Korean Love Story #1: Yellow Dust Season in Korea

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Last Updated on August 24, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

sick mask, Yellow dust mask, Asian sick maskSexy, no; but cute? Yes. My face mask, ironically called “Love Story”…
is not what I’m feeling for this place now.

Updates: I’ve been quiet for some time …apologies. I’ve been busy dealing with the waves of culture shock and trying not to rant about my co-teacher which is what I feel like I’ve been doing. But here’s what’s been going on : a) So the sun hasn’t been out in like, forever since winter and even as we’re sliding into Spring, all is still gray, depressing… and cold;  b)  I’ve been taking weekend excursions to help me snap out of depression and back into “travel” mode; c) I love my students (especially, my 4th grade boys, who “squeal” like girls when they’re excited) . d) I’m learning that while you should respect a culture and its systems, there are times you’d be at a gross and unfair disadvantage unless you occasionally pull out your “foreigner/’waygook‘ card”d) …which brings me to the lame co-teacher thing & how I’ve been patient and nice up until nowe) My survival and getting out of this funk with Korea rests solely upon me now.

The ubiquitous nature of Asian sick masks in Korea

Seeing sick masks on my students in class or on passing pedestrians in the subway and on the streets have become a norm for me. Before moving to Korea, the idea of a wearing facial sick mask was something I didn’t understand.  In the West, it’s not familiar to us. The only place they’re visible is in hospitals and on doctors.

But sick masks  are common here. In Korea, many masks have cute colors or design to them (i.e. animal faces, Hello Kitty, you name it…) . It certainly makes them more appealing, stylish and fun to wear.

cute face masks, sick masks in Asia(above) Sick masks come in various designs

Yellow Dust Season in Korea

There are only two occasions that I notice Koreans wearing face masks  a) when they are sick and b) when they feel the air pollution is really bad.

The latter is Yellow Dust season– a toxic dust storm crap from China which lasts from February to June and affects places like China, South Korea (Seoul), Japan and parts of Russia (Read a fellow EPIKer’s post about Yellow Dust) . It causes sore throat and asthma in people, despite good health.  The dust pollution can get thick in Seoul, although Daegu isn’t as affected by it.

This is exactly what I’m convinced took over my health a few weeks back, when I underwent my “Could it be the Korean Crud?” phase.

One evening, the air quality was so bad, the streets looked as dusty and smoky as an all neighborhood BBQ. Virtually 85% of people who were out and about in town, were wearing face masks. Could Yellow Dust be another term for the Korean Crud?

What are the symptoms of Yellow Dust?

Last week, I was feeling tickles in my throat again.

The Yellow Dust symptoms are having dust get to the back of your throat, triggering a cough that turns into a choking fit.  In happens at odd times and quite out-of-the-blue.

While I’ve lived in L.A, a city known for their smog alerts and thick haze of pollution, this is the first time I was experiencing Yellow Dust.

I didn’t know what to do. Initially, I took it as a cold and like a true hypochondriac, I ran to my medicine box and knocked back some Vitamin C and Zinc capsules. Only when more than my usual amount of students fashioned face masks, did I realize what was up.

It was Yellow Dust pollution.

asian student wears sick mask,

How do Koreans find out about Yellow Dust alerts?

Seeking any type of help or answer from my co-teacher (whose English is good) is sometimes, like asking God to call my new Korean cellphone with a direct answer.  An impossible faith.

She explained her “sign of a bad Yellow Dust day” is when she sees her car covered in a dusty film.

Thanks, I’ll vacuum that idea up with my lungs…

Then she said, the school nurse sends out email alerts to the teachers, so they can tell students to wear their masks.

Awesome! I asked if I could be told of these days or receive these alerts.

Her response?

Nope, the email alerts are written only in Korean.

If there were a blind man next to you at a crosswalk, and he asked you to alert him of a traffic signal change, would you say, “Sorry, the lights are not in Braille”?

I asked my  co-teacher one more time, if she could notify me of these Yellow Dust email alerts, so that I am prepared and not catch a cold.  Same reply… written only in Korean.

Seeing as Yellow Dust alerts are written only in Korean, I guess only Koreans are allowed to know about them.

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  • There is an app called Yellow Dust. Just set the location to the area closest to where you live. If you don’t know, just go to any English speaking Korean and ask them to set it for you.

  • You sound terribly entitled. The Korean alphabet can be learned in a matter of a few hours. You can translate the alerts in your phone into English. You can learn enough Korean to recognize the alerts. A foreigner in Korea taking the time to learn the language and the culture enough to take care of basic needs and not expect your co-teacher to do everything for you is not only realistic but decent. Yes YOU can learn enough Korean to recognize the yellow dust alerts in the same way that your students are learning enough English to communicate in at LEAST the most basic sense if not hopefully more. I was on board with your post until the very end. I’m on your co-teacher’s side for this one. It’s a 2 way street. To compare yourself to a blind person when you have a functioning brain that is capable of learning the most basic facets of another culture’s language (but it sounds like you won’t) is diabolically misguided.

