How to survive a Korean summer

Written by on July 18, 2011 in Lifestyle

Ah, summer in Korea. After the pouring rains of the monsoon, sunny days sweep in along with breath-stifling heat. The heat embraces the monsoon’s lingering moisture all season long, so Korea’s summer tends to be extremely hot and humid, bumping up the discomfort index (불쾌지수, temperature-humidity index) so high that weather forecasters warn the viewers “try not to get into arguments today because they may get out of hand”.
Despite all this, summer is my favorite season. Once you know what to expect and are ready for it, it’s really not a season to dread at all. Here are a few pointers on how to enjoy Korea’s summer:

GET OUT OF THE CITY

It’s summer: time for vacation! Get away from the urban heat island, go to a real island! Korea has plenty, all full of beautiful beaches and cool sea waves to wash off the heat. It’s not only the islands that boast “vacationable” beaches; Korea is a peninsula so there are many beaches to choose from, even in some big cities.

Haeundae is the famous beach in the city of Busan. Photo courtesy of Donga Ilbo.

If you’re not a water person, there’s always the option of heading to the mountains. Trekking under the cool shade of green trees and breathing in nature’s glory, dipping your hands in a cold bubbling brook, enjoying the exhilaration of reaching the top while a mountain breeze blows in your hair, it’s an experience that’ll blow all your summer blues away.

Besides the sea and mountains, even short excursions to the countryside will lift up your spirits. Check out the entries here on the Korea Blog in the Travel section or at Korea.net for great suggestions.

STAY INSIDE OR TAKE A RIDE

If you’re stuck in the city, the best practical option is to stay indoors in the safe haven of air conditioning. (Yeah, I know. But I’m being really honest and realistic here.) If you don’t have air conditioning, turn on a fan.

Be energy conscious when running the air conditioning or fan, and beware of the changes in your body temperature because the big gap between the chilled indoors and the overheated outdoors can cause problems like ‘air conditioningitis’ (냉방병). Carry around a light cardigan and jacket, just in case.

Talking about cardigans, although public offices and buildings are encouraged to save energy by maintaining a respectable temperature and not overchill their premises, the same rule does not apply to public transportation. Sometimes city buses and the metro can be the coolest (or even just simply cold) places you can be, especially in non-rush hours. A quick heat chaser just might be a ride away.

COOL BIZ FASHION

When I say “cool”, I literally mean cool, although the other meaning definitely can play a part. Unless you spend the whole summer in completely air-conditioned situations, you’re going to be exposed to the hot humid weather at some time or another. This is quite the dilemma for businessmen, who aren’t really allowed to dress casually. Women can get away with “semi-formal” fashion which is quite adaptable to Korean summers, but for men; a suit is a suit is a suit.

The short sleeved dress shirt as summer businesswear.

Luckily, the Korean business world isn’t that unrelenting. Jackets can be off but for the most formal occasions, and the short sleeved dress shirt is quite normal. It might look odd and not quite “formal”, but once you’ve experienced a Korean summer in a suit, you’ll be mighty thankful that this is acceptable business attire.

EAT IT COLD, EAT IT HOT

Come summer and you lose your appetite. The thought of standing in front of a stove or a gas-top range to cook can be very unappealing. But you gotta eat in order to survive, so what do you do? You indulge in “summer food”.

Cold naengmyeon and hot samgyetang.

Cold noodles naengmyeon (냉면) and shaved-ice patbingsu (팥빙수) are the most popular cold dishes. Fruit such as watermelon, Korean gold melons (참외), peaches, and plums are aplenty and are great when served chilled.

Hot foods are also popular in the summer, following the philosophy of “ruling heat with heat”. Samgyetang (삼계탕) is eaten on the hottest days, spicy fish stews, hot beef dishes, and even ramyeon spruced up with healthy ingredients can help to beat the summer heat.

BREAK OUT IN COLD SWEAT

Summer seems to be the season for scary stories. Why it has become a tradition to tell ghost stories late at night when you’re by a campfire with a group of friends, I truly don’t know. But this tradition of being scared and getting the chills has transferred itself to the big screen – most of Korea’s horror films are released during the summer, and Korea has got quite the reputation for its horror films.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) is one of Korea’s best horror films.

Check out this summer’s horror movies and scare the heat away:

ADIOS, MOSQUITOES

Mosquitoes love Korean summers. It’s hot, it’s humid, and people wear clothes that show a lot of flesh – what’s not to love? Unfortunately, mosquitoes are the main carriers of malaria (although it’s not that common here, there are the rare cases) and Japanese encephalitis (일본뇌염). Most kids are encouraged to take vaccine shots for encephalitis when summer comes; it’s almost a summer ritual.

The best thing is not to get bitten by mosquitoes, at all.

Away with mosquitoes: electric repellant, the traditional smoking repellant, and repelling bracelet.

Besides the generic sprays, there are many mosquito chasers available on the market: the traditional smoking repellant made from natural plant extracts which has a distinctive fragrance (and can get a bit messy), the modern version which plugs into an electric socket and evaporates the liquid repellant into the air, and various patches and bracelets to wear when venturing outdoors. They’re all quite effective. I personally wear the bracelets even in the city (they last up to a week or more); there are mosquitoes lurking in theaters, in restaurants, in buses, in supermarkets.

TRAP THE DAMP

Air, that is. It’s not so much the heat that’s annoying, it’s the humidity. Some days you feel like you’ve stepped into a sauna. Even after the departure of the monsoon, humidity clings on stubbornly, permeating all corners of whatever space there may be.

Humidity trappers: before and after.

Here’s the essential summer household item: the humidity trapper (제습제, 습기 제거제). (Officially, a dehumidifying agent, but I think my description is better.) I usually place them all year long but exchange them more frequently during the summer, especially during monsoon season.

You place an empty humidity trapper in your desired location and after a while the trapper fills up with water. When the water hits the level indicated, you throw the water out, throw the trapper in the recycling bin, and get a new one.

A must for closets/clothes rooms, shoe cabinets (신발장), the pantry, rooms with lots of books or artwork, and other places where you think fit. There are smaller versions for your car as well.

SUMMER SERENADE

If you can’t beat it, join it. Let the heat get into your head and body! Express your summer happiness by singing and dancing along to the latest K-pop tunes! You’ll feel better, if only to laugh at your giddy willingness to do anything to forget this summer heat.

Music video from SM’s official channel

Have a fabulous Korean summer!

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Suzy Chung is a multilingual writer, editor, and translator with a marketing background. A coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, K-pop enthusiast, and occasional painter, she has been online since the mid ’90s when the internet wasn’t really the internet but a blue screen with text only discussions. She has lived in three continents but truly believes that Korea is the place to be and is willing to convince anyone who will listen!