ExpatLIFE: Surviving Yellow Dust Season in Seoul

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

Though it doesn't snow much in Seoul, the wind and temperatures well below freezing can make for a brutal winter (especially if you have two huskies who think this is THE BEST time to go for long walks) and the arrival of temperatures even just in the 40s (Fahrenheit) can be cause for excitement. Unfortunately, along with the the rising temperatures and first blooms of cherry blossoms, arrives my nemesis, yellow dust.

Seoul seems to fly relatively under the radar compared to large Chinese cities when it comes to international reporting about pollution, maybe because there's only a two month period where the pollution is consistently bad, but truth be told, even outside of yellow dust season the air quality here is not great. I generally consider an AQI of 75-100 to be good/pretty normal. (Want to know what the AQI is in New York as I write this? 32.) Recently my facebook feed has been awash with posts in various expat groups with newcomers asking if anyone else had been sick for three months straight or if this pollution was normal and seasoned expats saying this year was affecting them especially hard and asking for advice. I'm no expert but I am an asthmatic who had bronchitis three times in my first nine months in Seoul and I don't really have a lot of choice about spending time outside because of our super active dogs so I've spent a fair amount of time figuring out what works best to keep me healthy.

1. What even is yellow dust?

Yellow dust/Asian dust/Hwangsa is fine particle pollution picked up from dust storms in Northern China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan that have happened in Spring for literally thousands of years. Storms have gotten worse in recent years because of deforestation and desertification in the originating countries and because now, along with the fine sand, comes all of China's lovely industrial pollutants. South Korea isn't just an innocent bystander though, it's heavy reliance on coal energy (and plans to expand its number of coal power plants) means that as much as the government wants to pass the buck, a lot of the small particulate pollution actually originates here.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

2.  How do I monitor the pollution levels?

You have a couple of options, aqicn.org is my favorite because you can use it world wide (even in China!) and in Seoul it has updates per neighborhood and an easy to look at map. Sometimes the air quality is good in my neighborhood but wherever I'm going to run errands or meet people, the air is terrible. Sometimes the opposite is true and it's a good opportunity to get out of my hood. I also have this global air quality app, but sometimes it just completely stops working and decided I'm in China. It's been working pretty well lately and you can have it send you push notifications when the air is unhealthy. There's also a yellowdust bot on twitter that reports on overall AQI in Seoul, but since it isn't by neighborhood, right now it's tweeting a significantly lower level than what's happening just outside my window.

3. Great, but, when is it actually bad for me to be outside?

This depends on what country's government agency you ask and your personal health. In Japan, people are advised to stay inside if the PM2.5 reaches over 70. In the US over 100 is unhealthy for at risk groups (children, elderly, asthmatics, etc), over 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone, over 200 very unhealthy and 300-500 is considered hazardous. There isn't even a ranking for over 500. In Korea, the government issues an advisory for at risk groups if the AQI is over 400 and for everyone if it's over 800! I know people who aren't bothered by the air at all until the pollution is actually visible at street level and I know people (like me) who are bothered before it even reaches 150. For me, I start to feel my lungs working harder and my sinuses getting irritated when the AQI hits around 130, that doesn't mean I stop going outside, it just means I take precautions.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

4. I've definitely been feeling the air quality but I need to go outside to walk my dogs/run errands/travel between classrooms/exist as a human being, what do I do?

A few different things:

