I spent the winter of 1997/’98 in Seoul. I hadn’t known anything about Korean weather at all before I went. I knew nothing about Korea. Nothing, like I wrote in my first blog post.
I had borrowed an old book that described some facts about Korea from my city’s public library in July of 1997 to try to learn something about the place – anything, even, before I took a plane over to Seoul. The book said that Korean women did not go out anywhere, like to restaurants and other businesses. It also said that the people all wore white clothing…. It was describing what Korea was like before the Korean war! But I didn’t know that before I travelled to Seoul. I fully expected to find a few stores with only men in them when I arrived, and I thought everybody would have white clothes on! During one of my classes in September, I asked the LG students if that book could have been wrong and I told them what it stated. I told them I didn’t notice that women weren’t in public places. The older, highly dignified manager, Joseph, said those things the book said were true, “…a hundred years ago!!!…” while he chuckled incredulously. He couldn’t believe any book would portray Korea as being so backwards, but I couldn’t believe my small city’s library was so backwards back then that it had no modern books about Korea.
I hadn’t brought any warm clothing with me for wintertime. If I needed a coat or a sweater or gloves, I thought, I’d have to buy them there in Seoul. Well, that would have been all right if their women’s clothing was made and sold in large sizes! And I remember thinking to myself before I left, it isn’t really cold there anyway, is it? No one really knew. And after all, movies about the Vietnam War showed jungles, I remember thinking to myself. I am very embarassed to write that on here. Unfortunately, there was no easily accessible internet back then like we have nowadays to instantly find information.
While I spend every winter here now in my remote, rugged area of Atlantic Canada, I often think back to what the snow was like when I lived in Seoul….I imagine feeling the tranquility that was in the air on the mornings after it snowed. On mornings like this, everything everywhere was white and more than once there would be a magpie cawing and landing on a roof of another building as I looked out of the window on the 4th floor of my institute. I can still see the thin layer of snow over the roads, on cars that were parked on the sidestreets and on the tops of all of the buildings. And I can still imagine the peacefulness that was in the air. After a snowfall, the temperature was around zero degrees Celcius, with no wind, so it didn’t feel very chilly. Only about 2 centimeters had fallen each time there was snow and these light snows usually always happened during the night. Perhaps there were only about 7 times that a few centimeters fell during the night, and that was mostly it for the winter – except for one time when there was a typical light snowfall one night and then there was another one the next night, but the snow didn’t stop before daybreak – the snow had kept falling that morning. So the accumulation there was 2 centimeters from the first night, 2 centimeters from the second night plus whatever was falling that next morning. Oh my goodness, it was disruptive to the Koreans! I had to go to Bucheon for my Anam class that morning and I waited a long time for my bus once I got to Baekun. My bus came by but didn’t stop so I kept waiting. It was snowing lightly. I looked at the traffic going by. There was less traffic than usual, going very, very slowly and a few cars had actual chains on their tires. I had heard of “snow chains” for tires but had never seen cars with them before. These cars were not making it down the streets very well. My bus came again and passed me without stopping. Finally, I got on a bus but I was very late for my class with Mr. Choi.
That morning, before I left for Bucheon, when it was still snowing into the daytime after those 2 light, nighttime snowfalls in a row, a Korean man at my institute exclaimed, “We are getting a lot of snow this year!”. I thought it was so funny that 5 or 6 centimeters over less than two days could be considered “a lot of snow”. My hometown in Canada has 77 days on average where snow falls each year. Around that time, I explained to several Koreans about how in my area of Canada, people use “winter tires”, made with heavy treads, so your car won’t slip or slide while you drive it on snow-covered roads. It was another topic for discussion and practice in my English classes. Seoulites had no idea about harsh winters, deep snow or ice or snow removal. Their winters were short. By the time February came in Korea, winter was over. February in my province back in Canada was often the worst month of winter; in February, there’s an average of 16.4 days where snow falls in the city I’m from!
When I was in Seoul, there was never any wind at any time, I remember, and it only rained a few times during my whole stay in Seoul, from September 1st, 1997 until February 14th of 1998. If there was any wind ever during those months, it was a very gentle breeze, and there was a breeze so seldom that I only remember calmness. That fall was so absolutely beautiful, with perfect temperatures and tons of yellow gingko trees and bright red Japanese maples. This was after an extremely hot September where the bright sun had been beating down on me relentlessly every day from so high up in the sky, and where I needed air conditioning in my bedroom every night, all night, to be able to sleep.
I kept an eye on the weather and noticed the winter was coming very gradually. In my province of New Brunswick back in Canada, the weather was unpredictable and often harsh. The daytime high could be plus 10 degrees Celsius one day but could be minus 5 degrees Celsius the next day. Big fluctuations in our temperatures were common. And there were storms. When I was in elementary school, we would get snowstorms that lasted for days. Storms where I live now and where I grew up can be “ice storms” or blizzards. In Seoul, the temperature gradually got cooler each night and cooler in the mornings when I walked to the subway station to get to Bucheon to teach Mr. Choi. By the end of November, I found it had gotten cold. My toes were cold because I only had the sneakers I wore from Canada to wear, as there were no suitable winter boots anywhere and they had no women’s footwear that would fit me. Men’s winter boots for sale there were all made of black leather and were very sleek and fashionable. They seemed to be made for going from a taxi into an office building to me. One morning around December 1st, when we all had to get up to start our day, there was a thin “blanket” of snow covering the ground outside. It was the first snow of the season there. The snow had fallen during the night. It was calm and peaceful that morning and the air felt so pleasant, even though it sometimes felt cold in Seoul at that time. I figured out back then that Seoul only had a total accumulation of around 10 inches of snow that whole winter, if that. Ten inches measures 25 centimeters. But where I was from, the annual total snowfall was close to 280 centimeters! The freezing wind was raw and bitter a lot of the time in New Brunswick as well.
Sometimes on a December evening where I live in Canada, the air feels mild and the winds are calm and the moon shines on the freshly fallen snow. There are only a few times each year for someone to see what actually look like millions of sparkling diamonds on the ground at nighttime when the snow is new. The temperature is just right in December for the snowflakes to twinkle like that. When I’d see a newly fallen covering of snow over everything in Seoul in the morning, for me it was just like a nice day in December back home. The winter in Korea never progressed to being stormy and there was never a minus 56 degree Celcius windchill, as I sometimes had to tolerate back in the North Atlantic.
I found that Korean people had what I call a “romantic” idea towards snow when I lived there. They all told me they thought snow was beautiful. No wonder. In most of Korea they didn’t have storms or have to constantly shovel it or get around in deep snow. Their walking in winter wasn’t too hard and their driving wasn’t difficult or impossible like it is in my part of Canada. I have noticed by watching Youtube videos that Seoul has been getting a little more snow lately than it did in 1997, but their winters are still mild, in my opinion. Many titles of videos filmed in Seoul say “…Heavy Snow…” in their titles but it’s only 5 centimeters that is shown. In my province, a heavy snowfall is one of 15 cm or more.