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23 Jul 2022

A tale of two places – Prior to our recent trip to Texas to visit family, there were a couple of things I was wondering about—a couple of things that I knew were going to be different in Texas than they were in Korea. The first of those things was the heat. Put simply, I knew that Texas was going to be hotter than Seoul but less humid. I know from many years of experience here that high humidity can make otherwise fairly reasonable temperatures uncomfortable and unreasonable temperatures downright unbearable. Would it be easier to handle the Texas summer with its lower humidity, despite the higher temperatures?

“This was a bit of culture shock for me...”

It turns out that this was not as simple a question to answer as I had hoped. In theory, you would think that it would be possible to determine which scenario is more desirable—high temperatures with lower humidity or lower temperatures with high humidity—but the number of variables that come into play make it a lot more complicated than this simple binary equation.

I guess I should start by saying that it was very hot in Texas when we were there—even hotter than we were expecting. On at least half a dozen separate occasions, my dad mentioned that the heat in Texas generally doesn't reach its worst until August, and that this was highly unusual. I would say that such pronouncements were cold comfort, but there was nothing even remotely cold about it. Highs were regularly over 40 degrees, and I don't remember the daily high ever dipping below 35. (I don't plan on making this a habit, but since this part of today's entry is all about temperatures and comparisons, for the sake of my Celsius-impaired readers (hi, Mom!) I am including Fahrenheit conversions for each mention of temperature in Celsius—just hover over the figure to get a pop-up.)

As if the heat weren't enough, the sun also blazed for almost the entirety of our visit (except at night, of course, and the one day when we had a brief, light rain in the morning). Unlike in Seoul, there is very little shade in the area we were in, which meant that we mostly stayed inside when we could or went somewhere else where we could be in air conditioning. This made adjusting to the time difference quite difficult. My usual remedy for jet lag is to get outside often and soak up the sun's rays as much as I can, but stepping outside into the Texas sun felt like stepping into an oven set to “broil.” I swear I could feel my skin start to bake every time I was exposed to the sun. As a result, we spent most of our days inside, and it took nearly a week for us to get over the jet lag.

I mentioned that we did get one brief spattering of rain (which, ironically, caught my dad and I out on an early morning walk), but otherwise it was just sweltering, unrelenting sun. Almost the entirety of Texas, like the rest of the southwest US right now, was suffering from some sort of drought; the area where my parents live was experiencing D2 or “severe drought,” and the burn ban signs we occasionally passed on the road attested to that. Combine all of this with the fact that the air was generally pretty still and you had a miserable experience. We did go out on some mornings, including one morning when we went into Dallas to do some sightseeing, but most of our activities were indoors, and we were generally only outside long enough to get from one indoor place to another. To make matters worse, it didn't cool down until the wee hours of the morning, which meant that wandering around in the evening wasn't all that pleasant, either. That being said, due to the relatively low humidity, there was a huge difference between sun and shade, so if we could get out of the sun we usually found the heat bearable.

So, was it worse than summer in Seoul? Well, it's hard to say, mainly because it has been rather cool (think morning temperatures in the low 20s and highs in the upper 20s at most) since we've gotten back. There is also generally a breeze—Seoul has been rather windy this year, for some reason—which helps a lot as well. But the humidity has definitely been much worse than it was in Texas. It is generally around 90% on my morning walk to school, except for Thursday and Friday, when it was around 99%. Of course, it also rained Thursday morning, which dropped the temperature down to 20 degrees. It was quite cool and overcast yesterday morning, too. And yet, despite these cool temperatures and the fact that much of my walk is in the shade (or under cloud cover), by the time I get to school I am at least somewhat sweaty. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am walking up a big hill, but the bottom line is that even mild exertion in high humidity—even with relatively cooler temperatures—is going to make you at least a little sweaty.

Still, I would gladly take the current situation in Seoul over what we experienced in Texas. I can't say this is my favorite time of year to walk around, but it's not that bad yet. If temperatures were to get hotter, though, I'm not sure how I would feel. At its hottest, Seoul can climb up to around 35 degrees, although on rare occasion it can get even hotter; the record high in Seoul is 39.6 degrees. I remember this because it happened in the summer of 2018, and I was not only here but I was also teaching an international summer school class at the time. Students would come to class every day looking like they had been steamed in a pressure cooker; I made it a point to arrive early enough so that I could dry off before my poor students started shuffling in. But, like I said, temperatures above 35 degrees are pretty rare in Seoul. Even so, once the temperature starts to climb above 30, the humidity can make it rather unpleasant.