  • Mask up I went through a number of different masks before I found one that was both comfortable and actually works. Sadly, cute cloth ones do nothing even though they're available everywhere. The more standard surgical masks you see people wearing also don't create enough of a seal or have a good enough filter for fine particle pollution. You want a mask with a rating of N95 or KF94 (they essentially mean the same thing, one is just the US ranking system and one is the Korean) that you also are ok with wearing. After trying many different masks that didn't do enough, I finally bought a box of the 3M N95 masks at eMart that look like your serious construction worker masks, the only problem? I have a small face and head so the mask was basically in my eyes making it unwearable. This year I found an upgraded version of my favorite Kleenex brand mask that used to only come as KF80. The KF94 version has a metal pin to bend over your nose (with foam to create a better seal and to keep it comfortable), is a bit thicker and is comfortable enough that I only hate wearing it a little bit. I got some at eMart but yellow dust/hwangsa masks usually start showing up at every Olive Young, convenience store and pharmacy this time of year.
  • Shower when you get home A lot of people experience skin irritation during dust season, so it's recommended to keep as covered as possible BUT the weather is finally nice and you're probably wanting to feel some of that sun on your skin. Even if you do keep your arms and legs covered, your clothing might not keep all of the irritating fine sand out, showering when you get home helps get it off you immediately. I also find that a hot steamy shower helps with sinus irritation.
  • Neti pot as much as you can stand There is no doubt that pouring salt water through your nose is disgusting and uncomfortable BUT (tmi moment) when the air quality gets REALLY BAD, sometimes my snot is actually black. As uncomfortable as it can be in the moment, regularly using my neti pot really does help. (But I'm still terrible at remembering to do this one)
  • Keep your windows closed and buy an air purifier If you're like me, the moment it gets warm, you want to open up everything and get some air circulation. Don't, or at least make sure you do it during the part of the day where the AQI is supposed to be lowest. Try to keep your home environment as irritant free as possible so your lungs are getting a break when you're inside. We have this humidifier/ air purifier combo (it was only around $100 at Costco last year despite the much higher price on Amazon) that we keep in our bedroom that definitely helps me wake up with easier lungs and less irritated sinuses. The upside is that it monitors the humidity level on it's own and adjusts accordingly and it has a nighttime mode where the lights dim and it's quieter. The downside is that it needs the water replaced pretty much daily and needs to be cleaned somewhat regularly or it gets mold. I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a regular air purifier instead.
  • Go to the doctor/get an inhaler If you've had asthma at any point in your life, even if it's been under control, I definitely recommend going to a doctor and making sure you've got current prescriptions for at least albuterol. If you've never had asthma before but are getting out of breath easily or wheezing, I also definitely recommend going to the doctor and getting an inhaler or other treatment now when it's not that bad before it turns into full blown bronchitis. Even after I've officially recovered from bronchitis, I find my lungs usually feel weaker for about another month, which, obviously, makes me more prone to bronchitis, hence my getting it over and over when I first got here. Health care in Korea is incredibly affordable compared to the US even if you don't have insurance, so get yourself to an international clinic! (I go to the one at SCH in Hannam)
  • Take a break from Seoul If it's possible to take a vacation, do it! Even just hopping on a cheap Peach flight and taking a long weekend in Kyoto, it can help give your lungs a break. Just check to make sure you're going somewhere the air is cleaner since you're likely to find dust in a lot of Asia this time of year. (Last year we found ourselves in Bangkok at the tail end of one of my bouts of bronchitis, obviously that didn't help at all, but a few days on the beach in Southern Thailand and I was feeling immensely better.)

5. My dogs can't wear a mask or use a neti pot, how do I keep them healthy?

This one is SO HARD. Obviously if you have smaller, lower energy dogs, you can switch to using pee pads and keeping them indoors like you might do already when it's really cold. With larger high energy dogs like jindo mixes and huskies, this just isn't possible. I look at the forecast and try to take them for walks when the air is supposed to be the best for the day. Lately any day it's under 130, I try to take them for a long hike to keep them worn out for a couple of days. If it's over 150, my husband takes them on a walk at night instead of their usual run. When I get home I use baby wipes to wipe down their paws and around their snouts to try to help keep irritants out of their eyes and nose. If it gets over 200, we try to stick to outside time only for potty breaks and do A LOT of indoor stimulation with kongs, antlers, puzzle toys and training time (before we got a second dog, this kibble ball was a lifesaver but it starts fights with two dogs). Unfortunately, there's no way to explain to a dog why they're stuck indoors or not allowed to run while they're outside but you don't want them to get bronchitis either because that's going to be even more miserable for everyone.

That's everything I've got. Do you have tips or tricks for staying healthy during dust season? Please share! Even trying to do all these things regularly, I still don't always feel that great and I'd love to learn more.


