“Pollution is bad and we have to save our planet!” We hear and see this everywhere. There are educational posters all over the world urging us to recycle and clean up after ourselves. The world is dying, the earth is crying and we’re all feeling the repercussions of it. Aren’t we? Well… I’ve been sitting pretty in South Africa with zero pollution in my lungs drinking clean water out of a tap. It’s only been since I moved to Seoul that I’ve experienced how fucked this world truly is.
With all the media hype over North Korea, you would expect the threat of war to be the main reason foreigners are hightailing it out of South Korea. According to a survey conducted by an English publication here in Korea, the top ranking reason is the pollution and low air quality.
What’s the harm in pollution?
Pollution has been linked to heart disease, some cancers and it’s said to shorten lifespans because of the damage it inflicts on us. Elderly people and children are most affected by it but the people in the middle can also feel its effects in their daily lives.
Long-standing teachers in Seoul have gone to the media several times with their theories on pollution. The children are getting sicker; their coughs are more aggressive and ‘wet’. These bouts of sickness also last for weeks, which could have long-term damage to their lungs. I’ve personally experienced this with some of my kids coughing like they’re in the throes of bronchitis and yet it’s just ‘a little cough’ to them.
Where does Korea get its pollution?
For decades the finger has been pointed at China’s industrial plants and the yellow dust from their Northern deserts. Honestly, I’ve been blaming China since I got here and didn’t educate myself further. It is true that the yellow dust does come from the deserts, but it picks up more pollution on its way to us and some of it is from Korea.
Do all cities experience pollution?
Yes, but on VERY different levels. Since coming to Seoul I’ve been monitoring the air using my AirVisual app, which gives you a real-time reading of the air quality outside. It ranges from good to moderate and then gets dangerous to levels like ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ to ‘unhealthy’.
To compare it to large cities in the US, Seoul experienced 53 days of ‘unhealthy for sensitive types’ in 2015 whereas New York experienced ZERO days in this category. Los Angeles experienced 7 days of this unhealthy air. Even though it states it’s ‘unhealthy for sensitive types’ that doesn’t mean it’s good for the rest of us. You’re still going to feel it. Which brings me to the main chunk of this post…
What does it actually feel like?
I’ve been thinking (for several weeks) on how I’m going to explain this properly. I want to give it justice without sounding too dramatic. Let’s look at my ‘normal’ state of being here and compare it to my last six months back home. In South Africa, I was getting up at 6 am, sometimes earlier, and instantly hopping out of bed. I’d sometimes join my friend for a 45-minute beach walk or I’d hop onto my mat and get in a solid hour of yoga. Meditation and a session with my journal would follow. Before breakfast, I’d prep my fruits and vegetables for my morning juice and meal-replacement smoothie.
I’d have this all done by 7:30 am and start my workday around this time. I’d either work from home or make my way to a coffee shop and be completely focused for hours at a time. Meetings and more work would fill up my day before I’d settle in for my afternoon workout of either free-weights or more yoga. I was teaching yoga at night 4 times a week and I’d usually plan my classes beforehand. I hardly had any free time but I had an abundance of energy and happily drifted off to sleep at around 10:30 pm.
In Seoul, my life is very different. I wake up and feel like I have a mild hangover. Most days I get up with a headache and stuffy nose. My throat is scratchy and my limbs feel heavy. I’ve practised yoga in the morning a total of 5 times since I’ve been in Seoul. I just had to look in my journal to confirm that and I’m a little heartbroken that it’s been SO bad. I cannot wake up early in Seoul. I’ve tried everything I know of. The earliest I’ve managed is 7:30 am and I’ve felt horrendous doing it.
My energy levels are moderate but I use it all on my job and my kids. I’m so used to working 10-hour days and then still having the energy to work on my side projects and now I have no life for any of it. You can feel the pollution on your skin. I smell different over here, it’s a mixture of damp and stale city. My skin never smells fresh once I leave my apartment and my hair is worse! It almost sticks together and isn’t as bouncy as before. There is no volume to it and it sits limply on my head. I’ve also started getting weird blemishes on my scalp.
My eating habits are horrendous. I crave sugar all the time to give me some sort of energy and I rely on coffee to get me through the day. I still try eating a lot of veggies with my meals and I’m still a happy vegetarian, but I struggle to make healthy choices. I’d managed to lower my sugar intake before I left, I did a 5-day juice cleanse that sorted me out, and I’m upset I haven’t managed to keep that up. My body wants to run on sugar rather than healthier foods.
It affects people differently, some people will feel it more than others, so you could come here and hardly feel it. I’ve definitely felt it and continue to feel it on a daily basis. Don’t let other foreigners be dismissive towards you – we all experience things differently and that should be respected. I have definitely felt this… air. I can’t take a deep breath in without inhaling this junk that’s floating around me.
What am I doing about it?
I’m working on a Part 2… when I find what really works for me!
Do you live in a city with a high-level of pollution? How are you coping?