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Blue Skies, Yellow Dust

A case submitted by

June Chang

After college, I moved back to Korea, where I was born. My family had never expected me to return to Seoul, which is where I ended up living for over a decade shortly after graduating from Columbia University in New York City. At first, I thought the transition from one big concrete jungle to another would be a relatively easy switch since, on the exterior, Seoul has a lot of similarities to Manhattan. Run-down, decrepit buildings from yesterday lay adjacent to steel giants of today as land is prepped for the architectural marvels of tomorrow. The bustling of overcrowded streets in Kangnam are reminiscent of the traffic seen on 5th Avenue. Residents of both cities have their own rivers to enjoy during their downtime: the Han River flows through the center of Seoul as the Big Apple is nestled between the Hudson and East Rivers. 

As I first arrived in Seoul, the excitement of exploring the Asian sister to New York City distracted me from looking up at the sky. There was too much to see what was going on in front of me as I would go on my adventures in my new home. There was too much going on to pause to be mindful of all that was going on around me as I got customized to my new surroundings. However, when I was growing up in America, I didn’t need to take the time to learn what was around me as I had already been settled in, which allowed me to enjoy seeing the different rich hues of sky at the various points of time. The bright blues would always cheer me up and energize me for my day as the cotton candy pink and blazing orange sunsets would help me settle in for the night as if I were wrapped in a fluffy warm throw. I would love to stargaze at night to see if I could say hello to Orion or catch a shooting star to wish upon. Whenever I noticed the sky, I had appreciated all the beautiful colors I would see, even telling myself how sad it would be to live a monochrome life. Yet, one of the first things I learned about looking up in Korea was not to see what color the sky was or to see which star shined brightest but rather the neon signs along the sides of the buildings, all trying to draw my attention to lure me into their shops. 

I loved the energy Seoul had as it reminded me of my life in New York. It had the same pace and beat I was familiar with growing up. Koreans love to explain that this hustle mentality allowed Korea to rise from the ashes of a third world country my parents had seen to grow into the high-tech, industrialized economic powerhouse it is today. I am proud of my roots of coming from a resilient country, where the people not only survived but thrived. However, becoming the 13th largest economy in the world at such a fast pace comes with its own consequences. 

As I settled into my life in Seoul, I noticed that I was not quite the same as I was when I lived in the US. I wasn’t as happy as I was growing up, and I was getting more fatigued easily. Could it be that I’m depressed due to being away from my family? Could it be cultural differences bringing me down or the unfamiliar struggles that were tired me out? Maybe this is what is meant to be “adulting”? There were many “what ifs” that I tried to pinpoint until one day I was sitting by the Han River by myself to try to get a breather from my life hustle. I would regularly frequent the parks or the riverside with my dogs but not once did I pay attention to what was above me. This time, as I scanned the landscaped alone, my eyes looked up. The sky was white. Odd, I thought, how there was no blue to be seen but it wasn’t a fog either. From that point on, I would make a mental note to check in on the sky. I realized that I had experienced many more days of the hazy white than those of clear, blue skies. 

The air pollution in Seoul also is impacted by a weather phenomenon called Hwang-Sa, which means “Yellow Dust” or “Yellow Sand” that originates from the deserts of northern China and Mongolia and is brought over to Korea via the jet stream. Dating back to the second century AD, every year from February to May, Korea is covered in a yellow haze. White cars or skyscraper windows will be covered in a yellow coat. As Asia industrialized, more pollutants were mixed with the yellow dust, bringing these toxic chemicals and heavy metals to Korea by means of the strong winds. It’s a hard battle for the South Korean government to fight as it is a cross-border problem that China and Mongolia are not deliberately trying to stir. The South Korean government is limited in its solutions, urging people to wear masks or stay indoors as it issues air quality warnings. People are advised limit their outdoor activities, including sports and exercise, as they can develop a lot of health problems, such as asthma or eye inflammations. The Yellow Dust would even impact the food supplies as the chemicals would be dusting crops and entering the food chain. While the produce may be washed, livestock would be consuming the Yellow Dust in their feed, thereby impacting humans. Learning how great the impact of Yellow Dust is on South Korea only came to light much later for me. In the moment while living through it as a young grad student, I honestly did not see it more than an inconvenience as that was the general sentiment of the people there who have lived with it their whole lives. Now as I study clinical psychology in graduate school years later, I have learned that there is a significant number of youth suicides in South Korea due to their breathing problems stemming from the Yellow Dust. Once I was more mindful to the former privilege of experiencing clear, blue skies did I realize how much this Yellow Dust impacted my physical and mental health during my time in Korea. While some may say “Ignorance is bliss” for those who may not know any better than the white or yellow haze, as a responsible global citizen who wants everyone to live a better life, I hope raising awareness of this climate issue to advocate for those impacted by the Yellow Dust brings Korea one step closer to finding a solution to tackle this problem.


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