    • Norell: How long does it take you to read and learn a new language? Say, 3 months? That’s when this post was written and in 2010.

      Outsiders assume that the obvious is easy and “basic”. In actuality, when you’re an expat, the simplest things are no longer simple and nothing is “basic”. It’s a new twist on life and only an expat will understand this. If you read my Just show me Pictures posts, you’ll get sorta a drift but not the entireity. Most expats need their coteachers for everything from setting up bank accounts, filling out their Korean tax forms, and a ton of bureaucratic forms you never knew or don’t understand. You just arrive in Korea with your freshly learned Hangul .. great- now you can read a food menu, but you still won’t know the foods you’re reading. I took a fair amount of Korean language classes during my time! You’re assuming to know lot about me without having been there or knowing all the facts. My time there I cherish, but it was not easy.

  • “Sorry, the lights aren’t in Braille”? MAJOR ROFLOL.

    Poor Poor Chris!! I think you should just wear your facemask February through June, period.

  • To see a graph of yellow dust:


    To see a expat-friendly warning guide, go to http://www.korea4expats.com/

    On the left hand side, i think, should be a yellow-dust warning indicator thingy

    HTH — Amanda

  • Christine, I feel you! The fact that you are struggling along gives me great comfort. Not that I take pleasure in you difficult experiences, its just it gives me the feeling “I’m not alone”. Its a complete different story to travel as a backpacker to a place as opposed to working there. Being submerged into a Korean working environment give us a much clearer understanding of how this nation functions. And yes most of it is great but as you said your CT is the one who makes or brakes your year. My whole apartment fiasco is still dragging on. Yes my school budged and got me a new place but I still don’t have a fridge, washing machine or TV. Now i am not too bothered about the TV but a fridge and washing machine is essential. I moved in last Tuesday and I was informed that those things would be delivered to me within a couple of days. I still don’t have it. When I asked my CT yesterday she informed me only at 4pm that the administrator will not be at school this week so they will only get those things for me next week. This is when I cracked. I couldn’t take it anymore. I might have made a fool out of myself because I talking very loudly in the teachers office of how I had had enough of this crap. They give us a list of things that they expect of us but they aren’t bothered to keep up their end of the bargain. I mean major culture shock! But more so major depression. It is as if they just give a crap about our well being! And my CT is just the translator. She doesn’t fight for me. Its tough! I just hope it gets better soon. Because of this doesn’t kill us the yellow dust will! 🙂

    • Thanks Christo. Hooray for you! Glad you remembered you were not Korean & pulled your “waygook card”. Fighting! (if you haven’t heard it yet, you will) I can’t believe yr apt fiasco is carrying on another week after you finally moved to a new place! “Dynamic” is not what I would call it at this point & you’re def. one of the people that gives me comfort as well. Coincidentally, I pulled my 2nd waygook card today- I was direct w/ my CT about my feelings toward her & why…I initially a bit loud too. I’ve been holding off on labeling my situation here, but its time.

      As travelers, we try our best to “be open, sensitive & respectful” to the cultures we enter,..we give people a chance for change & when they don’t, we find ourselves fighting disappointment, anger & depression…amidst culture shock. It’s all very fatiguing. What you said in your blog
      about your experience of Korea being, so far, a one-way street in the give/get department; unfortunately, it’s my experience so far too. Some EPIKers are treated w/ welcome & worship by their CTs/schools; then, you’ve got “the neglected” whose bubble burst the day they arrived to a crap situation & found no welcome, support or guidance extended. All you’re given is expectations for WORK, which you must also “work” to figure out… it’s like attempting to read instructions written in Hangul… w/o a translator! Cant wait to read your next blog to hear what went down. chuckle.

      • How are you guys surviving? Holding up? The depression has gotten real and I’m trying so hard to hang onto the positive, the kindness, and the patience of others. (I realize now that I’m hanging onto things externally..) I want to leave, but also find myself not making that call yet. I do want to see this through but .. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I guess maybe I’m just reaching out. What was it that made you decide to stick to “My survival and getting out of this funk with Korea rests solely upon me now.”

        • Christine Kaaloa
          November 27, 2015 8:14 am

          @Gi: I had a crappy start with but many things made me decide to stick it out… the fact i knew I was going through a culture shock sickness, which most all expats go through. I wasn’t the only one. … secondly, the fact it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live/work in Korea and whatever emotion I was going through is always going to be temporal and influenced by my outlook and perspective, but that experience/memory of living abroad will be forever… third, the fact I’d gotten myself that far and no one else in my friend zone had accomplished a feat like that. Living and working in a country outside your own via work visas, doesn’t come easily and it’s not every day you’ll get to experience a foreign country from a first hand POV. It’s a privilege and a blessing and an adventure. Of course, being an expat you have to realize, you will go through those mood swings often, because Korea (or anywhere else) is not your country and what takes you one step in your country will take you several in another. I’m glad I stuck it out– out of all my decisions and travel memories, this is one that I’m extremely proud of… it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t let a short term feeling/fear/doubt/disruption psyche you from holding onto a dream.

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