You wouldn't believe how many of my students come to class wearing protective facemasks. At first, I could not comprehend the masks' purpose: perhaps my students all aspired to be doctors or, better yet, Michael Jackson? So, I started asking around and discovered that there are several cultural reasons for such a bold (and seemingly ridiculous) fashion statement. I also discovered that, though some concerns are legitimate, others are often based in myth or overblown fear. So, read on for the scoop about various cultural health concerns, some myths to be aware of when teaching and traveling in South Korea, and a Fear Factor Rating (1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest) ranking each concern's legitimacy and potential danger to your health.
1. Radiation from Japan. Fear Factor Rating: 0. The day following the Japan Tsunami and subsequent nuclear power plant disaster, several of my students showed up in class wearing facemasks. They claimed that radiation from Japan was being carried to Korea by the wind and that they could be contaminated. Thinking that this was merely a childish fear, I told a fellow teacher and she informed me that Americans are also concerned about potential radiation contamination. As such, please let me put your fears to rest as I did with my students. The radiation from the nuclear power plant meltdown is minuscule in amount. In fact, most scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency say that the radiation a person in Korea or America will come into contact with because of the power plant explosion is less than exposure to a routine X-ray.
Many Koreans wear facemasks out of precaution and prevention, but this is nothing for an ex-pat to fear!
2. Swine Flu. Fear Factor Rating: 1. Since the outbreak of Swine Flu nearly three years ago, many countries have been concerned about this dubious disease. Though Korea has had very rare and isolated incidences of Swine Flu, their population still tends to be a bit edgy when someone coughs or develops a high fever. As such, don't be surprised if your boss asks you to get a vaccination when you arrive in Korea. My branch asked me to get vaccinated and I respectfully declined, telling them that I am adamantly opposed to unnecessary vaccination. However, if you have any concern, get the shot before you leave your home country.
3. Yellow Dust from China. Fear Factor Rating: 2. The popular belief in Korea is that "Yellow Dust" from the Desserts of Mongolia is blown over to Korea causing allergies and breathing problems. Though I thought this to be a myth at first, I have since discovered that this is a legitimate concern and can be combated by wearing a facemask. This is a seasonal phenomenon, that tends to be a bit exaggerated, though it couldn't hurt to take precautions in the Spring months, particularly if you are in Seoul, which tends to suffer the most from Yellow Dust.
4. A Germaphobic Culture. Fear Factor Rating: 0. Though I love and admire the Korean culture's efforts to make sure that infectious disease does not spread, they often tend to take this concern a bit too far (in my humble opinion). They are constantly wearing facemasks when ill and washing their hands with sanitizers. That being said, do not be surprised if many of your students wear facemasks when they are sick or feel uncomfortable if you do not do the same. However, I have give this a zero since because everyone is so cautious when they're sick, this probably does mean that disease is less likely to spread!
5. Pollution. Fear Factor Rating: 3. As is the case in America, pollution can be a concern in Korea's larger metropolitan areas. As such, many Koreans wear facemasks and I would advice those traveling to do the same. I am currently living in a large, industrial city, and I often wear a facemask to make sure that I am not constantly breathing in harmful pollutants. In fact, I would do the same in an American city...If people would not look at me as if I had lost my marbles.
So now that you are aware of the concerns and myths, don't be afraid to hop a plane to Korea and buy a facemask when you land.
After receiving her degree in Secondary English Education from Indiana University, Hope Gately wanted to experience Korea's famous educational system, which is currently ranked #2 worldwide. She began teaching at the Pohang-Namgu branch of ChungDahm Learning in Korea last year, after being recruited by Aclipse. Since Hope is an avid hiker, foodie, and fashion enthusiast, she loves living in Korea and enjoys the mountains, cuisine, and "Kill-Heels." Questions about teaching in Korea? Email Hope at Aclipsehope@gmail.com!