I guess the only question remaining is which would I choose: the less humid but baking heat of Texas or the somewhat less hot sauna of Seoul? And the truth is that I honestly do not know. Is there a “none of the above” option available? I do know this, though: We are not going to be visiting Texas in the summer again, not if we can help it. I can think of better things to do with my summer—including staying in Korea and heading out to the ocean, or maybe even giving wakeboarding on the river a crack again (if I'm not too old for that now—the last time I went was already nine years ago). If I stay in Korea, I am not going to feel compelled to go out sightseeing during the hottest weather; when we are visiting Texas, though, we want to be out and about as opposed to sitting at home. Also, provided that we don't get hit with any freak winter storms, winter in Texas is a lot more enjoyable than winter in Seoul. So I think from now on we'll be making winter visits if possible.

I mentioned at the top that there were a couple of things I was wondering about before our visit. You might be able to take a guess at the second one, because it's been on everyone's mind for the past few years. It is, in fact, the reason why we hadn't seen my family in two-and-a-half years: COVID. I knew that Americans seemed to be taking a much more relaxed attitude toward the pandemic than Koreans, but what would that mean for our trip? Thankfully, a few weeks before we were scheduled to leave, both HJ and I got COVID ourselves. That might seem like a weird thing to be thankful for, but it did put our minds at ease—at least now we wouldn't have to worry about getting infected in the US and having difficulty getting back into Korea. (Of course, we didn't count on the new BA.5 variant, but more on that later.)

We first knew that things were going to be different in Texas when we stepped off the plane in DFW. Many people were wearing masks, but many people weren't, and it felt weird to be in an indoor space with so many maskless people. Not worrisome... just weird. When we finally got through immigration, got our bags, and made it out past customs (a process that took approximately four times as long as it took when we returned to Korea), we saw that most of the people waiting outside were not wearing masks. My mom and dad, who were waiting for us in the crowd of people outside the sliding doors, were among the few who were masked, and the four of us walked through the airport toward the parking lot with our masks on. Once we got outside, I took my mask off... and never put it back on again (except for one brief period of a few minutes when we went into the office of an art installation in Marfa).

I'm not going to lie: It definitely felt a bit weird at first not wearing a mask everywhere. I was used to not wearing a mask outside by that point, but to go into shops and other indoor spaces and not have to put on a mask felt a little awkward. This awkwardness did not last long, though, and before long we were walking around without masks like it was the most natural thing in the world—which, of course, it is. Like I said above, we had already gotten over COVID in Korea, so we weren't worried about contracting it again. Even after we heard more about the new variant, though, we still weren't all that worried. Why? Well, nobody else seemed to be worried. You would occasionally go into a restaurant or a shop and see employees wearing masks, but the vast majority of people didn't give masks a second thought. I saw a number of shops with signs saying “Masks Recommended,” but nobody paid any mind to them.

This was a bit of culture shock for me, coming from a place that continues to make a very big deal of the pandemic and landing in a place that, for all intents and purposes, was acting like the pandemic was over. It's not, of course, but it sure was nice living for a month as if it were. But it couldn't last forever. Although we were not required to present any sort of documentation coming into the States, we needed a negative rapid antigen test if we wanted to board a plane back to Korea. So, on the day before we were scheduled to leave, we headed out to a local clinic in the next town over, where a friendly woman administered our RATs and prepared the proper documentation for us. We were, of course, negative, despite the prevalence of the BA.5 variant.

