I began going to the local swimming pool a couple of weeks ago, around the time the humidity jumped from an agonizing 50% to a sadistic 80%.
I’d had my reservations about using the local pool because of its proximity to my school – going by my track record I knew it was incredibly likely that I’d have a supremely awkward encounter with one of my students poolside that would leave us both scarred for life. But in the end my need to exercise was too obvious to be ignored, and knowing swimming was the only form of exercise I would realistically maintain in this evil weather I finally bit the bullet.
There are a couple of things that distinguish a British swimming experience from a Korean one. The first is that the changing room is a no-clothes zone. Four months ago this might have deterred me but nowadays as a jimjilbang devotee I can’t get nude fast enough so this posed no problem.
The second distinction is that as a woman it is mandatory for you to don a ridiculous swimming cap – even if like me you have less hair to speak of than many men and find Hello Kitty deeply creepy.
The final and ultimate difference is what I’ve called ‘Korean time-out’. This is what happens – at 30 minutes past the hour a jingle is played over the speaker followed by a maddening chorus of whistle-blowing curtesy of the half dozen or so life-guards lining the pool.
This signals a mass-exodus from the water. Every person dutifully clambers out and takes a seat poolside to wait…wait for what? Until yesterday it was a mystery that I could only speculate about, because up until yesterday I’d been taking ‘time-out’ as my cue to leave. But yesterday I got to the pool late and so had only managed a couple of lengths before the jingle kicked in. So, mildly intrigued I clambered out of the pool with the rest and claimed my place on the closest plastic bench to wait.
For the next 5 minutes nothing at all happened other than time passed, I became dry and the old man next to me performed a number of painful-looking stretches – little did I know that he was limbering up.
Suddenly there was music blaring out of the speakers calling every Korean man, woman and child to their feet. For a split alarming second I thought it was the national anthem and I looked around desperately for the nearest exit. But in fact it was something even more mind-boggling.
I recognized the music as traditional Korean trot music, which as any expat in Korea knows is a very special kind of auditory torture. This was interspersed with what I gathered quickly were exercise commands because instantly and in perfect synchronization all of the Koreans began hopping around and stretching furiously in scenes not dissimilar to this
It was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most surreal things I’ve seen with my own eyes. I think my mouth was actually ajar throughout the whole routine, which went on for about 3 minutes. The end was signaled by the jingle and without further ado the Koreans plopped back into the pool. As far as I can understand this happens every half hour.