Because it's winter, and the sidewalk pavement is uneven and awful to the point of being dangerous, and running in the dirty air is basically the same as getting a punch right in the lungs, I did the unthinkable: I coughed up money for a gym membership.
For a while I had been using the health room at my favorite jjimjilbang, but once I figured out the gym near my work was charging
Protip: 8:30 in the evening is THE WORST POSSIBLE TIME to go to the gym. Unfortunately, that's when I decided to go be an adult and sign up. As I walked in the door, I could hear the record needle scratch in the soundtrack of my life. Half of the weight machines face the door, and they were just crammed full of ajosshis who didn't seem to care that they were staring at the fat white girl.
(Lots of my friends complain a lot about being stared at, but honestly I think a lot of them exaggerate, are paranoid, or legitimately draw more stares than I do, because normally I never notice it or really care. Not this time, though.)
The guy at the desk spoke some English, not that signing up was particularly hard: name, cell phone number, and hand over your credit card, please. I didn't get any kind of membership card or anything so I'm not sure how they keep track of me. Of course, I am pretty easy to keep track of.
After I filled out the paperwork, I followed the guy at the desk around for the grand tour: shoe lockers, locker room, jjimjilbang, finished. Eyes followed me the whole time. The only respite from them was in the locker room, but I didn't just pay good money to stand around naked and eventually take a shower. I put my gym clothes on (gyms in Korea typically provide you with jjimjilbang/sauna-like shorts and shirts, but I didn't want to risk not fitting into their clothes so I brought my own) and returned to the fray. Still the stares. They got better by the time I left, but the damage was done: I felt immensely self-conscious, moreso than I ever did at the jjimjilbang or the other gym I used to go to when I worked at Sherlock Academy. The whole time I was working out, I wanted to melt into the floor.
And, of course, what I really wanted—the treadmills—were all taken, so I made do with the weight machines I could recognize and use instead. Just to be annoying, they were set at slightly different weight increments than the ones at the jjimjilbang (increments of 5 until 15 kg, when it switches to 10 kg increments; the machines at the gym I had been at used 5 kg increments the whole time and I had been doing quite well at 20 kg) and had either lost the helpful little stickers that demonstrate how to use the machine, or had simply never had them in the first place. Some were complicated to the point where they lookd like Medieval torture devices, and even the ones I did recognize and know well had some kind of secondary pin you can adjust in addition to the weight. I think it adjusts the resistance without changing how heavy the weight is? I have no idea, I'd never seen a weight machine like that ever before.
I was also terrified that one of the trainer guys would feel obligated to come over and try to help me with the machines which is so mortifying in so many ways that I can't even begin to enumerate, so I didn't even bother to investigate the torture devices to see if I could figure them out on my own. Eventually, though, I finished up my strength training and could no longer put off my cardio.
Except, of course, the treadmills were still all taken, twenty minutes later.
The other issue at stake was that I was working under a time limit: in about ninety minutes I was meeting a friend for beers and language exchange. I needed at least half an hour on the treadmill, plus time to shower and change my clothes. Disgruntled, I settled for one of the ellipticals, figuring cardio without the actual 5K training was still better than no cardio at all.
But good Lord do I hate ellipticals. They are awkward and there seemed to be no way to account for my short legs that didn't force my beer gut and fat ass off the seat. Once my butt was comfortable, I couldn't really pedal properly.
Fortunately I only had to endure a couple minutes of elliptical hell before someone relinquished one of the treadmills. I squeezed myself between the ellipticals and triumphantly commandeered the treadmill.
I left the gym not feeling invigorated and renewed, but awkward, judged, and just generally miserable. What little good I felt about accomplishing a grown-up thing like signing up for a gym membership and working out was negated by how awfully out of place I felt. I regretted my membership and wondered if I should cancel it, or if I even could.
The mornings, I've found, are infinitely better. I go before work and I share the space with three or four other people at maximum. I still have all kinds of anxiety about the weight machines and about the trainers coming over to have an awkward conversation I won't entirely understand in pidgin English/pidgin Korean about how to use the machine, and I still fuck things up (shoes get complicated), but at least I don't have a gym full of people as my audience.
Moral of the story? A gym in Korea at 8:30 on a weeknight is a special kind of hell, and you should avoid it if at all possible.