Feel the cold? Get winter survival tips!
When I first arrived in Seoul in late August, I felt that all the warnings I had been given about Seoul weather were exaggerated. I especially scoffed at them when fall came, and I was greeted by refreshing sunshine and cool breezes every day for several weeks. I thought it was the most wonderful thing (aside from being in Seoul itself) to be able to wear a lightweight sweater with a lightweight jacket… and leave the buttons open. No hat, no scarves, no gloves. I reveled in this new experience so much, I thought, “I can totally handle the weather here. Bring it on, winter!”
By mid-November, winter did bring it. And it is no joke.
The dry breezes of fall get replaced overnight with harsh, wet gusts. Since Korea doesn’t do daylight savings, sunshine hours are significantly reduced, meaning the temperature starts cooling off further by 3 p.m. And what makes it worse is the fact that you can’t escape this cold. No matter how many layers you wear, it still finds a way to rest in your bones. Just walking from my room to a restaurant one evening ? a stroll that takes less than ten minutes ? left my face achy when I tried to talk, my feet feeling like blocks of ice, and my hands (which were in gloves in the pockets of my down jacket) red and stiff. Even the bugs get so cold that they burrow into the trees to stay warm; thus, the trees, like every living thing in Seoul, have to be bundled up.
Needless to say, I now thoroughly believe everything that everyone has ever told me about how hard the winters are in Korea.
There was very little I could have done to prepare my body for the shock of this type of cold since I was born and raised in Texas heat. And since many newcomers to Seoul will be in a similar position, I want to share a few of the local habits for staying warm that I have observed the past few weeks. Because no one knows better than Seoul residents how to survive the Seoul winter.
Survival Tip #1: Buy a Parka. Or Two.
This first one may seem like a no-brainer. Of course you need a jacket if it’s cold right? Yes. But in Korea, coats are not just a cute fashion statement. They are a necessity. Especially parkas (aka down jackets). You will notice that everyone, literally EVERYONE, walks around with parkas that make them look like the Michelen Tire Man. The reason: because these jackets are the warmest you can get, and they will keep out the wet wind that batters you constantly. ?I have seen Koreans go out without gloves or hats, but no one has been seen without a parka (and a thick scarf).
So, if you want to stay warm and blend in with Seoul-dwellers, bring a parka with you to Korea like I did. Even better, wait to buy one until you get here, and then get two or three. Jackets are sold almost everywhere and there is a wide variety to choose from for reasonable prices. The more you have, the more ways you can stay warm and trendy (both very important considerations in Seoul).
Survival Tip #2: Warm Drinks as Hand Warmers
Hot packs ? delightful little plastic squares that when shaken act like instant heat ? are some of the greatest ways to stay warm. However, sometimes I have found myself without the extra one in my bag that I swore was there this morning, and my hands in particular are just too darn cold to keep going. What I have seen several Koreans do, and now do myself in these emergency situations, is go to the convenience store and buy a hot drink.
All the convenience stores have a special container that keeps certain beverages ? usually coffee or honey and ginseng mixtures ? nice and toasty. And most of them cost less than 1,000 won. So, just pop in, buy a drink that looks tasty to you, and then put it in your pocket with your hand. It acts in the same way a hot pack would. Now, you can’t put a drink in your shoe to keep your toes from going blue. BUT, this will at least get your hands home in one piece, and warm the rest of your body up, too, if you actually drink the beverage.
Survival Tip #3: Just don’t ever take your parka off.?
You’ve bought the parka. You have your warm beverage in your pocket. Now, just leave the parka on. When I first started going out in winter, I would do the very American thing of taking my coat off at the restaurant (especially since warm soup and blasting heat will in theory keep you warm). However, by the time I went back outside, the cold would hit me hard all over again and I would refreeze. Then a Korean friend told me to just leave me coat on. Through meals, events, classes, everything. And at first I thought she was just joking around since I had made a comment about how that is what all the actors do in Korean dramas.
But she was being serious; this is actually what Korean people do. Since my friend made the suggestion, I have noticed Koreans doing this everywhere from coffee shops to restaurants to a university concert hall. They don’t take their jackets off unless it is sauna-level warm or they are going to be there for a while (like at home). It actually does keep you so much warmer than if you take the jacket on and off all the time. It’s like building up a reserve of heat inside your parka before you go back outside and face the cold. So, before coming to Korea, take a minute to think about how you have been taught to deal with coats inside, and prepare yourself to adjust to a method that is much better suited to Seoul.
Seoul is mind-blowingly cold. There is no way to escape that fact. But, now that I am aware of some of the ways the Seoul residents survive the cold, I feel like I can venture out without becoming a walking popsicle. So now that you too are armed with parkas and hot drinks, go out and enjoy the many festivals and events that await you in Korea!