Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Yellow Dust Blues

Cloud of Yellow Dust moving out of China and toward the Korean peninsula. Image via

 I realized today that, almost 3 years into our little adventure here in Seoul, one topic I'd failed to mention (except in passing) was Yellow Dust.

This is probably because, in the nearly 3 years I've lived here, Yellow Dust has not been a particular problem for me or the rest of the Asia Vu family.  We're all aware of it, but it really hasn't had much effect on our daily lives.

For those of you fortunate enough not to know what I'm talking about, allow me to explain in the simplest terms possible (the only terms I actually understand):  There is a lot of dust and sand in China's desert regions.  There is also a lot of air pollution in China from things like factories and industry and car exhaust, which include a bunch of  nasty ingredients, like aluminium and iron and silicon, which, when they get into your lungs, aren't so easily cleaned out by your body's normal processes, and which, down the road, can also lead to some pretty vile consequences. Since China is right next door (ok, technically, they're attached), if the winds are in the right quarter(usually in the spring), this toxic air frappe gets blown across China and right over to us in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The Korean government takes this seriously, and air quality levels are closely monitored, with warning texts (yes, texts.  Everyone - and I mean, everyone - has a smartphone) sent out when levels increase to potentially dangerous levels.  A number of websites also provide maps and charts indicating air quality levels.

Yellow Dust level chart via

For the very young, very old, the immunocompromised, and anyone with respiratory or skin issues, even moderate levels of Yellow Dust can be very serious.  It happens most often in the spring, but this year's mild winter seems to have got things moving early, and we've already had a number of high-moderate dust days in 2014.

In theory, there are 5 levels of air quality measurement, but as long as I have lived here, the air has always remained in the 'good' or 'moderate' category, which means the toxins floating around in the air are fewer than so many micrograms per cubic millimeter, with sub-100 being 'good' and sub-200 being 'moderate.'

 When I first found out about Yellow Dust, I looked at the charts like the one above and assumed that, as long as we weren't in the orange, red, or black zone (above 200mcg,) we were doing pretty well. What I didn't realize was, that, according to the guidelines, even the moderate (level 2 ) category was considered bad.   The very young, the very old, and those with respiratory issues (asthma, for example) are supposed to use caution and avoid going outside.  In fact, the city of Seoul recommends (requires?) that schools keep all children inside when the dust levels are only in the 'moderate' (level 2) category, which means that playtime and any athletic practices must either be indoors or canceled altogether even when the air quality levels are in the 'moderate' zone.  At this writing, we have had at least 5 or 6 days in 2014 alone where children were kept indoors all over Seoul during playtime, due to dust levels in the mid-moderate zone.

I should also mention that the number of face masks you see on the streets increase during a Yellow Dust event.  These are the surgical masks that you see on people all over Asia (not just in Korea.)  People wear them when they are sick, to avoid infecting others, but there are also masks available with special filters in them made specifically for Yellow Dust.  They even come in special kid-friendly versions:

And yes, you see them on little kids all over the place.  I used to think that the children wearing them were either ill themselves or that their parents were trying to prevent them catching something, but I finally made the connection between dust and and increased number of kids in masks.  They're sort of the canary in the coal mine:  if you notice a lot of little ones wearing masks, you (meaning me) should probably check the dust levels.

To be honest, I haven't ever paid much attention to the whole dust thing until now.  I can't tell you how many times in the past few years I've spent a day enjoying myself outdoors only to learn when I got home that the air had been very bad that day - totally unbeknownst to me, and with no observable ill effects.  Part of the problem is that I don't actually bother to check the air quality (it involves remembering to go to a web site and actually look, like I have time for that) very often.  There is, in fact, a service which you can sign up for that will send you alerts via text if the dust levels are elevated, but the texts are in Korean.  I suppose I could learn the Korean words for 'air quality alert' but I get so many Korean spam texts that I would probably delete it before I realized it was an alert.

Anyway...getting back to the point:  the dust has been around for the almost-3 years I've lived here, and it has never bothered me.  I always just assumed that the air quality would have to be considerably poorer in order for it to really become an issue.

