ONE of the things new foreign workers in Korea (and even those who have been here for years) are told is “Korea has four seasons!” False. It has two seasons. Insanely, road-meltingly hot, and proper, freeze-the-balls-off-a-brass-monkey cold. No inbetweens. One day you notice you don’t need to turn on the heating anymore, and that night you wake up sweating because winter has turned into summer in the blink of an eye, and the heating money you are saving will simply be spent on six fans pointed directly at you to prevent a nuclear meltdown in your head. It gets cold here, and it gets hot here. Seriously. I love hearing new North Americans who arrive in the country, and proudly declare that in Pie Town, New Mexico, the mercury regularly goes above 40°C, so they will be fine in Korea. Bullplop. In the States people only stand outside to move from Burger King to their car, and in both locations air conditioning or heating mean that even the frailest vegan with a gluten allergy will be able to survive. In principle at least, Korean people have luxuries such as heating and air conditioning. However, much like bicycles and the internet, they don’t really understand how to make the most of them.
It is February here (and where you are, come to think of it), and so we are at the tail end of a grim, six month winter which has brought suffering and thoughts of the wrong parts of England. On the island where I live, there hasn’t been enough snow to settle this year, but other parts of Korea have had plenty. Last night in Gyeongju, some university students attending an orientation were crushed to death when the roof of the made-of-yoghurt-pots building they were in collapsed under the weight of snow. Soon winter will be over, and we can look forward to six months of sweaty, chafey trousers that have to be whipped off as soon as you get home from work so you can open the freezer and put your gonads in there. The weather here really is tough. I often think that Koreans are so physically hardy because all the weak ones died out centuries ago. Koreans don’t need to drink water, and they are immune to heat. Maybe this is why they have a blasé attitude to the correct use of heating and air conditioning. Standard practice for the few weeks a year when the use of such luxuries is permitted is as follows:
1. Turn on heating and set to 18°C (that should be nice and toasty).
Turn on air conditioning and set to 27°C (I see no problems with that).
2. Open all doors and windows.
Really. Sometimes the windows are opened to “change the air”, possibly also to avoid similar symptoms to the much-feared fan death. Another favourite is for students to enter and exit a room at random, leaving the door wide open. This is followed by cleverly waiting until you sigh and get up to close it yourself, and then opening it once more to look inside the room, before running off and leaving it wide open.
I don’t know why this happens. But it’s about as pleasant as having fleas in your socks. Similar things happen with air conditioning, on the day’s you’re allowed to use it. Some days all the schools in a province will be having a “power saving time”, so at 2pm (pretty much the hottest time of the day) someone will come into your classroom to turn off the air conditioning for thirty minutes. I’m not sure how much power is saved during that half hour, but I do know it renders that time useless as there is no way anyone will concentrate on studying a foreign language when their legs are fused to a plastic chair.
Last winter the water pipes in one of my schools froze, so toilets couldn’t be flushed. Bear in mind that the school toilets are mostly the ones where you squat like a dog or a Frenchman. The inability to flush these quickly results in the kind of communal fecal termite hills that make one long for the sanitary conditions of an Eritrean village.
You should see the corridors in Korean schools. They are basically the outside but with a roof. Open windows and doors are spread throughout, meaning whatever grim weather is out there is also in here. The only solution is to dress for either the Sudan or a Siberian gulag every time you walk to a classroom. Last summer I got a ticking off from one of my
supervisors for walking to school in shorts and flip flops. But I mean, what am I supposed to do? If I wear trousers and socks and walk more than three metres in that kind of weather, I end up looking like a Christmas gammon in a plastic wrapper that’s been left on a windowsill.
It’s not just the schools which are completely hopeless against the weather. Koreans are famous for putting buildings up incredibly quickly, but it can’t be denied that such a pace may not always produce buildings of the highest quality (see “teenage fatalities” above). In my previous apartment the kitchen area was separated from the bedroom area by a sliding door, and had an outside wall. One winter’s morning I got up and started pouring coffee into my cup… and the cup broke. The cup had become so cold in the kitchen overnight that the shock of hot water cracked it into pieces.
So next time I meet a new arrival from Ham Lake, Minnesota, and he tells me how cold it gets back home when he’s driving between the diabetes clinic and Dunkin’ Donuts, I shall ask him if he has ever gone to wash his hands indoors and his skin has stayed stuck to the taps. Because if not, he’s in for a shock of the fecal termite mound kind.