Home is Where the Heart is (And mine's at the dinner table)

I've been searching for the online community that feels right since moving to Korea and it took a long time to find anything that fit. I like taking advantage of where we live to travel but I'm not a traveler living out of backpack, keeping my possessions minimal. I live in South Korea but I'm neither a military spouse or fresh out of college teaching English. I've slowly come across more and more "trailing spouse" blogs, often written by foreign service spouses but not always, which seem more similar to my current experiences. So in an effort to bring more personal writing back to this space and to start finding more people living with the joys and struggles I am, I'm participating in the monthly "Trailing Spouse Stories". Having just recently passed our one year abroad mark and recently taken a trip to New York, this month's theme of "home" seems particularly appropriate.

Welcome to July's #TrailingSpouseStories.  This month we talk and reflect about the idea of HOME - what it means to us, where it is and how we make our nomadic homes feel more like it.

"What are your favorite things about Seoul?"

"Clean public restrooms at every subway station and leaving it to go anywhere else in Asia"

It's no secret that we don't love Seoul or that we do love the city we left to come here, New York. Unless something happens to make us do a complete 180 in the next 14 months, Seoul is just a place we're passing through, where we lay our heads while somebody else pays our rent and we chip away at debt, a launch pad from which to travel as much of this part of the world as possible before we return to the part of the world where Canada is the only country that can reasonably be visited as just a weekend trip.

When we got here and started to meet the other people in the same program as Dan, it was interesting to here what people were waiting on (or not) arriving.

"Oh, we shipped everything"

"Just furniture"

"Our kitchen stuff"

"We just brought what we could in suitcases and figured we'd replace the rest"

"We're planning on getting a placed that's furnished"

Us? We shipped records and books. Artwork and mementos. My knife suitcase and hand labeled mason jars of herbs and spices.

"Do you want to insure your container? What's the value of your items?"

We didn't insure our shipment. There's no amount of money that can replace records that belonged to my father or books marked up with my great-grandfather's handwriting. We didn't think we'd be staying in Seoul longer than the original contract's two years but we agreed early on that we didn't want to live somewhere that felt like a hotel. I didn't want to spend my days at home writing and working on recipes staring at a couch I hated or wishing I could just find that cookbook we left in our storage unit in Brooklyn.

This meant we spent a bit longer choosing our apartment than other people we know and we were happy we got here early when we were competing with everyone else since we had to use company provided brokers.

Our checklist only had two items which we knew would be tricky: there had to be an oven and pets had to be allowed because I promised Dan we could get a dog when we moved to Korea. As we looked at apartments, I realized I would strongly prefer a space for a dining table. Most places we looked at didn't even meet requirements one and two so adding a third thing on to the list was kind of a stretch but we finally found it. Our apartment has fewer bedrooms than some of our friend's places but there's only two of us and we used to live in a studio, so who cares? In exchange our living area and kitchen has a large open floor plan and we have a patio.

The first time we had people over, we had one couch and a small plastic folding table. We sat in a circle on our patio drinking wine from mugs, processing our recent departure from America and grilling on our small fold up Korean BBQ (which I've since replaced and turned into a planter). It was my greatest hostessing triumph but I knew more of that was what I wanted.

Since then we've filled our bookshelves and hung up our art. We've purchased wine glasses and furnished our guest bedroom. We had a large, beautiful dining table made and as many people as it will fit (and then some) seated around it almost monthly. Even though I love our apartment all the time, it never feels as much like home as when I'm pulling food out of the oven and the house is filled with friends.

If we somehow find ourselves continuing in this expat life, I'll still want all the books and mementos, but I think now I know the third thing on our list, the dining table, isn't just a preference, like an oven, it's non-negotiable.

