Winter Blues
atching old reruns of M*A*S*H today, one gets the impression that Korea has but two seasons - blisteringly hot and humid summers, and bitterly cold Siberian winters. I can't say as I was intimidated by either prospect; to tell the truth, it seemed a heck of a lot like Eastern Canada. However, like much else on television, fact is wrapped inside a walnut-hard shell of fancy. Apart from the North-East, up near Mount Sorak, winters in South Korea are depressingly mild. The thermometre rarely dips below freezing, while snow falls in millimetres and either melts as soon as it hits the ground or is swept off sidewalks with a swish of a straw broom. In three-and-a-half years of living there, I never once had to buy a winter coat, making do with a simple raincoat or leather jacket.
So what's the problem, you may ask? I ought to appreciate the lower electricity bills, the early springs, the non-slush and unsalted streets? I should be thankful for not having to spend half the day putting on and taking off heavy winter clothes and boots, you say? You'd sell your mother and beloved booster cables to have your driveway spared that sinister form of Canadian torture known as Snowplow Snot? Well, I've got news for you: warm Januaries, even though they be of the Vancouver variety, do not suit this Canuck.
You see, prior to moving to Korea in February 1997, I had spent 28 winters in Canada and one in Leningrad, near the Arctic Circle. And yet, I had never damned my lot, because my body had grown accustomed to cold weather five months a year. More importantly, my immune system had developed the peculiar habit of kicking in in late October-early November, just as lawns were being raked clean of their last bits of crunchy brown leaves. Colds, flus, sniffles, runny noses and the like were things I normally fought in spring and summer, white blood cells exhausted from the winter campaign. Yes, I am most fit when the climate is at its harshest. I suspect this is the case with most people living in northern countries.
Being in possession of such a highly sophisticated, well-oiled and perfectly synchronised machine is a double-edged sword, however; it means that any significant change in environment is bound to have an effect, most assuredly negative, on its sensitive springs and coils. And in point of fact, I have been at death's door each January I have lived in Korea. My immune system, still waiting for that first whiff of winter before punching the clock, gets sideswiped, guard down, each time. The culprit is an insidious little mutant virus that loves to make carrion of the healthiest flesh. I have dubbed it the Korean Flu.
In 1997, having arrived only in spring, I was given a warning shot: a ten-day bout of rubber legs. It hit me, quite literally, in the space of half-an-hour: one minute I'm greedily stuffing my face with meat dumplings in the park, celebrating the Shintanjin Cherry Blossom Festival; the next, I can barely stand. I stayed in bed for two days, then went back to work, only to feel like a used kleenex by the end of the morning. I opted for more bed rest. This time, I had completely lost my appetite, in addition to my legs. I had to force myself to sip water and slurp tiny spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream to make sure I didn't starve myself. Several days later, I had sufficiently recovered to teach again, but I felt weak as a lamb for the next month or so.
Winter 1998 is when I understood the true power of Korean Flu Shi. He smote me with all the force of a super-Sherman tank and declared, in a voice that suggested post-bellum remained far, far away, that I would be SICK. Not just your run-of-the-mill, sniff-sniff, take-an-aspirin-and-call-me-in-the-morning kind of flu; no, this would be the Mother of all Cold Wars, an illness to make me feel like a year-old, worm-eaten corpse by the time an armistice was signed.
Once again, it was a sneak attack, a blitzkrieg of nausea and fever that made a mockeryk of my Maginot Line. (N.B. Yes, I know the metaphors and alliterations are facile, but I haven't written in years. Just bear with me for a few months; I promise there are better days ahead.) I was properly bed-ridden this time around: several days of hallucinations, followed by two whole weeks of enforced fasting, during which I lost fifteen pounds. (I found them two years later in the Burger King across from Kyung Hee University.) For those of you who know me well, here's how bad it was: I didn't even have the strength to read. Even television (Star World, for goodness' sake!) required too great an effort, such were my waning powers of concentration. Though I was up and about by the end of January, I wasn't able to completely shake off the after-effects until May.
It was a good thing for me that all this happened during the winter break. The Korean Flu is but a mild cold to those who have lived here all their lives, but to us foreigners, it's like the smallpox Colombus brought over to wipe out the Indians.
Readers will be happy to know that I did at last adapt to the non-winters here, albeit incompletely. My ordeal only lasted two months in 1999, and in 2000, three short weeks - but with a twist: I had laryngitis for a fortnight, and had to whisper through my last few classes!
Now we're leaving Korea and moving to Mongolia. While Sun-duk frets over frostbite and minus-thirty-degree temperatures, wondering how she'll ever survive, I'm rubbing my mitts with glee, happy at the prospect of shoulder-high snowbanks and biting winds blowing in from Lake Baikal. And I'm sure my immune system will applaud my return to common sense by pumping out a few extra phagocytes in celebration come October!
July 2000