“Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?”

When I went to Korea for the first time, I spent several days surviving on convenience store food between going for some meals in restaurants with colleagues, sometimes with their adult students. I knew that I’d have to find a restaurant I could go to by myself and/or cook for myself (which required some planning because I had to buy cookware, crockery and cutlery – my manager provided a very nice studio apartment with bed and pillow, but nothing else). 

Most of the restaurants I could see into had low tables and floor seating, but I found one that had Western-style tables and chairs. The manager placed the menu in front of me, pointed to the first page and said “Rice” (which I could actually see myself), then to the second and said “Dock”. Was that duck or dog? I was afraid to ask, so I said “Rice, please”. She and/or (a) waitress(es) brought out a bowl of plain rice, several bowls of soup and a major array of meat and/or vegetable dishes (I seem to remember 13 – I didn’t record this story in my diary of the time). I got through the rice and halfway through the meat and/or vegetables. At the end of the meal the manager offered me a big cup of shikhye (a sweet rice dessert drink). I first declined, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I forced it down somehow. 

Along the way I discovered that she spoke passable English, having lived in Brisbane, Australia for some time. As I paid and left, I asked “Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?” She said “Oh, is all vegetables, is all healthy”.

On a subsequent visit with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, I discovered that they’d given me a two-person serve of meat and vegetables. They prepare the serves in advance and assume that at least two people will be eating together. Koreans very, very rarely eat alone. On a subsequent visit with my students, I discovered that the mystery dish was indeed duck. (Restaurants which serve dog soup exist, but you’re unlikely to stumble into one at random. If you’re worried, memorise the Korean word 보신탕 (bo-shin-tang) and avoid restaurants showing that.)

For a few days I’ve been browsing a comprehensive travelling-and-living blog called In my Korea, by a Englishman named Joel who is teaching with EPIK. On one page, 50 Amazing South Korean Culture Facts You’ll Want To Know, he states, at number 21, “Koreans Are Some Of The Least Obese In The World”. He links to the Global Obesity Level Report by the World Health Organisation, which shows South Korea at number 183 out of 191. The bottom (or top, depending on which way you look at it) 20 includes South Korea and Japan, most of south-east and south Asia and a wide spread of African countries. Intriguingly, North Korea has a higher obesity rate than South Korea, ranking 164th with a rate of 6.8% (which is still very low) compared with South Korea’s 4.7%. The top (or bottom, depending on which way you look at it) 20 includes most of the south and west Pacific Ocean island countries, most of the Middle East and the USA.

Other factors in South Korea’s obesity rate is the sheer amount of manic energy they expend doing almost anything (The Land of the Morning Calm is now the Land of the All-Day Rush) and the amount of time they spend climbing mountains as a national hobby.


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