Check out other #TrailingSpouseStories in this month's blog crawl:

Alana of Runaway Bunny in Seoul talks about how pictures and books might make a house feel home-y but it's the people you fill it with that makes it a home in Home is Where the Heart is (And my heart's at the dinner table)

Didi of D for Delicious says moving from place to place has helped her realize that home is not a place in #TrailingSpouseStories: There is no place called home

Tala of Tala Ocampo has come around after living in one city in one country all her life, the last five years in almost 3 countries as a trailing spouse has made Tala realize that home is not a place but a state and a feeling in The Never Ending Pursuit of Home

The Case of the Exploding Door Knob

When you move to a new country there's a lot of things you expect to not expect. You no longer expect people to understand you. You no longer expect to be able to buy the same things at the grocery store. You don't expect to know your way around. If it's somewhere like Korea, you might not even expect to be able to read street signs or menus. Gradually those things just become part of life and things to which you've adjusted. You speak Konglish and use a lot hand gestures. You incorporate a lot of mushrooms into your diet and occasionally splurge on a $5.00 head of broccoli. You learn where the bus and subway routes go and how to switch between multiple apps for ideal trip planning. You learn a new alphabet and compulsively read everything but still sometimes just point to something on the menu and say "Han Kai Chusaiyo" (one, please) when you're tired.

But then there are things that you don't expect to expect or not expect. Things you don't think about at all. Like exploding door knobs.

This is the story of how I became terrified I'm going to be trapped in our bathroom with the dog standing on the other side whining for eight hours.

"Did you lock the bedroom door?"

"What? No. Why would I do that?"

" I unno, it won't open though."

We were having a dinner party but it was well past dinner time. Some guests were helping clean while others rolled around on the floor with the dog. Let's just say at this point if we lived somewhere where people drove home, everyone would be sleeping over.

I try to jiggle the door handle. It doesn't even move.

"Huh. That's weird. I guess I'll go outside and try to climb in?"

Our bedroom windows lock automatically when they close but luckily this evening it was open. Our screen slides on a track, so all in all it was pretty easy, clambering from our deck through the window.

"Ummmm. It's not locked but it won't open."

Nobody can hear me. I climb back out and go into the living room.

"It's not locked but it won't open. Give me a credit card? Maybe I can McGuyver it open"

I go back through armed with a credit card and a bobbi pin. No luck. Probably because this is the wrong side of the knob to be using the credit card method. I climb back over again to try from the other side.

"Oh shit is the door locked?! Want me to climb through the window? I'm really good at climbing through windows"

"No, it's not locked I just climbed through the window. I don't know what's going one"

"But I'm like really good at climbing through windows. Should I climb through the window?"

"I don't really know what you can do but sure, climb through the window"

At this point everyone at the party has noticed that I'm messing with the door.

"It's not locked but it won't open"

Everyone needs to see for themselves and a parade of drunk people climb in and out our bedroom window.

"What if we just take the knob off?"


We get out screwdrivers and some people climb back through the window and some stay in the living room. My husband begins taking off the handle on the living room side. Pieces start to fall out.

"Weird, this piece is completely shattered"

More pieces fall out. And more. It looks like the entire inner mechanisms of our door knob exploded. It all comes out and everyone marvels at how bizarre it is and then goes back to the party.

A few days later we call our super explaining that our bedroom door knob was broken. We're still used to the New York version of supers so we were shocked when he said he'd be right over. We showed him the pieces of the exploded door knob expecting him to ask if we had been slamming the door or find out what we could've possibly done to break the door knob. In New York it seems like building managers get a perverse enjoyment from convincing tenants that something is all their fault and will not be paid for by the landlord.

"Ah. Yes, that door knob was very old"

Now, I can't say for sure, but I would guess our building was built in the 90s. So maybe that knob was twenty years old, which I guess could be considered old for a door knob, except I've definitely known door knobs older than that and none of them have spontaneously combusted.

Dan and I shrug at each other and the handyman replaces the door knob. They leave.

"So, in Korea door knobs can just explode?"

"I guess so?"

Our building super shows absolutely no reaction when we tell him something isn't working. Sometimes he sighs heavily and I'll hear him call something "cheap" in Korean when speaking to the repairman but to us he is completely impartial. So I honestly have no idea if old door knobs regularly explode in Korea or if our super is just so good at being a super he refuses to acknowledge passing any judgement on whether things breaking is our fault or the fault of cheap materials.

For the next month, every time I went into the bathroom when Dan wasn't home, I brought my cell phone because at any given time I could end up trapped in a room due the explosive nature of Korea's older door knobs. I've stopped now but am I really safe? I don't know. I just don't know.

