Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Survival Tip: Korean Winters

So, in case you didn't know, the winters in Korea are FREAKING COLD!!!

Visual Approximations:

Yes, you may have come from a place with a cold climate before, but there's little to prepare you for living in a city this cold where you will also rely heavily on public transportation or your own two feet. I was born in Vermont and raised in Maine and my childhood was spent in wonderfully warm cars  and rarely involved any walking in the winter longer than about 10 minutes. Any significant winters outdoors time was spent in such a fervor of activity that a white-wash was actually a welcome thing.

If when I say "white wash" you think of anything other than snow shoved in your face or down your pants you clearly didn't grow up in a cold climate.
Last week saw the breaking of a most unfortunate record; coldest day since 1956. The temperature dropped down to -21.7C (-7.1F). That's pretty DAMN cold! The winters have been getting colder every year and the summers have been getting hotter, so Korea's a pretty weird place to maintain a wardrobe.

Stolen from Wikipedia, because making tables is a job better left to people who don't hear the sound of a dental drill at the words "making tables.:
So, here are some handy-dandy tips to making the cold just a tiny bit more bearable.

Tip 1: Layers... LOTS of Layers!

The answer is, if you are living in Seoul in the winter... YES
Layering is the ultimate defense against cold weather. On the coldest days last week my office, in their infinite wisdom, decided not to turn all of the heating on. The building was roughly 5 degrees warmer than outside and my office was maybe 15 degrees warmer, it was terrible. I was wearing long underwear, stockings, leggings, a pair of thicker LLBean leggings, a wool skirt, long underwear shirt, a thick long-sleeve shirt, a thick sweater, and a scarf and I still wasn't warm enough in my office to get any work done. Layers are magic because you can easily adjust for whatever temperatures the day throws at you. Don't forget to layer your socks, though, because having cold feet is an easy way to ensure the rest of you feels cold as well.

The best clothing products for keeping warm in Korea I've found are the UNIQLO HeatTech line of long underwear. They feel really thin and flimsy but keep you a LOT warmer than you'd expect. They're also so thin that they easily slide under clothes without looking bulky, which was my major issue with my long underwear last year. Korean's also LOVE super long and thick scarfs and these babies do WONDERS! Just try not to leave yours in a Soju Tent one super drunken night last last December... not that I ever did that.

Tip 2: Surviving Korean "Heating" Techniques

Here's one of the roughest lessons you'll learn your first year in Korea: Koreans don't really like heating places and, when they do, they have weeeeiiirrrddd ways of going about it. If you work in a school the following completely fucked situations will most likely occur:

1) The heat will be on full-blast... but some of the windows will be open.

2) The classroom heaters will be on full-blast... but all the windows and outside doors in the hallways will be open.

3) Your students, while still wearing their enormous NorthFace jackets and scarves, will ask you to turn the heat down.

4) As soon as the temperature in your office becomes bearable the head teacher in the room will turn off the heat and open the windows

You see, Koreans have the... unexplainable phobia of "stale air." They think that not airing out a room once every few hours will kill you. Not make you sick, KILL YOU. They feel especially negatively towards heaters and fans. Air conditioners are OK, but fans, well, they have a concept called "Fan Death" where sleeping in a room with the doors and windows shut will literally kill you because eventually the room will only have CO2 in it... yeah. Heated air makes Koreans uncomfortable, dries out their skin, smells bad, is difficult to breathe BLAH BLAH BLAH. I mean, honestly... why do I even bother putting on a cute outfit in the winter?!

The best way to deal with this insanity is to be prepared. Daiso and other dollar stores around the city sell small fleece blankets that easily fit into a desk drawer... buy 5 of these. I keep slippers in my office now because my feet have a tendency to turn ice cold (slippers and slipper socks are also very easy items to buy in dollar stores, street vendors, and in HomePlus/GMart). Get used to the taste of crappy Korean mix coffee or invest in a FrenchPress for your desk, because it's the easiest and cheapest way to heat your innards. Recognize early that the mere fact that you are going inside does NOT mean you will be warmer. Korean coffee shops and restaurants have also not mastered the fine art of "making it warm enough to be comfortable."

Korean apartments are mostly heater by ondol heating, or floor heating. This stuff is magic once it' humming away. If your feet are warm your entire body feels much warmer. However, ondol takes a LONG time to heat the air, approximately an hour or two hours. The issue I've had with ondol, other than it being slow, is that it tends to super heat the air. It's difficult to find the temperature that will heat your apartment to and maintain a comfortable temperature.

EXPERT LEVEL TIP: If your ondol has a "외출" setting, USE IT! This circulates your heating to on/off every few hours. This is REALLY important if you go out of town during the winter. Some of my friends have had their pipes freeze while they were one and that is one of the least awesome of sauces.

Tip 3: Recognize Your Apartment's Weaknesses

The bad ju-ju carries over from the office to the apartment, sadly. Though my current apartment (in a new villa-style home with concrete walls and double-layered windows) has done an excellent job keeping in the heat, my apartment last year was TERRIBLE! I mean, the apartment was super awesome in every aspect that wasn't keeping it warm in the winter and cold in the summer. I had massive floor to ceiling windows along one wall. One window was the mandatory emergency exit that all apartments in Seoul have (though I don't see how a 4' squared pane of glass falling from 10 stories up is going to do to help anyone) and that window, my friends, let in a HUGE draft. Seriously, it felt like a light breeze. Some of my other friends live in older buildings which are poorly insulated because people in the past were idiots. Some of my friends in officetels are fine, but not all, so it's necessary to take precautions.

Draft-proof any seams with insulating foam. You can get it at any hardware store and I've seen it at dollar stores as well. This won't stop the draft, but it will certainly help. You can also put foil up on your windows, if you don't mind being kind ghetto about keeping the heat in. The two best weapons against the cold are either a heater blanket or a heating pad for you bed (available in HomePlus/GMart and on GMarket) . These things are MAGIC. I've been sleeping with only the same blanket I used in summer and have been perfectly comfortable, even too hot, with the heating pad.

Some of my friends have space heaters. I have one, but I've never used it. I'd recommend these, however, if you have a bigger apartment and want to heat only your bedroom. If my apartment were just a little bit bigger I'd probably use the space heater.

Tip 4: Surviving Korean Snow Clean-Up "Techniques"

By first recognizing that there really are none.

Seriously, I've never seen a snow plow, and we've had three pretty significant snowfalls this winter. Salting sidewalks is also something Koreans don't do. Only building owners or business people will sal the sidewalk and even then not all of them do it. Koreans also think that the best way to get rid of snow is by... sweeping it. No shovels... plastic brooms... whatever. As a result of this non-technique for making roads and sidewalks safer as soon as the Sun hits that snow and a few people walking on it compresses it all of Seoul turns into a fucking iceskating rink (sorry for using the f-bomb twice, but this topic infuriates me to no end). I fell three weeks ago and bruised my tailbone pretty badly. Don't wear cute shoes, wear the shoes with the most traction possible. Don't take normal steps, take baby steps, walk on the roughest patch of ground you can find. Be Safe!

Tip 5: Warm Havens

There are some ways that you can beat the cold. The best place is a jimjilbang. I'm not going to say any more about it here because there's a better place you can go to learn allll about it.

Another very good way is to get a gym membership. Yeah, you'll work up a sweat and also get hot and bothered looking at all the delicious Korean Man Candy.

Yes, please, thank you
But also gym showers are AMAZINGLY WARM and have awesome water pressure! I found a gym with western-style showers (some have communal ones... ew) and a lot of good looking guys, I love going to the gym. ^_^

Stay warm, folks!