While South Korea wasn’t on my bucket-list, my daughter is there teaching English so I enjoy visiting. This year’s trip was especially exciting, as I met my first granddaughter! While I would love to write about her, I will keep my environmental focus, sharing sightings and other topics that required further research. With every culture, environmental awareness and actions vary greatly.
My daughter’s family lives in the busy, vibrant coastal city of Busan. There you find small neighborhood business areas throughout. I filled our refrigerator with produce, frequenting local vendors. Seasonal vegetables and fruits were plentiful, produce being sold from the back of pick-ups, piles along the street, in alleyway markets or huge outdoor markets. Interestingly, with all these offerings, there was little variety, as in just one kind of apple, fortunately a tasty variety. Here too I visited one of the largest fish markets I have ever seen, curious looking fish of all shapes and sizes. Via the local bus, I sometimes shopped at E-Mart where there are a few imported produce options. Fruits and vegetables are grown everywhere. Valleys are filled with gardens and greenhouses while terrace gardens hug hills and mountains, no soil unturned.
Although fast foods have crept into their society, a typical Korean diet consists of a bowl of steamed white rice, a soybean-paste vegetable soup, kimchi along with side dishes of steamed or seasoned vegetables, pork or fish; sometimes chicken or beef; and a broth type of soup. Kimchi is a pungent, usually hot mixture of fermented and/or pickled vegetables, most often made out of Chinese cabbage and daikon radishes. Koreans consumes an average of forty pounds of this revered national dish per year. While eating out, it’s quite common to sit on the floor and eat at a low table, using a spoon and chopsticks. As for ordering take-out, they place bowls of food in a hot box attached to a motorcycle, once delivered we enjoy our food served with kimchi, then we return our empty bowls placing them outside our door for pick-up. In South Korea, they don’t eat on the go as it is more of a social activity. It is their custom to sit down and enjoy food together, focusing on that activity alone.
In South Korea recycling is huge. Not only is there a strong social pressure to recycle, it’s free, whereas they pay to dispose trash. I enjoyed recycling day at our apartment complex. All day long, the dwellers hauled their recyclables onto the elevator and contributed to the growing piles, absolutely huge at the end of the day. They also have a “give away” system in place. If the item doesn’t disappear after a period of time, disposal fees are applied. With such a system come risks. I noted a lot of litter and random displaced bags of trash scattered about as public recycling and trash bins were uncommon. I only saw public bins when visiting public beaches, parks and some educational facilities.
Hiking is a favorite cultural pastime in South Korea with scenic mountains cover 70% of the terrain. My daughter and family live on the side of a mountain, so anytime I went anywhere, I either walked up or down the mountain. My newborn granddaughter resisted daytime naps, so we spent hours hiking while she snoozed in a front pack. We always headed up the mountain, along with the locals, to a beautiful trail overlooking Busan. Green area is quite common and popular, many times including fitness equipment scattered along the path. Before my visit was over, I finally summitted the mountain. Unfortunately, views off in the distance were usually obscured as smog is quite common.
After the Second World War, South Korea made a shift from agrarian to industrial; 75% of the population lived in the rural areas; according to World Bank, now 82 percent live in urban areas. Housing is very concentrated, most living in small high-rise apartment. Something common and quite lovely, Koreans typically have a heating system called ondal. Since it’s a Korean custom to sit and sleep on mats or cushions on the floor, they keep the floors warm by installing pipes under the concrete and circulating hot water through them.
Face masks are quite common in South Korea and East Asia. This tradition began in Japan due to a massive pandemic of influenza killing between20-40 million people around the world. While this practice ended in 1919, it resumed again in the 1970s due to the industrial related rampant air pollution. Residents are now more frequently advised to wear masks during dust advisories as ultrafine dust travels hundreds of miles from the expanding deserts of China filled with lead and arsenic, creating thick smog. They also wear masks to contain germs. Back in 2012 all the masks were white, but this year I saw masks in a wide variety of colors.
The government is pursuing new and renewable energy to secure more independence and reduce their carbon emissions. They are implementing compulsory renewable installation systems to create the demand for new and renewable energy and promote private investment.
In an effort to reduce smoking, South Korea passed a country-wide smoke-free ordinance January 2015. Still 36% of the men and 4.3% of the women smoke. Attempts to decrease smoking include smoking bans almost everywhere, price hikes, mandatory warnings on packaging, advertising bans, along with financial incentives and medical help to quit. When walking through neighborhood parks in 2012, I continually dodged groups of older men smoking. This year I was thrilled to experience much less smoke second-hand smoke.
While South Korea has banned the cultivation of GMO crops, given their low domestic production of soybeans and corn, they are a major importer of GMOs grain. Now they are concerned about pollution threatening their local ecosystem due to GMO seed spill. Consumer groups are requesting GMO product labeling similar to the European Union.
Reforestation efforts increased in the 1970s and a few of the remaining old-growth forests were protected in nature reserves. Now South Korea has 20 national parks. Interestingly, one of the world’s most interesting wildlife sanctuaries is the DMZ (demilitarized zone), 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, untouched since 1953.
Now back home, I always pay a self-imposed carbon tax. This trip’s recipients are Missouri River Relief and The Environmental Working Group.