When we got to the airport, we were so used to living without our masks that we figured a little longer would not hurt, although we certainly did see a lot more people wearing masks in the airport than we had seen elsewhere. We checked our bags, showed our RAT results, and then were able to go through security (where they still make you take off your shoes for some reason) and find our gate. They checked our RAT results once more at the gate before we boarded, although it ended up being the same woman who had checked in our bags and checked our results the first time. Only when we finally boarded the plane did we put on our masks. I did notice on the plane that, despite the numerous announcements that masks were required (as opposed to just “recommended”), there were some people who did not wear their masks and yet were not pulled kicking and screaming from the plane; the flight attendants didn’t seem to be enforcing the mask policy that strictly. I didn't want to make a fuss, though, and I knew that I would have to wear my mask again in Korea, so I wore it for the entire flight—except during meals, which I ate as slowly as possible.

The day after getting back to Korea I had to head downtown to meet up with a professor who was visiting from abroad. The first thing I noticed upon heading outside was how many people were still wearing their masks outdoors; I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people are still masking up outside. How long has it been now since the government clarified that masking up outdoors was not required? HJ believes that it has just become habit with most people, and there probably is something to that idea. The following day I was having dinner with some colleagues, and when we left the restaurant and stepped outside, one of my colleagues put on his mask. As he did so, though, he sheepishly remarked that everyone had it all backward—wearing masks outside but then taking them off while inside at a restaurant.

I caught up with my colleagues this past week, and the consensus among them seems to be that enough is enough, that it's finally time to just live with COVID. The new government apparently lacks the spine to take measures one way or the other, and the media continues to engage in fear-mongering, but at least my colleagues seem to understand that while the virus may be becoming more virulent, it also seems to be becoming much less deadly. More than once this past week I have heard someone say that it was time to start treating COVID like the flu. At the same time, though, my colleagues are also worried that an uptick in case numbers might prompt the school to go back to online classes. I am desperately hoping this doesn't happen.

Do I think that the US approach to the pandemic is ideal? Not quite—I think people could probably be a little more careful. But the Korean approach is even less ideal. All the rules and regulations are becoming such a burden that people are just ignoring them at this point. For example, I personally know several people who contracted COVID but never got a PCR test because they didn't want to have to go through the hassle of an official quarantine; they just unofficially quarantined themselves until they felt better. I've heard anecdotal evidence of many, many others doing the same. And I don't blame them. The truth is that by the time you get a positive PCR result, you're probably already through the worst of it, and the quarantine doesn't do anything but inconvenience you—something I know from personal experience.

I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but the current situation is ridiculous. I knew it was unreasonable before I left, but spending a month in Texas made me realize how absolutely absurd all this is. I'm not going to say it's time to “return to normal.” For one, I'd like to see people take hygiene a lot more seriously than they did before the pandemic, particularly when it comes to hand washing. I think there are very clear and practical measures we can take to protect ourselves, at least to some extent, from diseases. But requiring people to wear masks at arbitrary times (that is, excepting those times when we are eating in a restaurant, sitting and chatting in a coffee shop, living at home with family members who may have gotten infected elsewhere, etc.) is not one of those measures. Burdensome testing and quarantine requirements are also not on that list. We need measures that people can incorporate into their daily lives, not draconian measures that are just going to make people tired and frustrated.

Back when the virus was new and a lot more dangerous than it is now, perhaps more stringent measures were justified. These days, though, COVID is little more than a crappy few days for the vast majority of people. Biden just got COVID and he’s apparently doing fine. My mother got COVID this past week as well. She’s not quite as old as Biden, but she doesn’t have the best respiratory system. I talked to her this morning, though, and fortunately she’s doing fine. She’s still sick, of course, but she’s already on her way to being better. Like Biden, she was vaccinated and boosted, which may have made her symptoms less severe. It’s hard to say, of course—there’s no way of knowing if she would have suffered more had she not been vaccinated. I do know that scientists say that getting vaccinated and boosted helps in avoiding severe cases, and if that is indeed the case, isn’t it time to learn to live with this thing? If it’s not that serious, why are we still acting like it is? I understand exercising caution when new variants appear, but there is caution and then there is overreacting that is more politically motivated than scientifically motivated.

My goal with this entry was not to rant about COVID measures again, but I guess that was the inevitable result of comparing attitudes toward the pandemic in Texas and Korea. So there you have it. Next time I will be writing another comparison of sorts—not between Texas and Korea, necessarily, but about two different ways of life. I expect there to be less ranting in that one, but you never know.

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