Clever readers will, of course, realize that I am writing this because things have changed.

On Monday, I met a group of friends and we spent the better part of 5 hours enjoying an unusually warm February day wandering around outside in the open-air markets of Namdemun.  I had had a bit of a scratchy throat and a runny nose when I started out, but chalked it up to a little seasonal allergy or perhaps a mild cold.  About 3 hours into the morning, my eyes were burning and itching, my throat felt like sandpaper, and my entire head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton.  My voice had gone from its normal contralto to a mid-range baritone, and I could no longer taste or smell.  By the time I got myself home (via subway and walking - out in all that fresh air, you know), I was convinced I was coming down with the flu that had been making the rounds of our school for the last few weeks, and I medicated and put myself to bed accordingly.

Much to my relief, I was feeling  better in the morning - still scratchy and stuffy, of course, but with none of the aches, pains, or fevers that have been accompanying the nasty flu bug.  Armed with several packages of Kleenex, I headed off through the foggy Seoul morning and walked up the hill to work, observing that, the closer I got to school, the worse I felt.  15 minutes later, I arrived at school, eyes streaming and itching, nose running, throat burning, and wondering what in the world was wrong with me.  That was when everyone informed me that the air quality was going to be even worse today than it had been yesterday.

"Oh, it was bad yesterday?" I asked.

Yes, I was informed, the air quality had been very bad, so much so that the children hadn't even been able to go out to play (Mondays are my day off, which is why I hadn't known.)  And it was even worse today, which probably explained why I felt so dreadful.

Now, this level of dust is nothing new.  It's happened in the past, without bothering me a bit, and I have no idea why dust in the 'moderate' levels is causing me so many problems this year (and no, I don't think I am quite ready to chalk this one up to my advancing age.)  Maybe a couple of years of exposure to the stuff has pushed my immune system over the edge.  Or maybe I had a cold coming on anyway.  In any case, I'm fighting back with all the weapons in my arsenal, from home remedies to frequent showers (recommended as soon as you return from outdoors) to keeping all the windows closed.

And, yes, it's come to this as well:

Monday, February 17, 2014

All About Me (Well, not ALL)

I've been tagged by Iota over at The Iota Quota to answer a list of random questions.  Frankly, this couldn't have come at a better time (thanks, Iota) because I'm in the midst of the winter doldrums and haven't an ounce of creativity left in my brain for things like blog posts, so it's wonderful to have it more or less taken care of for me! 

  1. What is the view from the window of the room where you are currently sitting?
I'm looking out my balcony window at the window of the apartment building across from me.  If I twist my head waaaaay to the right, I can see the very top of Namsan (South Mountain.)  2 Do you buy lottery tickets? 

 3If you had to live in the Arctic Circle, or on the Equator, which would it be?
After all the ice and snow of the past 3 winters in Seoul, I would take the Equator in a heartbeat.  Preferably near a beach.  With a palm tree.  And - if it could be arranged - no enormous insects or snakes (although I suppose that's pushing it at the Equator.)

4.What's the novel inside you (you know, the one that everyone is supposed to have)?
I've always thought I'd like to write an historical novel about my parents' families - one of those  novels that spans several generations.  Both families were immigrants (one to Canada from England, one from Germany and Austria to the US) and really struggled to raise themselves out of poverty and create better lives for their children and grandchildren.  The settings are very different and -to me - very interesting - the Maritime Provinces of Canada and Boston's South End.  Whether it will ever get written, I have no idea.  

5.Do you still have your wedding dress (if you're married)?
No.  In fact, MrL and I eloped and I bought a very practical street-length dress (in my best shade of blue) that I often wore to work and church afterwards and was often complimented upon.  My response was always, 'Thanks.  It's my wedding dress."  Unfortunately, it was an early 90s model, complete with shoulder pads and enormous gold buttons (it was quite stylish at the time, I assure you) and eventually was sent off to some Goodwill store.  At least I think that's where it went.  Needless to say, I'm not particularly sentimental about things like that.

