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Surviving Korean Winters


Winter is just around the corner. Are you ready for it?

Recorded by Kristine Kim

October 31, 2021


Korea is a blessed country where we can enjoy the four seasons – the beautiful scenery and the full range of experiences that each season has to offer. I am from the Philippines and I first came to Korea in the fall of 2007. The beauty of the autumn leaves was stunning, and I even picked sapphire red and deep orange-yellow maple leaves, pressed them in a book, and laminated them, to give out as souvenirs for when I went back to the Philippines. What better way to preserve the memory of fall? Then winter came, and along with that, the first snow of the year. I was so excited I went out and lay in the snow and made a snow angel. And of course a little snow man. It was all so enchanting, I wanted to take it all in and etch it in my memory forever. The hills and trees and streets blanketed in the pure white snow made me fall in love with winter in Korea…well for 3 days. After those 3 days the magic quickly faded. My skin and lips were cracking because they were so dry, my hands, feet and nose were always cold, and it was so tiresome to go out and have to put on 3 layers of clothing every time. The sidewalks were slippery and the snow on the street turned into a brown-black dirty slush. And I always felt sleepy, I just wanted to hibernate like a bear in the warmth of my bed. This was just the start of winter. I realized my body needed time to adjust to such extreme temperature and weather changes. Since then I’ve experienced many winters in Korea, and I decided long ago it was my least favorite season. What has helped the most is the hand warmers, and the electric mat you can put on your bed to keep you warm through the night. I learned that a lot of people slip on the ice and break their bones in the winter, and so you should not put your hands in your coat pockets while walking on the icy ground – in case you slip you will need your hands to help break your fall. The most difficult two winters was when we had to move to school-provided housing. It was an old detached 1-story house, without proper insulation. The walls had flimsy or no insulation at all, because on windy nights, I could actually feel the air coming through the wall. I would turn on the boiler for the whole afternoon, so when I got home at night after work, it would be warm. On one of the colder days, the boiler had been on for 8 hours, but when I got home the temperature in my kitchen was 15 degrees. When I breathed out I could see a cloud forming from my breath. It was so ridiculously cold I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. For most of the winter I had to wear thick clothes even inside the house, but even with that my hands and nose were always uncomfortably cold. And with the boiler being on for so long every day, the electric bill shot up to almost 500,000 won per month. Fortunately, I split this bill with a co-teacher who occupied the other half of the house. At one point my co-teacher couldn’t take it anymore and bought a cheap electric heater for extra warmth. The next month our shared electric bill shot up by a few hundred thousand won more. He immediately got rid of that heater. I quickly learned survival tips like covering the windows with bubble wrap (the thick type!), and stuffing folded newspaper under the sliding wooden windows, to block the wind out. There’s even insulated wallpaper (which is extremely thick) that you can put over flimsy walls to block out the wind. It’s really effective. Anything that could get the room temperature up by 2-3 degrees was well worth it. Used coal briquettes were smeared on the stairs outside our house so they wouldn’t be so slippery. I also learned that sweeping away the snow after it’s freshly fallen makes a better path to walk on, rather than the slippery path created when many people have trampled on the snow and it becomes hard and icy. I also advise other foreigners when they are considering renting a place, that they need to know how much the average electric bill is in the winter (because they definitely need to work it into their budget), and if the unit feels warm after turning on the heating. Also, when buying heaters, they need to make sure they are energy efficient. And if there are any drunk people who fall asleep somewhere outside, to call the police to escort them somewhere, otherwise they might freeze to death. Now I know how to better survive in the winter, and thankfully, I don’t live in that ice box anymore. I guess this isn’t a national disaster, but it might as well be a tale of survival for any foreigner coming from a country that doesn’t have winter. Chuncheon winters are especially cruel, giving this city the nickname Chunberia – a cross between Chuncheon and Siberia. I wish a warm and cozy winter to all you listening to this, especially fellow foreigners from tropical countries. May you never have to share a disaster story like this one!


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