The electric kettle is bubbling next to me, warming some water for a cup of green tea. I can hear my co-teacher at her desk sniffling away at that rude little cold and so I tighten my scarf and put on my jacket, hoping that they will protect me from the slight chill in the office and her invisible germs. Outside is a muddled gray of sky and street. Not a peep of puffy white clouds or a warming sun. Mid-December in the Arctic? No, no.
This is September in Korea.
Koreans are quite proud of their four distinct seasons, but the thing that makes their winter distinct is that it never seems to end. It usually begins to get cold in October, freezing in December, and soon (believe me, it doesn’t feel that soon) Spring comes prancing in (as if we haven’t been waiting on it for ages) sometime in April. Winters in Korea CAN last up to six months, which if you are an English teacher, will be half of your contract. No one wants to be miserable and sullen for the good part of a year, so here are the necessary tools for surviving a Korean winter so that you don’t start to eye the ledge of your balcony like a big honey glazed ham of an escape. Suicide is never the answer, my friends. Instead we turn to some other S words.
The word soju basically means “burned liquor” which makes sense seeing it tastes like a razed field. This ubiquitous mix of chemicals is sold in Korea for less than the cost of a McDonald’s hamburger. You’ll see it in any convenience store in its green bottle beckoning cash strapped teachers and old Korean men. These same men you will soon see passed out in gutters, draped over chairs in cafes, and laying on the sidewalk in your path to the bar. Soju is potent and most Koreans don’t know when to stop. Sure, it doesn’t taste so good, but it’s one hell of a cheap alcohol blanket. Drink enough and you may even forget it’s winter.
Korea is stuck in the 80’s fashion wise. My students are required to wear uniforms but on a free day they showed up to school with flowery headbands, lacy leggings, and thick necklaces swinging from their necks a la Madonna. I thought it was a costume day. In winter, it gets real glamourous with Korean girls wearing pink puffy sweaters with embroidered unicorns on them. Make sure and stock up on these silly sweaters for they are warm and cheap. I feel a bit cheesy in my white and turquoise striped sweater with the pink hearts floating contently around on it, but I feel as cozy as an Easy Bake Oven.
When you look outside your window and it looks like a white and black movie about The Great Depression, your need to go outside quickly dissipates. That’s when I turn to my close friend, Laptop, and call upon my childhood friend, Television. You know all those television series your friends always talked about, but you never got around to watching? The time has come. Korea has some of the fastest internet in the world, so go ahead and watch a whole series in one day. No one will judge you. In fact, they will probably top you by watching two. Thanks to “desk warming”, when foreign teachers have to come to work even though they have no classes, you will have ample time to sit and your desk and veg out. Being up on your television shows will make you very popular. Take it from someone who has done tequila shots in honor of an esoteric television character. No one likes a Luddite in this day and age, especially in winter.
I went on some jogs in the snow dressed like the Michelin Man and started wondering if it would be easier to just get fat instead. It’s not like I could move in three sweaters and two pairs of sweatpants anyways. But then the Office of Education took us English teachers snowboarding and I realized I was sweating, having fun, and happy OUTSIDE in winter! It was an absolute revelation and a nice break from scurrying from one shelter to the next. Korea is filled with mountains so luckily, no matter where you live, you won’t be far from a place to shred some powder. Get yourself to PyeongChang, where the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held and try out the slopes before the professionals hit them.
It’s a well known survival fact that to stay alive in cold weather, one must get naked and hold another person in order to preserve body heat. So obviously, sex isn’t just frivolous expat fun, it’s the only way to keep from dying! Or at least, you can try that line out at the bar. Expats are constantly coming to and leaving Korea so you’ll have many human heaters to choose from. If you choose unwisely, they’ll be gone from the country soon enough.
In two months we will be knee deep in a Korean winter. Stay away from balconies and keep in mind that the beautiful and short lived Spring is just around the corner. Use these tools well and may God have mercy on all our souls.