6.Is your big toe longer or shorter than the one next to it?

7.Name a guilty pleasure.
Reading while I eat.  I know it's a bad habit, but it combines 2 of life's biggest pleasures for me.  I don't do it often (mostly because I'm always trying to lose weight and they always tell you to 'eat mindfully') but very occasionally, I give myself a treat.  "Guilty pleasure" is a perfect description, because I invariably feel guilty when I'm doing it.

8.If you could change one thing you've done in the last week, what would it be?
 I would not try to kick the dog's bed out of the way while carrying a load of laundry.  In that way I would avoid having missed the bed and hit the door frame - full force - and would not now have what is probably a broken little toe.  (It is certainly a lovely shade of violet, broken or not, and resembles a prime pork sausage in girth.)  They don't do anything for broken toes, so I'm just trying to make the best of it with some sports tape and a pair of loose shoes.  Needless to say, walking doesn't feel great - and I walk a LOT.

9.  What's your middle name? (go on, we're all grown-ups now, it's not embarrassing any more)
Renee.  I know several people about my age who also had it as a middle name.  I think it was quite popular (as middle names go) in the 1960s/early 70s.  Of course, when I got married, I took my maiden name as my middle name, so it's technically not my middle name anymore.

10.Can you, with Edith Piaf, say "Je ne regrette rien"? 
No. I regret quite a few things - not so much major decisions ( rarely seem to regret those, like moving to Seoul or buying a 100-year-old house) but actions that might have been thoughtless or unkind.  Looking back with the (ahem) wisdom of age, I can see that there were many times in my life I could have been kinder or more thoughtful but was too young or perhaps ignorant to realize what I was (or wasn't) doing.  Those are the types of things I regret - unintentionally hurting people through my carelessness.

11.What fairy story character do you most identify with? (don't over-think this one)

I don't identify much with the girls in fairy stories (princesses or milkmaids - they always seem to be sort of victims, hanging about, either being rescued or being dutiful and getting rewarded - I'm not crazy about passivity) but as far as fantasy stories go, I would probably identify with Frodo Baggins from the J.R.R. Tolkien novels.  I'm on the short side, I like my home comforts, I'm a bit humdrum and unremarkable, but I mean well and I like to travel.  How's that? ; )

Now I have to:

• Acknowledge the nominating blogger by linking back to their blog – thanks Iota, for including me!

• Invite 11 more bloggers to take up the challenge and give them 11 questions to answer.  I'm looking forward to hearing their answers to my questions.(And as I said above, the best part is, I didn't have to think up a whole new blog post - the questions were actually fun to think up!)  Here they are, intrepid bloggy friends!:

1.  Where is the one place you have lived that you remember most fondly and why?
2.  Is there anything you don't/won't cook?  (I, for example, loathe liver and just don't cook it.  Ever.)
3.  Have you heard the song, "Let it Go" from the movie 'Frozen' and, if so, do you like it?
4.  What is one political or social issue that drives you crazy when people talk about it? (you don't have to give your opinion, just tell what the issue is.)
5. Have you ever made a friend first through blogging/online and only afterwards met her(him) in person? If so, how did you finally meet?
6.  Do  you speak more than one language fluently? If so, how did you learn it? 
7.  If you grew up in a religious household, do you still practice the same religion you grew up with? If not, do you practice a different religion, or no religion at all? 
8.  Do you get regular mani/pedis? If not, do you:  a)get them occasionally; b) do your own or c) settle for keeping your nails neat and clean without worrying about painting them.
9.  Where was the most awful vacation/holiday you have ever taken? What made it so awful  - the location, or the circumstances? Would you go back and try it again under different circumstances?
10.  Have you been watching the Olympics? If so, which events do you enjoy watching the most?
11. Where is one place you haven't yet visited but would absolutely love to go someday?

And I'm asking:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Expat Life: Asian Toilet Musings on the Eve of the Sochi Olympics

Part of living internationally is adjusting to different toilet habits.  Signs that suggest you do not pee on the floor are therefore, a practical thing.

