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The Korean Calendar of Events

There are times when I truly wonder whether the expression "there is a time and place for everything" was coined in Korea. Indeed, so many aspects of life and culture here seem to be governed by the calendar, rather than by more pragmatic measures. Compared to life in North America and other countries, living in "our country" can sometimes be an exasperating experience for expatriates due to the "rule of calendar." The four seasons of Korea is one of the first tidbits of information that visitors are told of, and not coincidentally, they serve as the general time divisions for dress, eating, and other behavior.
In the last six months alone, there are numerous instances that come to mind. Spring in Korea is a welcome time; particularly after a cold harsh winter such as the one we experienced this year. Unfortunately, this favorite season of mine seems to have taken on an ephemeral nature (in Korea) and blows by in record time. Coming from a more temperate climate in Vancouver, any hint of hot weather is enough to bring all of my short sleeve shirts, shorts, and other summer clothes from winter hibernation. For me, this is usually sometime in early April -- the weather is warm, and it is nice to relax outside in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Unfortunately, my timing is about one month ahead of most Koreans (evident by the uniform change of the ROTC students here on campus), and more often than not, I end up hearing all sorts of comments like "I can't believe that guy is already wearing a short sleeve shirt" or "look at that guy wearing shorts! Its only April!"
Hot humid weather is the norm for Korean summers, and this year was no exception. To cope with the heat, I bought what was one of my best investments in home comfort -- an air conditioner. By the end of May, and certainly by the beginning of June, I had it on all the time. In offices and other public buildings however, I am still bewildered by the fact that with the exception of July and August, air conditioners are for the most part, merely window dressing. According to my own informal research, July 1st marks the official start of air conditioning season, and lasts but a scant eight weeks. Somehow, the powers that be have deemed that truly hot weather does not begin before this date, and even if it does, people will understand if the air conditioners sit idle until this, or another predetermined date has passed.
Air conditioner season pretty much coincides with swimming season. This year, swimming season officially ended on the 26th of August, after which all outdoor pools were closed. On the 27th, despite the over 30 degree weather, it was somehow deemed unfit to swim outdoors, presumably due to the cool weather! Although it can be a frustrating experience to find a nearby swimming hole, if you are lucky enough to find an outdoor beach, you can be almost guaranteed that after this date, there will be few, if any other people swimming. I recall a trip to Cheju Island a few years ago during Chusok, one of the nicest times of the year to visit. As I approached Chungmun Beach, I was quite surprised to see at least ten people in the water. Once I actually got a little closer however, it was clear that every one of them was an expatriate! On another visit more recent visit in May, I was the only person in the water.
With swimming and air conditioner season also come a host of other seasonal activities. The three dog days of summer are predicted to be the hottest days, and accordingly, people should seek out an appropriate meal to combat the ill effects of the heat. Pat bing soo and naeng myung are also seasonal specialties that are generally not consumed, or even available in seasons other than summer.
Winter too has a food of its own, the sweet potato. On even the coldest winter nights, merchants can be found braving the biting dry wind next to a large metal barrel housing red-hot coals and steaming sweet potatoes. It's unfortunate that this delicious snack isn't available year round.
Although there are certainly many customs and behaviors that seem to revolve around the calendar, there does seem to be a definite trend towards freedom to act outside of the established norms. Just a few years ago, men wearing shorts outside at anytime was virtually unheard of. I remember searching high and low for casual shorts with none to be found. I ended up having some sent to me from overseas so I wouldn't overheat during the sweltering summer. Once I received and wore my shorts, I was subject to all kinds of stares and strange looks. Of course nowadays, nice shorts can be found almost anywhere, and during the summer months it seems that almost all male students are wearing shorts. People that dislike the feeling of being in the water, either in a pool or at a beach, with thousands of other bobbers, have discovered that beaches and water parks like Caribbean Bay are relatively empty in June and September. Just last week I was on the subway and lo and behold, the air conditioner was still on!
The calendar is of course highly influential and significant to a formerly agrarian nation such as Korea. In my eight years of living here, I have had the opportunity to experience much of the culture and see the changes take place firsthand. Things here do change quickly, and for the most part, Korea is becoming much more open and flexible. For those of us like myself that literally can't take the summer heat, this is a welcome relief.

The writer is a professor of English conversation at Center for Language Research and Institute.

Roy Choi  serendipity@dongguk.edu

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