Making Cranberry Sauce in Korea (a story, not a recipe)

Getting to Costco takes one hour and two busses. The first bus takes me down Namsan through Hannam-dong, South across the Han river and leaves me at Gangnam Station. It's the same bus that takes my husband to work at Samsung-town and me to Korean class at YBM. Then I pay extra to take one of the fancy red commuter busses even farther South to Yangjae. This journey is about the same as if I went to Costco in Queens from my old apartment in Park Slope, which is a thing I would never, ever, in a million years do without a car. In Korea, I do it roughly once a month.

We're hosting Thanksgiving dinner for seventeen people, in no small part, because I have the oven large enough to fit a Turkey. Also because, let's be real, cooking for seventeen people is much less stressful to me than going to a potluck and having to pretend to not be the world's pickiest and snobbiest eater. Even though I actually don't like most Thanksgiving foods, the menu I created was full of the classics because we're seventeen people not just away from our families but away from our country. Food has a lot of power to give us joy and comfort and that's what I want for our Thanksgiving day, to feel joyous and comforted. To have a few hours to forget how frustrating it can be to live somewhere so culturally and linguistically different and to be thankful for shared meals and conversations. 

During my October trip to Costco I noticed they had Turkeys and Martinelli's Sparkling Cider already. They didn't have any other Thanksgiving items but the inventory seems to always be changing so I was hopeful that as it got closer to the date, more foods would appear. Canned pumpkin! Fresh cranberries! In my wildest, most hopeful dreams, brussels sprouts. I'm not a religious person but for the last month, I've been PRAYING for brussels sprouts.

Wednesday I went to Costco and I loaded my cart up with the two largest Turkeys, sparkling cider, pounds of cheese, an obscene amount of juice for punch, bourbon, vodka, gin and our regular Costco groceries. I gave my body a full work out pushing what had to have ended up being a close to 100 pound cart circling and circling the produce section. No bags of fresh cranberries. No sugar pie pumpkins. No brussels sprouts. There weren't even any green beans. My only consolation was finding a bag of limes, I haven't had a lime since we've gotten to Korea. Even the one Margarita I've had was made with lemon.

To my credit, I didn't cry. If this had happened in New York, I would've cried. New York is a magical place where you can cry in public and it almost feels more private than crying at home because the world continues around you without even noticing. But I live in Korea and in Korea I'd be a weird white woman with ten times as many groceries in her cart as most of the Korean shoppers, sobbing. I can afford to buy peanut butter pretzels three pounds at a time, what do I have to cry about?

I slowly and meticulously pushed my beast of a cart down each aisle searching for canned cranberries or even frozen. Pumpkin pie you can mimic with almost any winter squash so I wasn't too worried about that but what was I going to do without cranberries?! I finally settled on buying a big bag of craisins figuring I could work some sort of magic with them and the cranberry juice cocktail I had in my cart for punch.

I paid for my groceries and packed them into my ridiculously gigantic reusable Costco bags and pushed my cart out to the curb to get a cab. Can you imagine getting a cab at Costco in Queens, having a cab driver be happy to take you back to Brooklyn and help you load 100 pounds of groceries into the trunk? I'm 99% percent sure that would actually be impossible but in Seoul it's rarely difficult. Also, it costs about $13.00. You win this round, Korea.

Thursday morning I went to eMart to get some more Thanksgiving supplies and crossed my fingers that maybe they'd have canned cranberries in the foreign food section or frozen cranberries with the other frozen berries. No luck. I sighed and made a plan to make imitation canned sauce using either gelatin or pectin, cranberry juice cocktail and an emptied and well cleaned diced tomato can. It's not exactly an ideal Thanksgiving Basics recipe but maybe it would be kind of fun.

To get pectin I had to go to High Street Market, an expensive import store in Hannam where you can go both to get over-priced goldfish crackers and vegan cheese. They don't really stock fresh produce but a small part of me was still dreaming of bags of Ocean Spray cranberries. I opened the door to the market and walked into a shelf piled with cans of pumpkin AND jellied cranberry sauce.

So this Thanksgiving, my recipe will be two cans of jellied cranberry sauce and one can opener. Hey, it's what my husband wanted anyways.