Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The Wrath of Gamgi

She’s been mistreated too long and by too many people, most of them men. Most of those have been men who cared little for her, certainly not us much as they cared for their own money and egos. Now, having tired of their mistreatment, she has chosen to fight back.

The woman I speak of is, in this case, Mother Nature, and the men who’ve treated her so roughly are mostly Chinese. However, like so many women, the ones she harms are rarely those who’ve hurt her, but just any guy unfortunate enough to cross her path.

Here in East Asia, she pours out her wrath into what is called yellow dust, also known as Asian Dust, yellow wind and Chinese dust storms. Yellow dust has been occurring naturally in this part of the world during the springtime for many years. Every year as winter comes to a close, high-speed wind and dust storms carry soil from places like China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan and carry it over Korea, Japan and further east.

However, in recent years, due to an increase in Chinese industrialization, the yellow dust has contained greater and greater quantities of metals which were never meant to be breathed in.

During the past three springs that I’ve spent in Korea, I have been one of those people who’ve been caught in its path. Those of us who are otherwise healthy most of the time often develop symptoms such as sore throats, sinus congestion and asthma. The upside of this is that we generally survive the ordeal.

For those who already have asthma or respiratory problems, the main symptom is, on occasion, death. The upside of this is that they don’t have Koreans telling them to “take some medicine” and “drink lots of water” on a daily basis.

The effects of yellow dust are subtle: one day I’m a regular foreign guy working 12 hours a day, the next thing I know my sinuses start revolting against me and revolting everyone in the immediate vicinity.

Then my voice starts to fade, and I lose the energy to complete even basic task such as washing dishes, doing laundry or yelling “Tell me something I don’t know!” at the natives who tell me need to get rest more.

Indeed, its effects often leave me incapable to doing anything more arduous than lying around at home all day watching Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

So, after several days of attempting to get well by sleeping more than usual and eating less sugar than normal, I choose to go to the doctor if I haven’t succeeded in feeling better.

After all, this typical foreign guy never used to get this sick at home, and after two-and-a-half years abroad, I ought to be accustomed to this climate.

So, this spring, I went to the physician, preparing for a serious diagnosis, hoping he’ll have the willpower to make the lifestyle changes required to overcome this illness.

“You have gamgi,” the doctor says, using the Korean word for the common cold. “It’s nothing serious. I’ll prescribe you some medicine and you’ll feel better by next week.”

“Oh, and get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water.”

Upon receiving the news, this typical foreign male was even more bothered than he would’ve been had he received a more serious-sounding diagnosis. For one thing, gamgi is far too chipper and jovial-sounding a name for something that totally upends one’s professional and social life.

For another, for this typical foreign guy to be knocked off track for this long by a common cold indicates that his metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Either, or the common colds I grew up with in America are bookish, un-athletic sort of germs, and Korean gamgi are the popular jock germs who steal their lunch money and make the American germs do their homework.

Upon further reflection, there is a logical explanation for the condition. Korea’s winters became oppressively cold by the end of October and continue to be so until the end of February. Just as we think Mother Nature has let up and will let us breathe in the fresh warm air, she sneaks elements of mercury and copper into it.

In my hometown in Tennessee, “the environment” was more of an abstract concept; something we heard people on TV or in Op-Ed pages debating, something they may or may not one day cause polar ice caps to melt and severely handicap the New England area’s ability to produce champion sports teams.

Here, pollution can be seen and felt. When I taught in Suncheon two years ago, I was temporarily forced to go home after suffering through multiple types of symptoms, including laryngitis and a bloodshot eye.

Last year at this time my work schedule was lighter and thus it was easier to stay rested. This spring, by contrast, there are textbooks to develop, an English class to teach, a Korean class to study for, and other social needs to prepare for, all of which makes me more susceptible.

But, unlike two years ago, I have several advantages: I work next-door to a hospital and its easier to take days off from editing textbooks than it is from teaching classes, because classes require substitutes.

Also, I have found the secret to overcoming flu symptoms: it always helps to stay home and watch movies, particularly Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Even Mother Nature and jockish gamgi germs are afraid of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven.

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