Rain – Well, the rainy season has begun here in Korea. On the U.S. military channel they call it the “monsoon season,” but I don’t think this is technically correct. For starters, “monsoon” refers to a seasonal wind change that occurs in Southern Asia, especially around the Indian Ocean. The word itself comes from the Arabic mausim, meaning “season.” The term is, of course, also used to describe the rains that accompany the wet monsoon (that is, the summer monsoon—there is a winter monsoon as well, known as the “dry monsoon”), but even if we allow for that usage, the geography is still off. In Korea it’s just the “rainy season” (or “jangmacheol”).
They probably call it monsoon season for dramatic effect. It does in fact rain harder and for a longer period of time during the rainy season here than it does in most places in the United States. When the rains started at the beginning of this week, I think it rained for over twenty-four hours straight. And this was not what we would call a “steady rain” in the States. There was so much water pouring out of the sky that I would hesitate to even call it rain, since that would imply that there was some space between the droplets. Looking out the window was like staring out of a cave behind a waterfall. And in the brief moments where the rain did let up enough so that I could actually see something besides water, I could have sworn I saw the neighborhood animals leaving two by two.
And that was just the first day. It’s rained more since then, of course. Rain that came down so hard it woke me up at night, repeatedly. A friend of mine in Seattle, known ‘round these parts as That David Guy, has written that the rain sometimes keeps him up at night because of poor sound insulation in the roof (or some equally weird reason). Well, we live on the ground floor and have two floors above us, and the rain still wakes us up at night. I suppose having a stream running down the mountain a few paces from our window doesn’t help either, especially when this stream is spitting and thrashing with the obscene amount of water that has been dumped on the mountain, but honestly the sound of the stream doesn’t come anywhere near the noise level of a heavy rain.
When I opened the front door this morning and stepped outside I would not have been the least bit surprised had a gorilla lumbered across the yard in front of me. The trees on the hillside outside our door were a deep, lush green. There was so much green life you could almost see the plants growing. The sun was still behind the mountain, but the first heat of the day brought a thick, steaming mist up from the ground. For a moment I wanted to walk down to the stream, plant my feet in the earth, reach my hands up to the sky, and just grow. It probably would have worked, too.
Of course, I had seen torrential downpours before coming to Korea. Even in upstate New York it can rain pretty hard at times. During my last summer at university (poor performance in my sophomore year meant that I came up short on credits and had to stay an extra summer to graduate—you can read the long version in my background story), it started raining one day when I had to go to school for class. Thinking back on it now, it was probably the worst downpour I had ever seen in the States. I took one look out the window and realized that an umbrella might keep the top of my head dry if I was lucky. So I stripped out of my clothes, put them in a plastic bag along with a towel, and got into my bathing suit. I waited for a break in the rain and then ran the few feet to my car.
The drive to school took longer than usual of course, mainly because I couldn’t see anything. The windshield wipers whined in protest at the impossible task before them, and just for kicks I turned them off for a moment to see if it made a difference. It didn’t, and that was a little scary. I did manage to get to school in one piece, though, and I sat in my car for a few moments, hoping that the rain would have mercy on me. The pounding of the rain on the roof of the car sounded like what I had always imagined going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would sound like, and when I couldn’t stand it any longer I grabbed my plastic bag and opened the car door. I was drenched before my bare foot even hit the pavement, and I slammed the door shut.
There were no parking spots near the building where the class was held, so it took me about ten minutes to walk the distance. Not that I was any more soaked after ten minutes than I was after the first second, of course, so the walk really wasn’t that bad. When I reached the building I took my towel out of the bag and dried myself off, then decided to just put on a T-shirt and a pair of sandals and wrap the towel around my waist. Being a summer session class, no one really gave my attire a second glance. Of course, I had worn a dress to this very same class, so I guess a T-shirt and a towel around my waist was a step up.
(Quick parenthetical explanation: the lecturer was making a point about gender roles in society, and he pointed out that many of the girls were wearing pants but none of the guys would ever wear a dress. I couldn’t just let that slip by unchallenged, and I wore a dress to the next class. The lecturer just smiled and said, “You know I knew that if anyone was going to do it, it would be you.” In retrospect, I’m not sure how I should have taken that, but at the time I just grinned. Hmm. Maybe I should have left the cross-dressing anecdote out of today’s entry. Oh well.)
As bad as that rain was, though, that’s pretty much what it’s like here during the rainy season, except that it rains pretty often. It gets to the point where you can’t help but look up at the sky and wonder how the clouds could possibly hold that much water. It just doesn’t seem physically possible to have that much water fall from the sky. But apparently it is, because it does.
It didn’t rain today, and the brief respite reminded me why I actually look forward to the rainy season—when it’s not raining during the summer here, it gets very hot. Today was particularly rough because of all the moisture in the air. The only rain forest I’ve ever been in was in Washington State (yes, the continental United States has rainforest. My reader(s) from Seattle will most likely berate me for my ignorance of American geography, but I didn’t know this until I actually visited Washington), and that wasn’t a tropical rainforest. From everything I’ve ever seen on TV and film, though, for all intents and purposes our neighborhood was a tropical rainforest today. It was hot and muggy and even the slightest hitch in my translation made me break out into a sweat (usually I just throw stuff, but even that was too much effort today).
Fortunately, this isn’t the concrete jungle of Seoul, so we don’t have all that lovely asphalt and air pollution to hold the heat in. I can remember summer nights in Seoul that were so unbearable I was tempted to see if I could fit myself in the freezer. I would make excuses to get stuff from the refrigerator just so I could open the door and have the cool air wash over me, even if only for a moment. Here, though, it cools off quickly at night, and even in the dead of summer the evenings are quite pleasant. We still sleep with an actual blanket. If we still lived in Seoul, we would be sleeping under a paper-thin sheet that would end up on the floor about ten minutes after lights out. And, of course, I can always go sit in the stream if it gets too hot. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
It still gets torturously hot during the day, though, which is why I welcome the rains. Granted, the entire country becomes a huge sauna when the sun comes back out after the rains stop, but while the rain is falling it is blissfully cool. Honestly, I think Korean summers would be close to unbearable if it weren’t for the rainy season, especially in Seoul. The worst part of the summer is after the rainy season ends and before we get into that nice late summer/early autumn weather. Fortunately, we’ll be gone for most of that this year, as we’ll be visiting the States from mid-July to mid- to late-August (the end of August can still be rough, but we can only be gone for so long). My wife and I are pretty psyched about that, and not just because we’ll be missing a month of the worst season in Korea. It will also be nice to see family and friends again. Our last visit was a year-and-a-half ago, which actually isn’t that long, considering how much time used to pass in between visits. Still, it’s always nice to get back.
The funny thing about today’s entry is that I was originally going to write about something else, and the rainy season thing was just supposed to be a brief opening piece. Then I got carried away and wrote 1,500+ words about—more or less—rain. Then again, I guess it’s not all that surprising, considering that it’s hard to think about much else these days. At least I’ve gotten it out of my system now. Maybe next time my writing will be a bit (ahem) drier.