Running

Written by Gabrielle Nygaard

So this is why these Korean winter gusts are called “knife winds.” They slice at the space between my eyes, and I wonder if my skull might split clean in two if not for the 2,000 won [1] headband that encircles my forehead, desperately gripping things together.

Nearly a year ago, when my former host father insisted I wear a face mask while running outside, I widened my eyes and gave him my “you’re not serious… are you? You might be, so I won’t say anything, but… you are joking?” look. Such meaning-packed looks are necessary when dealing with both a language barrier and a taciturn Korean man you share tight living quarters with, but aren’t sure even knows your name. But I suppose that’s alright; after a year together, I never figured out his first name either. He was just addressed as “hello” or “goodbye,” and indirectly referred to as “Hungyo’s father.”

But Hungyo’s father was not joking. Disappearing momentarily, he returned and put a white surgical mask in my hands and said, “wear it.” He’s a man of few words; not counting church songs and soju-fueled bellowing. I could count the things I’d heard him say on my fingers with digits to spare; so I felt I couldn’t disregard the rare occasion of him instructing me to do something, even if it made me look like an axe-murderer running down the street. Mask or not, I think that’s the impression people had of me in my old neighborhood, where nobody would run, except maybe to flee the scene of a crime. Living near the huge police station, I don’t doubt this possibility crossed the minds of some of my bewildered onlookers, including the police officer that chased me down mid-jog one day. I froze, startled to see him streaking towards me in his fancy hat and neon yellow windbreaker, but in the end, all he did was ask for my phone number so he could practice English with me. Over the course of our ensuing “friendship,” he told me his dream was to produce songs for Taylor Swift and encouraged me to try a hamburger from Mom’s Touch [2] (“Patty was so soft! Perfectly different from Lotteria.”).

Throwing. Kate Trexel. Itaewon.

Throwing. Kate Trexel. Itaewon.

The only other accepted reason for running in 소촌동 [3] was to catch an approaching bus. That’s often what people thought I was doing, and they would sprint a few steps after me before realizing that I was not, indeed, making a beeline for the nearest bus stop, and would then sheepishly fall back into an unhurried gait. To my annoyance, taxis also misunderstood my purpose and honked at me all the time. Did the drivers really think the gangly foreigner chugging down the sidewalk in workout clothes, ponytail flailing and arms pumping, was looking for a ride? And if she was, would they have wanted to haul that human sweat puddle around on their pleather seats anyway?

With all of these things against me, I didn’t want to heighten my bizarreness with the face mask. But I did want to show my host father I appreciated his concern, so for the next few days, I put it on before I left for my run. Once I was a respectable distance away, I removed and pocketed it, then replaced it on my face again just before arriving back home. But then the strain of covering my oversized nose caused the ear strap to snap off. I lamented this fact to my host mother but took the opportunity to ditch the mask mandate, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.

Yet 11 months later, pushing into the knife winds in a different part of town, I would give anything for a face cover. I pull my headband down and my jacket collar up in a futile effort to shield my big, vulnerable nose. It seems colder here on my new running route. Instead of a crumbling, uneven street, it outlines a fertile reservoir. Though it’s chillier along the water, without buildings to cut the wind, it’s more appropriate. This path is actually meant for running, which I see people doing every day. Plus, rather than three, my run is disrupted by only one crosswalk signal now. I have learned that crosswalks are not something you want on your route, not just for the literal roadblock halting your progress, but because they provide an opportunity for an elderly man to step closer and closer until he’s blatantly sniffing your shoulder, while you stand prisoner to the red light and sweat anxiously in the summer sun. Though, to be fair, this is quite the motivator. I don’t think I’ve ever taken off sprinting so fast. Perhaps I should ask the nearest 아저씨[4] to take a good whiff of me at the starting line of my next 5K.

I only ran casually before coming to Korea, so I’m no expert in running etiquette. But I’d venture to guess when confronted with a jogger in America, most people would not make a sudden U-turn, pulling over to insist the person get in the car, nor grab their arm and nearly rip if from the socket to ask if they know “our savior 예수[5].” And I doubt it’s seen as normal (or a good idea) to ambush a jogger on the curb, thrusting a garbled love letter with such perplexing lines as “The sun why the sunrises? The moon why crocheting?” upon them before jumping back in your white van and speeding away. The closest I’ve come in the U.S. is having a pick-up truck full of teenage boys honk their tacky novelty “The Yellow Rose of Texas” horn at me, but in general, running the streets is ordinary enough to make me invisible.

Family Selfie. Kelsey Hagenah. Suncheon.

Family Selfie. Kelsey Hagenah. Suncheon.

Stateside, nobody asks me “where are you going?” or “who are you?” as I jog past. But they don’t flash me enthusiastic grins and a thumbs up, or shout encouragements such as “you can do it!” and “fighting!” either. In Korea, my running is a spectacle, or causes them, depending on whose shoes you see it from. I’ll take the stares. As funny as I might look, the view from within my Nikes is pretty amusing too.

I love running in Korea. I love my daily dose of being out in the world and taking everything in. Maybe I don’t love when I slip on the ice and an 아줌마 [6] laughs at me as I slam butt-first onto the sidewalk in the winter, or when I inhale an entire colony of gnats and feel like I’m wading through a thick custard of humidity in the summer. But I do love the sunsets I race towards, the brisk air that propels me, and the peculiar moments I share with strangers, enough to outweigh almost anything.

Except head-splitting knife winds. Perhaps Hungyo’s father does know best.

Gabrielle Nygaard is a 2013-2015 ETA currently at Gwangju Girl’s High School. She previously taught at Jeonggwang Middle School in Gwangju.

[1] About $2
[2] Fast food chain
[3] Sochon district
[4] Ajeosshi, older man
[5] Yesu, Jesus
[6] Ajumma, older woman