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When A Korean-American Health And Fitness Nut Lands In France

Circus Bakery in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris
Circus Bakery in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris
Olivia Han iQ

PARIS — Paleo, keto, vegan, pescatarian. There are so many ways we can choose what, and what not, to eat. Give or take, I choose to eat roughly 160 grams of carbohydrates, 110 grams of protein, and 40 grams of fat per day. That comes to 1440 calories.

Some of my friends find it neurotic that I know exactly how much, down to the gram, I consume — or the fact that I track my macronutrients at all. But for me, I've always felt that if we need to eat at all, we might as well eat clean in order to properly fuel our bodies — and take those extra five seconds to weigh our food. Through tracking my intake with a handy digital food scale and working out regularly, I have not only learned so much about the human body, but also am genuinely convinced that such attention improves both my physical and mental health.

Still, it would be a lie to say that my fitness and nutrition passions stem only from health consciousness. I spent the majority of my adolescence in South Korea, a place where society attaches high importance to appearance, openly fat shames and values skinniness to the point of obsession. Societal pressures to be thin and "look good" are extremely high. Super thin k-pop stars are idolized, and their often dangerous diets are replicated by many. As a girl, if you're over 60kg (132 lbs) regardless of your height, you might as well be considered obese. Although illegal in the U.S. and Europe, in Korea, you are required to attach a photo on your CV or job application. How you look can be the edge against a fellow competitor. From my experience, and the experience of my friends, you get treated very differently based on how thin you are. People are as quick to shower you with compliments as they are with insults.

How you look can be the edge against a fellow competitor.

Luckily, I attended an international school with non-ethnically Korean friends from around the world. At school, health and wellness was prioritized over aesthetics. However it would be untrue to say that good aesthetics weren't praised, though much of the social hierarchy was channeled through sports.

I got introduced to cross country running against my will by my dad, who, like many other Americans, sees sport as his religion. I especially felt this when I first moved to Boston for university. Boston is the city of the famous marathon and has won sports championships from the Patriots, to the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins. School sports, especially hockey, are a massive ordeal in which the entire student body gets involved. The fitness center at my university includes an 18,000-square-foot weight and cardio room, indoor running track, racquetball and squash courts, two swimming pools, a rock climbing wall, and a lazy river to some 6500 people who use the facility every day.

Participants of a spin class in Saint Petersburg, Florida — Photo: xtremefitstpete

Counting calories, drinking protein shakes, running by the river, whatever it may be, most Bostonians are actively working on their health. It didn't take me long to get acclimated to this culture of fitness. I can confidently say that the majority of my friends place fitness almost as high on their list of priorities as education and their social life. It is the flip-side to the global stereotypes of American obesity and fast food.

Perhaps all these factors contribute to my passion for fitness. It didn't even remotely cross my mind that I could possibly be "abnormal" in this sense until I moved to Paris recently for a semester abroad. I always thought that it was normal to be conscious of how you look, be mindful of what you eat, and place a high priority on physical exercise. The French have a different mindset. Sure they care about how they look, but they prioritize good food and good company, eat loads of bread, cheese, and copious amounts of wine. When I once rejected an offer for a dessert tasting at school, my French teacher laughed and cited a government health slogan "manger bouger" (eat and move) and you'll be fine." Indeed, I am often stunned when I observe how people eat here, blissfully oblivious about what or how much they are consuming.

The French have a different mindset.

Still, the wellness and fitness industry has slowly begun to seep into Paris. More and more gym clubs are opening, boutique style spin classes are available, a new "healthy" meal-replacement startup Feed is a hit, and the French government is even calling for a reduction in the consumption of wine!

Still, since being here, after being sure I'd found a good gym, I've also been able to try all sorts of pastries and treats that this country is famous for. Crème de marron on everything has become my go-to dessert. That doesn't mean it's a daily habit, and when I do eat it, I definitely track it. The combination of the relaxed French mindset towards food and my natural habit of tracking my intake has again altered my relationship with food, one calorie at a time.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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