Tharp On: Summer

It’s summer here on the peninsula – or, as I like to refer to it, The Great Gush – that time of year when sweat pours forth through my pores like a fat guy trekking in the Congo. It’s ridiculous, really. Just the mild exertion of picking up my attendance book from my office and marching into class causes circles of dank shame to emanate from beneath my armpits and neck. My students look on with a mix of curiosity and horror, cocking their heads like quizzical puppies, until one of the braver ones points towards the area of seepage, moves her finger in a circular motion and gasps: Teacher, why???

A Korean doesn’t sweat like a big pink Westerner; this is just a fact. One visit to the gym will prove this true. I’ve often looked over at the ajeosshi working the treadmill next to me, only to see a light dew of perspiration so perfectly glistening on his forehead. It’s almost cute, really. I am not so lucky, though, instead leaving a great, nasty sweat-slick beneath me that summons visions of the Exxon Valdez. I’ve even slipped on the stuff a couple of times. I am not proud.

Even if they sweat less than some of us, Koreans do feel the heat, and try to beat it a number of different ways. The preferred method for the elderly is to wearily sit on low-rise tables outdoors (known as ajumma platforms), hiss, grunt, and watch the world ooze by. Sometimes a really mean looking grandma will light up a ciggy. (It’s still a bit culturally taboo for women to smoke in Korea, but once they’re over 70 they just don’t give a shit, and no one is brave enough to tell them to stop. Go on: I dare you.) The men prefer to cool off by heading to the nation’s saunas for a good sweat and phlegm-clearing. Nothing takes the edge off the heat better than hocking up half-liter of loogies. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

The midsummer visit to the sauna is just an example of the Korean idea of fighting fire with fire. It’s the same reason some restaurants will serve you warm water with your meal when the whole outside world is aflame. I’m a red-blooded, ice-in-my-water American, and this practice goes against everything I believe in. It has nearly caused me to go berserk and trash the restaurant like Led Zeppelin did hotel rooms. But I am a guest here, and they really do believe that the best way to cool down is to take even more heat into your body. This is why, during any of the three days of summer considered to be the most scorching (known as the bong nal), you will see serpentine lines out of Korea’s samgyetang (chicken soup) and boshingtang (dog soup) restaurants. In this, they’re no different than Americans, really: during the summer heat, we too like to eat chicken and hot dogs cooked on an open flame.

I usually get out of Korea in the summertime, often going back to Seattle to enjoy one of the three months out of the year that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. There I enjoy the good life, relaxing with family and friends and binging on turkey sandwiches, microbrews and episodes of The Daily Show. But, alas, rising airfares and several years of financial hemophilia have grounded me this time around, so I’ll be spending every muggy minute right here. But what am I supposed to do? Go to the beach?

I hate the beach. Okay, don’t get me wrong – I like swimming and snorkeling and doing some beachy things – but the beach in the summer is just a magnet for assholes in pretty much any country in the world. And in Korea, it’s way out of hand. Once ‘Beach Season’ begins, the hordes descend like a Biblical locust plague. Have you ever been to Haeundae Beach during the height of summer? You can smell it twenty minutes before you see it – a rank concoction of wet clothes, squid and BO. And the sheer number of people will singe your synapses; a writhing mass of over 700,000 bellowing human beings is there with you. It’s like going swimming with the whole state of Wyoming. At any given moment, at least 3,400 children are peeing in the shallows. And for those of you brave enough to take a dip in the urine-saturated water? Be prepared to share it with empty Hite cans, plastic bags, and half-consumed chicken legs.

So I think I’ll avoid the beach this year. Hell, maybe I’ll give the whole summer a skip and sleep if off, Rip Van Winkle-style. Just don’t let me leave the fan on.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Illustration by Sarah Elminshawi. You can see more of Sarah’s work here:

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