Interviewing my way across Korea

Interviewing my way across Korea

I’m sitting in a beautiful little café in Insadong this Sunday morning called Flower Café – and the smell of freshly growing flowers is all around me. It’s a sweet little spot with a focus on growing and selling flowers – and they sell coffee and have a table for me to work at. Couldn’t be more lovely!

I had delicious kimbap for breakfast (very similar to sushi, people have related it to eating a sub sandwich) and then snapped a photo of some great public art on the way.


Sliced tuna kimbap



While still a bit chilly in the evenings, it has really started to warm up here. Buds are coming out on the trees and there’s a cheerfulness in the air. Speaking of the air…

This weekend has been exceptionally clear and beautiful. But this hasn’t been the case for the past week or so. Hwangsa levels have been hovering around 100-200 ug/m3  (micrograms per cubic meter, I learned from the interview with the Korean Meteorological Administration). Now this is nothing to be alarmed about here. In the South Korean system, an “advisory” is issued when levels reach 400ug/m3 for more than two hours. This means that they recommend you cover your skin and avoid exercising outdoors. At 800ug/m3 for a period of 2 hours or more a “warning” is issued, and it is strongly recommended to avoid all physical activity, to close your windows and if possible stay indoors – particularly if you are elderly or have respiratory problems. In this case elementary schools often close.

Interestingly, the North American levels that warrant alarm are much much lower. While it may be partially a wording choice which accounts for the seeming difference in concern, a particle density level of about 100ug/m3 (full disclosure, I’ve lost my source for this info, it came from some governmental site that I can’t remember at the moment) elicits a “warning” and is considered “extremely unhealthy” while 400ug/m3 – where the advisory in South Korea begins – is considered a crisis level. And in France, where this month they had such concern over high levels of particle concentration (fine dust or smog in this case, not yellow dust) in the air that they made public transportation free for the day, warnings are issues when levels reach 80ug/m3 .

On Tuesday I was sitting in a café teaching one of the assistants the ins and outs of the camera and sound equipment, when I refreshed the hwangsa monitoring page from the KMA website, and lo-and-behold it was at 400ug/m3!

Particle density levels passed 400ug/m3 on March 18th

Particle density levels passed 400ug/m3 on March 18th

Here’s what the country’s forecast was at the time. The lines with the S in the middle is the symbol for hwangsa.


Hwangsa across the country. How do you like the KMA’s slogan?

So we jumped into a cab and raced down to the Han River where we were just in time to catch the setting sun and extremely low visibility of 400ug/m3. While it made the sunset a beautiful shade of orangey-pink, it was disconcerting to look across the river to where the Seoul tower usually sticks out of the skyline like a beacon to lost travellers, and struggle to locate it. I can’t image what the visibility will be like at 800ug/m3!

Sunset on the Han River, particle density over 400ug/m3

Timelapse of setting sun

Locate the Seoul Tower if you can!

An interesting dilemma I’m running into (as I knew I would) is that hwangsa, the dust that blows across to the Korean peninsula from the Gobi Dessert and Inner Mongolia, is entirely integrated with the serious phenomenon of fine and ultra-fine dust (mise meonji 미세 먼지) that is on the tongues of many Koreans these days. This is essentially industrial pollution from China – heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper) and other carcinogens. Smog.

It is impossible to isolate all the different elements of poor air quality and examine them individually – as can be seen by the difficult time the KMA is having releasing a fine dust monitoring system, a recent and urgent initiative, and by the lack of faith the general public seems to have in the current hwangsa monitoring system to relate what the true risks are to their health. Air has no boundaries and no national borders, and as such it unites us all.

One more quick word about the film – interviews have been going great. We’ve really gotten ourselves into a groove with the translation thing. It’s a really bizarre experience conducting an interview in a language you have no understanding of whatsoever. Our approach is that I connect with the participant by asking a question directly to them in English, and then my wonderful assistant Eunah jumps in and translates the question, drawing their eyeline to her, and the interviewee answers looking at her. She then asks any necessary follow-up, and then translates the summary quickly to back to me. I then ask my next question directly to the interviewee and the process repeats. Not understanding the answers to my questions while they are being spoken sure gives me the time to focus on the camera and sound, so in a way it takes a bit of the pressure off.

Last week we had a busy Thursday starting with an interview with the head of the NGO Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. Next we headed to Seoul National University Hospital for an interview with a doctor there who sees many patients for hwangsa related issues. We had a third last-minute interview that day as well, with a guy from the NGO Ecopeace Asia who works on the ground in China and Inner Mongolia on dessert restoration. He was leaving the following morning for China, and was gracious enough to give us a late evening interview before his big trip.

On to the photos! Make sure you click them to view them larger.


Glass bottomed skyway in Digital Media City

Last week I took a trip to Digital Media City, which the locals call DMC (and which I confused with DMZ – the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea – and which threw me for a loop when someone told me they did a lot of filming there, including the currently-shooting Avengers 2), a part of the city brimming with glass and progress.


Funky glass shapes in DMC


Great use of triangles


Bike-share in DMC! Not used anywhere else in Seoul that I’ve seen.


More glass and metal in Digital Media City


More lovely public art made of triangles

In this part of town there are a lot of high-tech business headquarters and broadcasting companies. A lot of the buildings are still in construction, so it’s a bit of a strange-feeling place at the moment. I was excited to see this building -


Digital Media City Landmark Tower

- the second tallest building in the world. However what I didn’t realize when looking at the image on my phone is that this is a 3D artist’s rendering and it too is still under construction. They’re at about floor 4. Not very impressive.

What was impressive – an absolute gem in this area – was the Korean Film Archives. This was a very interesting and modern museum which broke Korea’s film history down into eras by theme and had screens upon screens playing clips from old movies. Totally fascinating to see how the country’s political and film histories are inextricably linked – for example the era of censorship in the 1970s.


Korean Film Archive


Era of Censorship

My favorite part of this museum, though, was the section featuring displays of the different types of women appearing in Korean film through the ages. I’m not sure why this fascinated me so much – maybe it was the mini-models in glass display boxes or the fact that there was no categorical break-down of the different roles men have played in Korean films.

Video and Film

Miserable Women in the Feudal Society

Video and Film

Korean Mothers

Video and Film

Wicked Women

Beautiful Women

Classic Korean Beauties

Professional Women

Professional Women

Yesterday I stumbled upon another traditional market. Love it! There is so much for all of my senses at these markets. I was headed out to do more filming (candid interviews with the public about their perceptions of hwangsa) so I had to rush through, but here’s a taste of what you can taste at the Gwangjang Market.


A woman sells braids of dried fish


Thousands of little dried fish


Woman makes kimchi and other spiced, fermented vegetables


Korean greens


Marinating crabs






Gwangjang Market, Insadong, Seoul

This coming week I will be staying with a farming family south of Seoul for several days, working on the farm and talking to them about hwangsa and how it affects their farm. Eunah is coming with me since the family speaks limited English and has volunteered to work on the farm as well – she’s certainly not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Excited to get out to the countryside and get a peek into rural life!


Pin: Sandeaul Farm, Hwaseong City, Joam, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea