bookmark_borderPost-182: Real-Time Pollution Sign; a Warning Against Too Much Breathing


Yesterday, a pollution sign in Seoul implied that breathing-in too much was not in your best interest:

Roadside pollution sign in Guro, Seoul, January 2014

PictureHour-by-hour PM-10 air pollution level
for Guro, Seoul, January 2014. [From]

I’m staying in Seoul’s Guro District in January 2014. The above sign reported that my temporary place of residence had, on the afternoon of January 16th, a “PM-10” pollution level of 139 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is very high. Later that evening, it exceeded 150 (the orange in the chart), and stayed over 150 for twenty-one hours.

I don’t know why this pollution spike occurred.

The above sign also asserts that 100 is the “safety limit”, though the USA and EU say that anything above 50 is harmful to human health.

I frequently look at these real-time pollution signs in Korea. It may be that 139 is the highest PM-10 level I’ve ever noticed, except of course for “yellow dust” season, the pollution spikes of which I wrote about way back in post-12 [“The Sky Betook an Awful Shade”].

To compare with home, the Washington DC region’s PM-10 air-pollution yearly average is 18 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the WHO. Seoul rarely sees levels that low, maybe only after vigorous rainstorms clear all the junk out of the air.

bookmark_borderPost-181: Jack London Visits Korea (1904), Hears Low-Speech

PictureAdventure Writer Jack London

Japan defeated Russia in a war in 1904-1905. Educated Westerners, it seems to me, think of it along these lines: “Japan sucker-punched an increasingly-backwards Russian Empire. Japan fought solely to assert itself and challenge the European powers for the first time”.  In fact, I’ve learned that the war was primarily about the fate of Korea. By the early 1900s, either Russia or Japan was going to end up taking Korea. Japan got it.

The famous American adventure writer, Jack London, visited Korea during the war, I just learned. He was there immediately after the early fighting ended in spring 1904. Jack London is, of course, most famous for The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both also written in the early 1900s. He was 28 at the time of his sojourn through Korea. He died at age 40, the same year that my grandfather was born.

London produced an essay about his time in Northeast Asia. His observations and thoughts about Japan, Korea, China, and Manchuria are in an essay semi-ironically entitled “Yellow Peril“.
I came to read this essay recently:


London had a very pessimistic view of the Korea of 1904. This was a low point in Korean history, and London spares no verbal expense in utterly lambasting the Koreans, in words I’m embarrassed to republish (and I’m not shy about criticizing Korea, myself). There is one interesting excerpt in the essay that I want to comment on, though:

[Written by Jack London, 1904]
In many a lonely [Korean] village not an ounce nor a grain of anything could be bought, and yet there might be standing around scores of white-garmented, stalwart Koreans, smoking yard-long pipes and chattering, chattering — ceaselessly chattering. Love, money, or force could not procure from them a horseshoe or a horseshoe nail.

“Upso,” was their invariable reply. “Upso,” cursed word, which means “Have not got.”

This word, “upso”, was easily recognizable to me as “없어”. It’s a common word. London’s translation of it is good. What I find interesting about London’s use of this word is that this form of the word is “low speech” (banmal, 반말). Among strangers interacting in today’s Korea, this form of speech is used to children and animals, and can be used “aggressively” to someone you want to disrespect. Older people can use it to much younger people, but often don’t.

So, Jack London heard “upso” so often that he discussed the word itself. As I say, the word is banmal, or low-speech. It immediately made me think that these Koreans of 1904 were surprisingly rude to this poor foreign sojourner.

This use of “low-speech” would most likely have gone along with condescending/rude behavior, which may explain London’s wildly negative opinion of Korea.

In fact, though, as always, it’s hard to judge the past by the standards of the present. It is. In the old days, when it was called “Chosun”, I’ve read that low-speech was used much more “rigorously”. Any yangban (a member of the old Korean aristocracy, 10% of the population) had to to address members of the lowest Korean social classes using this “low-speech” I’m talking about, regardless of relative age or social achievement. This led to the ridiculous and sad situation of even yangban *children* using low-speech to address grown men, even elderly men, of the lowest classes. (Members of the lowest classes had to address yangban in the most-polite form of speech.)

What kind of
Koreans did Jack London meet? He was inquiring about supplies during his horseback trek through Korea to report on the war. Were they all village elders? If so, they still would’ve felt compelled by the then-fading Chosun social system to address a younger man (and a foreigner, at that) using low-speech. This is understandable.

On my halway-across-Korea hiking trip (September-October 2013), I ended up with a group of three Korean men in their 40s for two days. They were doing the same hike I was. None spoke English more than a few words. They used Korean most of the time, though my Korean skills were likewise not very good. In Korean, they addressed me in low-speech at times, being twenty years their junior, but usually stuck with a more polite form of speech.

I remember the last sentence I heard from them. It was a friendly but certainly-low-speech form of bidding farewell,“Jal Gah!”  [“잘 가!”]. I heard it after I’d said a polite goodbye [“안년히 가세요!”] as I was walking off onto a side trail and they were continuing on the main trail. I didn’t mind hearing low-speech from them; as I say, it’s more natural in a situation like ours of hugely divergent ages. They were all very kind. They were well-prepared with food and drinks (even alcohol) and shared with me generously.  There was never any “upso” with them.

bookmark_borderPost-180: Geo-Guesser

One of the Norwegian students in my Korean language class introduced me to “GeoGuessr“. (I have to say “one of” because there are, incredibly, two Norwegians in it, of twelve total students.)

Geoguessr is a game. It drops you at a random spot on the planet Earth along a roadway (using Google Street View). You have a certain amount of time to make your best guess about where you are, based on whatever clues you can gather around you in “Street View” mode. You can move along the roads a little, looking at signs, scenery, buildings, plant types, whatever. The closer your guess is  to the actual location you were “dropped”, the more points you get.

Here is the result of my first attempt:

My Geoguessr result. Only ‘D’ was way off. ‘A’ was only a few km away from the actual drop point.


For “D”, I saw a building labelled “Richmond Butchery” on the road. It was a dusty road, looking something like Nevada, but I plopped my guess-marker down near Richmond, Virginia. That was about as wrong as one can get without exiting the Earth atmosphere, as you can see above.

The subject of this game came up in an interesting way. I was talking to the Norwegian, J., at some length, after the class one day. The subject of Iowa came up. It’s where my father is from, and is also where I spent a fair amount of time in my childhood: Over a year of my life was there, I suppose, if all the visits are added together. I was telling him that a lot of Norwegians settled around there (including some of my father’s ancestors), which he seemed to already know. (He had explained, earlier, that one of my grandmother’s special dishes, “lefse”, is still eaten a lot in Norway, sold in convenience stores, as “not quite a snack, not quite a meal”, which is about how it was eaten in my grandma’s household as well.) Anyway, I said something like “you can’t imagine how Iowa is; it’s so flat and almost completely farmland”. He said something like “Actually, I think I can imagine it — I think I’ve been through Iowa…..on the computer.” Then he explained this Geoguessr game.

bookmark_borderPost-179: Imaginary Postcard ^_^

I am currently in the middle of my intensive Korean course, and I’m very pleased with it.

At the risk of embarrassment at my relatively low skill, I will publish a recent
assignment I did. “Imagine you are on a trip, and write a postcard to your friend”.  Here is the text of my postcard (after a handful of teacher’s corrections):

PictureMy writing (black pen) in my Korean textbook,
with teacher’s corrections (red pen). [Click to expand]

내 친구에게!
나는 방학이라서 여행을 왔어요.
하와이에 왔어요. 여기는 더워요…!
요즘 한국이 시끄러워서 슬퍼요.
여기 안 시끄러워서 재미있어요!
내일 날씨가 좋으면, 모든 사람
행복 할 거예요. 주말에 날씨가
좋으면, 수영 할 거예요. 그럼 너도
와야 돼요! 재미있을 거예요.  / 피터


To my friend!–
It’s now winter vacation, so I went on a trip.
I came to Hawaii on my trip. It’s hot here…!
These days, Korea is so noisy that it makes me sad.
Here it’s not noisy, so it’s really enjoyable!
If tomorrow’s weather is good, everybody
will be happy. If the weather is good this
weekend, I’ll go swimming. Anyway, you
ought to come here too! It will be fun. / From x

The teacher chuckled as he read the text of my slightly-ridiculous little postcard.

[The sentence structures I used were what we’d been covering in class; especially causes for things (A so B) and conditions (if).]

bookmark_borderPost-178: Doctor’s Visit in South Korea Without Insurance

Now here is an amazing story. The amazing part is down below. The first part, above the divider, isn’t so amazing.

I was sick for about ten days, straddling New Year’s Day 2014. I mentioned this in post-176. The sickness was  unpleasant at best. At worst, thoughts of Death began to creep into my disoriented, pain-addled mind.

