly of rice, green vegetables with a spicy red chili sauce, some type of protein, and kimchi. There was always kimchi and as each day of the week wore on, the fermented cabbage increased in its sourness. It was like dousing vinegar and lemon over a salad and then throwing in the fiery red taste of chilis, as if the other flavors weren’t enough. My stomach couldn’t handle it.
Whenever I walked into the teacher lunchroom cordoned off by three walls and a sliding wooden door, I could feel my colon puckering. I was like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I couldn’t turn down a meal or suggest that I bring my own from home as that would show disrespect, plus, no one ever brought their lunch with them. It just wasn’t done. Moreover, I was the first foreigner the small rural town of Namchang had ever met, so I needed to make a good impression. I was also the first “fat waygook,” or foreigner they had ever met, or so the teachers told me daily.
What I put onto my plate mattered. Each day I took a metal tray with spaces for each food group and waited my turn. I could feel all eyes on me as I reached for the spatula. Next was the protein followed by the side dishes and soup. The protein varied from tender bits of beef or pork with equal parts fat to thick slices of tofu, or some type of fish complete with bones.
The teachers took to leaving me the eyeballs as they said it could help me “lose my weight.” I always managed to avoid eating them by offering the pair to one of the head teachers. He would make a show of popping them into his mouth as if they were cherries and then patting his stomach.
Then there was the water. When the teachers were done eating they would walk over, take a cup, fill it once and down it. That was it. There was no drinking of liquid during the meal unless it was the soup. The idea behind this thinking was that meal time was for eating and the water cleansed the palate. Everything had a purpose. This also meant that I was forever thirsty.
One day I filled a cup with water, balanced it on my tray and walked over to a table. Eyes followed me. As soon as I sat down someone swooped in and took my cup. They dumped the contents and then the room erupted. The teachers translated and told me that I was a “silly waygook” and didn’t I know that water follows the meal. They added that drinking water fills a person up too quickly and as a result they will be hungry before it is time for dinner.
Waiting until the uproar died down I explained that in the U.S. it is common to have a beverage with the meal and that it helps fill us up, so we eat less. In retrospect I can better understand their reasoning as South Korea has not always been the wealthy country it is now, and I can equally see how Americans rely too much on factors outside of self-control to help us maintain food consumption. At the time however, I was desperate to satisfy my thirst as I had been struggling to find bottled water in anything larger than twelve ounces.
After that incident, the teachers allowed me to drink water with my meal as they agreed with my thinking that I needed to lose weight, and this was a good way to do it. They also continued to monitor how much I put on my tray and although no one ever told me in English, they always eyed me when I reached for the spatula. They had nothing to fear however, because like clockwork, I would half walk, half jog to the bathroom to empty the contents of my intestines into the toilet. I just prayed that I always remembered to bring toilet paper as none existed in this country.