Something weird that came up randomly in conversation with Hannah the other day is whether or not “leg bouncing” or “knee bouncing” — that peculiar type of fidgeting (apparently more common in men) where you rhythmically/compulsively bounce your knee up and down while seated — is something that is particularly hated and feared by Korean people.
I had never really thought about it before, but I did get a lot of crap for this as a kid, from both my mom and aunt. They both told me that knee bouncing was bad luck. Why, I don’t know. (I guess most if not all superstitions are “stuff people don’t want you to do” + “magic.”) My aunt hated it so much that she’d stab my leg with a pen whenever she caught me doing it.
I never thought of this hatred of knee bouncing as anything specifically Korean, since it’s universally annoying across all cultures (I see in fact that it may be more of a pan-Asian thing and not exclusively Korean). Once, many years ago, a co-worker I sat next to tried to fight me because I wouldn’t stop bouncing my leg and vibrating the long desk we shared. I wasn’t doing it on purpose — in fact, I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it, so there wasn’t much I could do to prevent it. I was in the break room and he stormed in and said, “YOU WANNA FIGHT! IS THAT IT YOU WANNA FIGHT! YOU WANNA GO! HUH?”
Knee bouncing can also, in certain circumstances, induce mass panic. As a teenager, one night I was watching TV at home in the living room late at night, while my family was asleep. I was leg-bouncing like crazy. Suddenly my parents ran down the stairs yelling “EARTHQUAKE!!” I was confused, then realized that I had been bouncing my leg so much that the vibrations actually traveled into the walls and were shaking the entire house. The same thing happened at a second-floor office I once worked at. The bouncing wasn’t just vibrating my desk and cubicle, but the entire building floor. The whole building was about to evacuate, so I had to speak up and admit that I was causing the “earthquake.” Awkward!
Anyway, for some unexplained reason there isn’t a vast body of research out there on the Internet on Korean superstitions about leg bouncing. I do see some scattered mentions of it being bad luck (1, 2, 3, 4) — the claim is that you “shake out your luck” — which I guess is enough to confirm that it is, in fact, a thing.
Aside from being incredibly annoying, though, is leg bouncing unhealthy? Apparently, no. There are some claims out there that you can burn 300 to 500 calories a day just from bouncing your leg — that it may be critical to weight loss! Also check out this interesting Quora discussion about whether knee bouncing improves cognition. This discussion suggests it may be a symptom of ADHD — the bouncing helps focus your attention, by giving your restlessness an outlet.
Still, if I could do away with this compulsion, I surely would. It’s annoying and makes you look insane. But holy shit does it feel good. Sometimes, when alone, I’ll put extremely heavy objects on my knee, because for some reason the resistance makes it much more satisfying. If I’m at a sturdy desk, I’ll wedge a book or something rigid between my knee and the bottom of the desktop and just vibrate everything like crazy. I’ve put 25-pound dumbbells on my leg. I’ve convinced toddlers to stand on my knee while I bounce them up and down until they look like David Byrne in that one video.
I wish someone would invent a way to generate electricity from leg bouncing, like strap some kind of piston on it or something. I could seriously power my entire workplace with this shit. Instituted on a city-wide scale, it would be like the Matrix, with rows and rows of men strapped to chairs, bouncing their legs like maniacs. Oh holy god I can’t stop bouncing my goddamn leg.