Monday, January 9, 2012

Korean Winter: The Fast and the Flurriest

I am not sure why I was surprised stepping into ankle-deep snow on the last Thursday of November, 2007. Maybe I would have been better prepared if I had heard a weather forecast, something I failed to do quite often during my three years in South Korea. Living in Chuncheon, I was prepared for the cold associated with late fall, wearing multiple layers of jackets and headwear. However, nothing could protect my glasses from fogging up as my warm breath condensed on them in the cold air. And I was looking at a fifteen to twenty minute walk, part of which was downhill, from the apartment to the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute for my morning class. 

Chuncheon is located in the mountains of western Kangwon province, and is famous for the two lakes, and two rivers that make up part of the upper Han River valley. It has perhaps the cleanest air in all of South Korea. But when the wind blows off the lakes, it cuts through you. I wore a dress shirt, sweat shirt, hooded sweat jacket, medium weight flight jacket, a North Face vest, and a light jacket, ski cap, and still felt the wind all the way to school. The gloves were also from North Face, and were the thickest gloves I have ever had to wear. They tried to keep my hands warm. 

I was born in Ohio. One of my memories is of the day it snowed on Easter, which was in April that year, perhaps in 1972. From 1973 to 1990 I lived in northeastern Kentucky, and learned to dislike winter. The winters of 1978 and 1979 were dreadful, in that the snow piled up so deep that we missed weeks of classes while I was in junior high school, and that had to be made up in the spring when the snows were gone. Later on, there were times when I would dress up for cold weather and go walking in temperatures around -18 degrees F. My hands were always cold, even with gloves. But nothing prepared me for the winters I would face in South Korea.

One of the most popular television programs in American history was M * A * S * H, a comedy-drama depicting the lives of US Army doctors serving in mobile surgical army hospitals in South Korea. They produced episodes taking place during the Korean winters, which were some of the coldest in history. I knew Korea would be cold. I wasn’t quite ready for the way the winters would affect me physically. While teaching at the Daebang SDALI in Seoul, one month after my arrival, I developed a sore throat. I expected to be over it in a week to ten days. On Friday night it was my turn to lead the song service for vespers, and we had no musicians. With no voice I attempted to lead the singing. Fortunately we had two junior teachers who came up and we made it through. It would be the first week of March when my voice returned from its “winter vacation.”

In Chuncheon and Daegu I experienced similar losses of vocal abilities, but still taught my classes. Each time I would be missing my voice for at least three months.

At the base of Apsan (Ap Mountain) is Daegu, perhaps the coldest city I ever lived in. Winds blowing in from the west had nowhere to go as they encountered the mountains on the east. With much relief it was there I experienced my last spring in South Korea, as well as the last time I saw snow. I miss the colors of the Korean spring and fall, but I can’t say I miss the Korean winters. However, it would be worth the risk of a sore throat to see the snow-capped mountains of Kangwon Province again, one more time.

Written by James Heald

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