Hayley Teacher is not eating as much food these days, says the cooking lady, looking quite put out as I rise from the table with half my rice still in my bowl.
Well, I paraphrase, of course, for I still barely understand a word the woman says. Understanding a taxi driver as he questions you about your home country in slow, clear Korean is not even close to being in the same league as understanding an ajumma gruffly telling you off in a torrent of throaty noises.
She’s on a diet, explains my director firmly, clearly anticipating an unpleasant force-feeding situation. I do an apologetic little bow as I try to sneak past with my uneaten food.
The main problem is that I used to eat twice as much as the others, often going into the kitchen for a second helping of rice or soup, and piling into the meat and tteok side dishes with great relish. The Korean teachers, on the other hand, would eat only half of their rice, scooping the other half out before beginning. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that one of them would often scoop hers into my already full bowl… and I’d cheerfully eat it.
Nowadays, having used an iPhone ap for several weeks to help me understand and gauge correct portion sizes, I have realised that I was eating more than double, sometimes triple my necessary daily calories, and have adjusted my eating habits accordingly. This was torture at first, but my appetite has gradually shrunk to a more normal size, and I no longer need the massive quantities of food that I used to. Combined with regular exercise, this is great news for my waistline… but now the cooking lady is apparently feeling a little rejected. I was once her favourite, but I think I have fallen off my pedestal.
She used to derive great pleasure from asking me if I wanted more as soon as my bowl was empty, clucking and fussing over me like an anxious hen, and smiling in delight as I devoured everything she put in front of me. I have seen the confused, hurt look in her eyes on several occasions lately, and I try to make a big deal of eating a ton of kimchi (good for the metabolism) and any other healthy veggies that happen to be around, while subtly skipping the rice and fried things. Apparently this has not been enough, for she is determined to have it out with me now. She examines the uneaten contents of my bowl, shaking her head in great concern. Much frantic discussion is going on in mostly incomprehensible Korean, and I am being spun around and inspected from all angles, with rather more poking and prodding than one tends to hope for in front of one’s colleagues.
Is she angry? I ask after a while, not entirely sure what I should do. Jennifer laughs. She is worried, she explains. Your body is getting smaller too quickly, she thinks you have problems.
Well yeah, I have problems, lady! But honestly, anyone who gives me a cursory glance would know that anorexia is not likely to be one of them. I try to explain the whole diet and exercise thing and how it’s actually very healthy and good for me, and everyone else agrees. You have lost so much of the fat, says one colleague in the typically polite way that I’ve become used to. She wrinkles her nose at the memory of my previous level of fatness for good measure. They are, as I mentioned a long time ago, very direct and not at all tactful when it comes to expressing opinions on appearance. Even compliments could easily be taken as insults – like the lecture a good Korean friend gave me the other week after telling me I’d lost a lot of weight, and congratulating me. But you must try harder, she added in the next breath. You think you are making muscle here- she grabbed the top of my arm and jiggled it relentlessly -but this is not muscle! It is fat, fat, fat! I hasten to add that she is a very sweet, kind friend of mine, not a heartless bitch. It’s just the way these issues are addressed here.
Anyway, the cooking lady now seems to be having a minor stroke as she pinches at my waist and discovers that my trousers are only staying up because of a belt I’ve pulled so tight that the waistband of the trousers is all bunched up. Um… I’m going to get some new clothes when I go home, I explain in some embarrassment. Really, it’s a good thing that everything is now too loose, but I do now feel a bit like a homeless person dressed in over-sized clothes.
Finally I am allowed to leave the lunch room, having obediently endured all the prodding and twirling and pinching.
And that was Tuesday.