March 29, Dust

Due to what I can only describe as a freak accident, all the wind patterns aligned in such a way that the fine dust (pollution) and yellow dust (sand from deserts of China) amalgamated to the maximum to produce the smoggiest day I’ve ever seen in my nearly two years here.

I left the house this morning in a standard surgical mask but I should have worn a KF94. I exclaimed to myself, is there fog or something? Why are the mountains in my little town suddenly covered in a weird gray mist?

I checked the AQI reading and almost missed my crosswalk signal as I stared at my phone in shock.

Numbers were reading as high as 999—which is the cutoff for the measuring instruments. The ash from the fires in California and Australia registered as 999.

I’m learning all kinds of new numbers this year.

Here is a bit of brief science for you:

AQI stands for air quality index. PM2.5 measures dust particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller. For reference, hair is 50-70 micrometers. The reading of PM2.5 in air is given as micrograms per cubic meter. Pollution falls into this category.

PM10 measures dust particles 10 micrometers or smaller. The reading is also given as micrograms per cubic meter. Since the particles are larger, even a low concentration can affect visibility greatly. Yellow dust falls into this category.

Yellow dust is a spring phenomenon and apparently has been happening for thousands of years. Korean spring brings cherry blossoms and a marked increase in combo air pollutants. BOGO! If you’re not being choked out by fine dust, yellow dust will get you.

An average day in the US has a PM2.5 of 20-30 which is considered “green” and very clear. This little town rarely goes over 70. An average winter day in Seoul was 120-130 and there was one day last year where I woke up to PM2.5 of 170 and booked a hostel right then in the countryside to escape the dust. Anything over 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, 150 unhealthy for all groups, and anything over 300 hazardous.

I checked my phone weather app later and the “current conditions” did not say rainy or partly cloudy but just “dust”.

After I arrived to work, several emails came through to remind us that the air was bad. The kids still had gym class albeit inside.

The dust didn’t stop anyone from going to work, and it’s predicted to blow away by tomorrow morning with a forecast of extremely clear air here in Gyeongnam all this week.

We carried on as usual. One of the sixth grade classes, 6-4, had nearly regressed in extroversion and it took a lot of coaxing and class practice before they felt comfortable speaking on their own. This was a 180 from 6-3 who volunteered at every possible opportunity. 6-4 did ask for Pororo stickers which I happened to have on me, and they were appeased.

6-6 was boisterous as usual and one tall boy in the back was wearing an Orlando Magic jersey.

“Oh!” He had come up for the partner duel and I made him turn around to confirm his jersey was actually for my hometown, and not a fake knock-off with misspelled city names from every fast fashion store. (I’ve seen a University of Florida shirt with “alligator” misspelled…)

“Students, this is my hometown! This is my hometown’s basketball team!”

Everyone understood except for Mr. Orlando himself. I offered him a sticker in solidarity for supporting my hometown but he had no idea what was happening. The other students tried to get his attention but ultimately scoffed and said, “he’s not paying attention, he’s a ditz.”

Between classes in the sixth grade teacher’s lounge, GJ pointed at a bag of cat shaped cookies I had spotted earlier.

“One of our teachers likes to bake. These are cheese crackers.”

I was so excited to be gifted one! And hurray for ovens!

Last week, I had settled down in the fifth grade teacher’s lounge for a few minutes to make coffee and write notes in my planner about good and bad points from the lesson.

That’s strange, I noticed, why are the disposable cups suddenly different? I thought they had small paper cups too?

I didn’t recognize the teachers in the lounge, but I rarely see all the teachers or any of the teachers without masks and didn’t think too much of it until I exited the room and looked back at the door.

“Third Grade Teacher’s Room”

Oh. Oh no.

I’m always confusing myself because half of fifth grade is on the second floor, and half is on the third floor with third grade. Both the lounges are in the same spot on each floor.

I crashed back inside and explained in garbled Korean to the two witnesses that I was very sorry, I thought this was the fifth grade lounge and didn’t mean to drink their coffee. The women were not only appeased but touched by my pitiful apology– they gave me candy and told me to come back anytime.

It’s a bit like adult Halloween where instead of saying “trick or treat” I attempt Korean and earn a snack.

This is positive reinforcement I can get behind.

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