The Weather

Three Kinds of Cold: Seoul

This is the second of three installments regarding Soon’s multi-cultural encounters with temperatures in the sub-comfortable. Read the first one here and the third one here.

This was back in 2009, when I was living in South Korea. I was teaching English at a small private school in the district of Ilsan. I was given a very nice apartment in the entertainment section of the city. It had all the modern accessories that most Korean apartments have: a video phone, code-locked doors, sensory lights. Pretty much everything in Seoul is only fifty or sixty years old, so it’s difficult to find any buildings that are run-down or defunct. It’s the strangest sensation, to be walking around a “new” city. Even the concept of a “new” city seems strange to me. In fact, the specific district that I was living in was only ten or fifteen years old. The government had just decided that there was going to be another city, so they built Ilsan, and there it was, ready to be occupied, lived in.

Before leaving for Korea I was told the winters were very mild. “Like the U.S.,” people said, “but mild.” Naturally, with my luck, that year Seoul had one of its coldest winters on record. I wasn’t worried, though; I was in a modern apartment that was heated from the floor up, all the windows closed, and there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. I took great pleasure the first time I cranked up the heat before my girlfriend came over. Instantly, the apartment was like a sauna; I reveled in the excessive warmth in a t-shirt and gym shorts.

When B came over she was shocked at my use of the heat. Didn’t I know? Heating costs were incredibly high in Korea; my bill would be a fortune if I kept up this kind of behavior.

Money was tight at the time—not because I wasn’t making any, but because I was sending half my paycheck home every month to pay down my student debt. I was alarmed by B’s warning, and immediately turned my heat off, then dressed in pants and a sweater and proceeded to shiver.

The next day I went with B to Lotte Mart: the Korean equivalent to Costco, but better in every way. According to B, the most cost-effective warmth was an electric blanket. Now, I’d never heard of an electric blanket, let alone used one, but B explained that it was a blanket with copper wires threaded into it. To me, it sounded dangerous, but B assured me this was how most Koreans kept warm.

After picking the blanket we liked, B and I preceded to the checkout, where the cashier gave me an unfriendly scowl, something B and I had grown used to since pairing together. B never seemed to mind, said she didn’t care if people looked at her funny for dating a Westerner. But it bothered me.

Leaving the scowling cashier, B and I went back to my apartment, unpacked the blanket, laid it on the bed and plugged it in. To my amazement, the blanket was warm within minutes, and I was astonished I’d never used one before. B and I quickly undressed and got underneath. I was overjoyed at the thought of my gas bill being nearly nothing at the end of the month.

B was spending a lot of time at my place; her parents were having trouble. Needless to say, we spent large portions of the day and night under the blanket when we weren’t at work or out having dinner or drinks. It was the middle of January and everything aside from my bed was freezing. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to turn the heat on, but B wouldn’t allow it. When I asked my boss about heating costs he said the same thing as B: the cost of heating an apartment was incredibly high, and I should stick with anything electric.

But the blanket began to have some negative effects, namely that I found it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning. It was so warm and comfortable that I had lost the will to get up and face the cold. It was as if the blanket was pumping liquid lethargy into my veins, night after night. I found that my skin was drying out and that I was congested in the mornings. I was convinced it was this electric blanket’s fault, but I found no evidence to support my claims, and B wasn’t suffering from these same ailments. The other issue with the blanket was that it was too short. It fit B perfectly, but I had to make the painful decision of whether to expose my head or my feet to the cold. I would alternate between the two all night, while B slept on in complete comfort.

Seoul soon got its first big snow storm of the year, and that night my apartment seemed colder than ever. Now I realize that there might have been other factors contributing to my perception: I was in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language; I was working nearly sixty hours a week; I was living amongst a group of people who shared my ethnicity and yet looked at me not as one of their own, but as a traitor of sorts. I was alienated, and as a result, it is possible the cold I was feeling was both physical and mental.

It wasn’t normal, I thought, to have this blanket giving my body this electric warmth. It seemed alien in some way, and in the middle of one of these cold nights I asked B if we could turn it off. She asked me why and I explained how it was making me feel foreign, non-human in some way. She laughed and agreed, only on the condition that I keep her warm.

I fetched us the warmest clothes I had and we bundled up and got back under my paper-thin duvet—another purchase that, in hindsight, I regret.

That night was cold as ever. And I knew B was cold too, the way she huddled up against me in her winter jacket. We could see our breath, and outside I heard the wind whipping around the high-rise and funneling down to the neon-lighted streets, bustling with twenty-four-hour life. I heard buses rumbling and cabbies honking in the taxi line. The city was alive down there, and so was I, and so was B. But she was sleeping, her pale, round face outlined by her black scarf and hat.

So yes, I was cold, but it was cold on my terms, a cold I had chosen, and when B and I woke in the morning I was refreshed. The haze of lethargy had lifted. I was full of energy, and when I asked B if she wanted to go for a walk in the park she said yes.

We braved the winter cold all day, walking about the park and then the city. We had BBQ and went shopping at the outdoor mall. It was one of my happiest days in Korea—a day when I embraced the world for what it was, a cold I could live with. And to this day, regardless of where I am, I always try to sleep with the window cracked in the winter, letting in just a whisper of the cold air to remind myself of that day, and night, when I accepted the cold, and was happy.

Soon Wiley is a native of Nyack, New York. He received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He currently attends the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he is the assistant editor of MOJO. His work has appeared in or is forth coming from TINGE Magazine, the Hawaii Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and others.