It will pass. It didn’t. It got worse. Swallowing became an intense, body-jolting experience. Breathing got more difficult, and that’s scary. An endless headache, concentrated in one spot (also scary); sleeping all day, either shivering under the blankets, or waking up with everything drenched in sweat. On January 2nd, I finally went to the doctor, in Seoul’s Guro district, where I am staying during my month of intensive Korean studying. I was diagnosed with tonsillitis. I got a bag full of pills to take. The pills helped. My friend J.A. gave me called “propolis” and it also helped.


Now here is the amazing part:
As a total foreigner in South Korea at this point, with no insurance at all, on a tourist visa, paying in cash…you’d think that I wasted a lot of money on this doctor visit. No! Visiting the doctor, without insurance, was refreshingly cheap. Let me tell you exactly what I spent:

A measly 10,000 KRW in cash, or around $9.00 USD, got me an examination by the doctor, a shot of some kind of medicine (administered, embarrassingly, in the rear end by the nurse, a practice out-of-fashion for decades in the USA for adults, I think), and a prescription from the doctor for pills to take for the next few days to relieve my symptoms and kill the bacteria (or whatever it was).

After leaving the doctor’s office, down I went down to the first-floor pharmacy to buy the pills I’d been prescribed. There were a total of 75 pills, five pills with each meal for five days. (This was problematic at first as I wasn’t eating meals much due to pain in swallowing.) The price for those pills, in total, came to 19,340 KRW (around $17.50), or 23 U.S. cents per pill.

More details about my doctor’s visit:

  1. I had only a few short minutes’ waiting time.
  2. There was no need for an appointment. It was a walk-in-walk-out thing.
  3. From walking in to the doctor’s office to walking out of the pharmacy was not more than thirty minutes.
  4. The medicine was effective, and I was 80%-recovered by January 5th and 100% recovered by January 7th.
  5. I paid $26.50 for the whole deal (doc+pills). Again, this was with no insurance at all and on a tourist visa.
  6. [Note: I did actually pay into the Korean healthcare system for two of my three years of legal employment in South Korea (my first job did not pay into it), usually about $90 a month, but I never used it.]

“They can put a man on the moon, but….”

Sadly, my native land, the USA, with its tiring and endless “health care problems”, looks a little like a third-rate clown show in comparison to the above. I’m sorry to say it. I mean, even with “insurance” from a U.S. insurance company, I’m sure my $26.50 wouldn’t even cover the “deductible” just to see the doctor in the USA, to say nothing of buying the medicine. For someone without insurance, the same visit in the USA might reach ten times the price I paid, or $200-$300, rather than $26.50.

I have no idea why we Americans, most of whom still think that the USA is the richest and most-powerful political-entity in the history of the world, can have such a nightmarishly-expensive, confusing, oppressive, intimidating, headache-inducing health care system. Why? As Homer Simpson once said, “Did we lose a war?” (See post-60).

bookmark_borderPost-177: Korean Solstice Soup

Back around Christmas 2013, I had a meal with my new Korean friend, H.

We ate Dong-Ji Porridge [동지죽]. Dongi-Ji is the Korean word for “Winter Solstice”. Here it was:

Dong-Ji Porridge / Bucheon, Korea / December 2013


The taste of the porridge was as thick as it looks. Kimchi and fresh beef are side dishes, with some kind of sweet juice….


That sign says “12 – 22”, referring to December 22nd, the day of the solstice. I write in January, a time when this dish is no longer served. (I took a break from writing here due to a lengthy sickness, now gone, and then starting Korean class, which has gone very well so far).

I wrote more about the solstice in post-168 (“Yuletide 2013”). I brought up the solstice issue in a conversation which included H., and he invited me to eat this. We met on Christmas Eve for it. (That is the sleepiest of evenings, generally, in the USA and Europe, but a very active one in Korea; Christmas is more of a “fun” day for Koreans.) The small restaurant, “Bon Juk” near Bucheon University, was packed; most of the people were eating this dish.

I was pleased to meet H., who is recently arrived back from some years in France. He sings the praises of France and Europe. I sympathize. Speaking of France, I speculated that the “Bon” in the restaurant’s name, “Bon Juk”, is an attempt to make a cross-lingual pun (Juk means “porridge” in Korean). The name sounds like “Bonjour”. H asked about this, but the hapless young woman behind the counter had no idea the origin of the name of the restaurant paying her salary.