As the excitement of Lunar New Year fades into the bleak chill of February, MsCaroline finds herself with a bit of time on her hands to devote to her long-neglected blog and a topic of burning importance which has been on her mind for at least a week:  the toilet paper disposal arrangements at the Sochi Olympics.

MsCaroline assumes that all of you are aware that the situation in Sochi is, according to the international journalism community, not quite up to snuff.  Most problematic seem to be the hotel arrangements, which are not quite what people were expecting:  doorknobs are falling off in people's hands (if there even are doorknobs,) power isn't working, and the water coming out of the pipes is either nonexistent or toxic. Athletes' dormitories are a bit more spartan than usual, and some venues reportedly include side-by-side toilets. Some reports suggest that surveillance cameras have been installed in hotel bathrooms, and there has also been international outcry about the systematic extermination of thousands of stray dogs which is apparently taking place in Sochi in advance of the Games.

MsCaroline, has no idea how much of this is true and how much of this has just been blown out of proportion by the media frenzy surrounding the Sochi Olympics. She imagines that, like everything else, the reality lies somewhere in between.  But there has been one photo making the rounds on Twitter and in the media which she feels obligated to address:

This photo has been causing outrage all over the internet

This one popped up a week or so ago, and has been widely disseminated throughout the Twitterverse and picked up by print and video media outlets to use as fuel for their assertions that Sochi is Not Ready For The Olympics.

MsCaroline cannot speak to the toxic water, unreliable doorknobs, or the questionable privacy arrangements.  But she can speak to this, the toilet paper situation, and she feels that it is only right and just to do so.

At the risk of shocking everyone, MsCaroline has to point out that this bin arrangement is not actually such an unusual thing.  In fact, this is the standard in every public toilet she has been in in Seoul, which is a highly-developed western-type city.  It is also the standard in many private homes here - although most westerners she knows(including her own family) just flush.

The reasons MsCaroline has been given for this practice have varied widely, and include:

  • older sewer systems were not designed to handle paper (and, presumably, still aren't.)  More modern buildings with modern plumbing can cope just fine with toilet paper
  • The paper (eg, newspaper or other 'waste' paper) was not designed to disintegrate, as modern paper is, and therefore, was never flushed.
  • People who grew up in the habit of never flushing toilet paper are used to it and have no problem continuing the status quo, regardless of their present plumbing situations
  • during agrarian times, most human waste was collected for manure, which meant that septic tanks were very small - you didn't need a big one - and didn't hold much.  Paper took up valuable space.
MsCaroline has no idea which, if any of these are true - her family, like most expats, flushes, and has had no problems.  However, after almost 3 years back in Asia, she has seen any number of toilet arrangements throughout the region:  squat toilets, toilets that include buckets of water next to them for manual flushing, toilets with no paper anywhere around them, toilets with overflowing paper bins (her least favorite) toilets with no doors, unisex toilets where one casually strolls past the gent standing at the urinal on one's way into the stall, toilets with hoses lying on the ground (presumably for both flushing and cleaning oneself.) On the other side of the coin, some of the public toilets she has run across in Asia are more luxurious than anything she will ever have in her home, and include things like automated air fresheners, 'privacy bells' (masking sounds for the timid,) bidets, heated seats (not unlike the "Ass-blaster 9000" in the Asia Vu's first apartment), and lovely family arrangements that include mummy-sized toilet placed within arm's reach of a toddler-sized version.   The list could go on and on. These days, when MsCaroline travels in Asia, she brings her own paper with her, and is prepared for just about anything, from "luxury" to "outhouse."

Luxury:  our automatic toilet seat, christened  'Ass-blaster 9000' by MrL.

Outhouse at rest area en route to holiday over Chuseok in 2012

But, honestly - paper in the bin? Not a big deal.  

While MsCaroline is sure that there may be plenty of glitches in the system in Sochi, she can assure her readers that paper in the bin - however offensive to Western sensibilities - is not going to cause any permanent damage to the Olympians.

Let the Games begin!