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It’s Summer in Korea:  Am I the Only One Withering?

Over the past two summers, my brain bank has been accumulating what I believe is mounting evidence pointing towards the fact that Koreans do not perspire to any meaningful degree. Under scrutiny I would have to admit that virtually all of this evidence is purely anecdotal and would most likely wither under scientific review, but for the sake of this article I will conveniently overlook those deficiencies and press on with my narrative.

As a general rule, I try not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but in this case I will make an exception. With only minimal further ado, below are my efforts to expand this theory towards greater relevance and hopefully even edge towards the border of accuracy. Watch out academia – I have a crazy-ass theory in my hand, and I expect you to bail me out.

To begin, I should describe the genesis of my conclusion. I moved to Korea at the beginning of June in 2014. In retrospect, June is poor arrival month for any individual with a propensity to perspire – which certainly includes the writer of this piece. Many coworkers of mine politely pointed out that the summer of 2014 was mild by historical comparison, but three weeks in I was fairly convinced that I had accidentally moved to a cicada-filled sauna. In the interest of full disclosure, it seems fair to mention that I grew up in the far northern US where temperatures fairly routinely dropped to -30C in mid-winter, so I will allow for the possibility that I have a somewhat compromised perception of what an appropriate human climate should be.

The fact remains that I am a perpetual sweaty mess during the sticky Korean summer. In July and August I begin sweating almost the second I leave my apartment, and in an even more disturbing development I believe my body has actually adapted to start pre-perspiring 10-15 minutes before I leave the apartment in mere anticipation of hitting the outdoors. I live on a sizable hill, but have realized it is completely irrelevant whether I choose to walk uphill or down.

In the ten minutes or so it takes me to trudge to the nearest mass transportation stop, my shirt will typically have transitioned to a significantly darker hue and weigh triple what it did when I put it on. To add to my discomfort, said shirt will also invariably be sticking to my form to such a degree that it would be clearly obvious to any passerby that I have not invested in a gym membership since making the move to East Asia. I should also point out that none of these are purely outdoors phenomena as typically when I arrive at my destination there is about a 15 minute lag between the moment I stop moving and the moment I stop sweating. I know the sense of smell is supposed to be most strongly associated with memory, but I am quite certain that any bead of sweat rolling down my back until the day I die will conjure up an instant flashback to the Seoul summer months.

If you have been reading between the lines up to this point, you will probably have gathered that I find June-August unpleasant. However, I have been in relatively awful summer climates before and survived. I think what made these other locations passible to me, however, is the spirit of the saying “misery loves company”. Mentally, I would at least feel some sort of resigned satisfaction if I had a sense that my fellow Seoulites were tormented by the heat to the same level that I am. Au contraire! As I walk around on a day-to-day basis locals seem to strut around virtually unaffected by the local heat/humidity. At times is seems entirely credible to assert that they are actually mocking me and my misery with their overt indifference. I occasionally will see a dark spot or two on a neighbor’s shirt, but that is in no way compares me internally debating the plausibility of installing windshield wipers on my forehead so I no longer need to dread the stinging discomfort of sweat entering my eye sockets.

The Foreigner vs. Koreans:  Anecdotal Observations  

While I am always sweaty, here are some of the situations where I notice the largest gulfs in heat tolerance between myself and the average Korean:

  • Clothing Choice – Walking down any street in Gangnam, Downtown, or Yeouido on a weekday in July or August will show a high percentage of the working population wearing suits – and certainly not crappy lightweight ones. On a typical jaunt out for lunch, I will almost immediately begin to feel the effects of venturing out of the safe confines of air conditioning. Yet as I wither, locals seem to stroll along virtually unaffected. I tend to scamper from shadow to shadow in a futile effort to avoid the solar radiation that makes my clothing interiors greenhouse-like, but the Koreans seem to walk down the sidewalk in a proud and impervious swagger.
  • Subway Stations – One thing I cannot get my head around is the microclimate found within most subway stations. After a long walk to a subway station, I would normally expect one of two things. First, I would expect that the sheer distance underground will provide some significant relief. Anyone who has lived in a house with a basement knows that even without air conditioning, retreating below the surface of the earth only a couple meters typically yields both cooler and drier air. This seems to be almost the exact opposite of the Korean situation. Secondly, virtually all stations seem to be equipped with air conditioning (or at least ventilation fans – hard to tell), but if they actually function I have no evidence of it. If the air circulation equipment are linked to any type of temperature dial, that dial must be perpetually stuck on Hades. As mentioned previously, the cessation of walking for me means I will be sweating for about 15 more minutes, but having some sort of fan would have the potential to mercifully reduce that time slightly. This is the moment when I typically feel the most gross, but other train passengers in the station seem to have discovered a secret telephone booth where one can undergo a superhero-worthy instant transition to a drier and more comfortable wardrobe.
  • Buses – When I began riding buses last summer to my employment in Dongtan (specifically the express M Buses), I expected the coach-style buses to feature comfort on a scale not usually associated with public transportation. While slightly cooler, the Seoul summer morning air is still simply soupy. Appropriately, I then expected my entrance onto the bus to feature the greeting of a cool blast of air conditioned air that could hopefully return my capability to relax prior to my 40 minute transit. However, more often than not, I found this blast to be a more stagnant than refreshing, and anything but cool. Once on the bus I would plop down in the seat I found with a (usually) inaudible “harrumph” and prepare to continue my full body excretion of salty liquid until that liquid had penetrated virtually every inch of my dress clothes. However, my Korean co-riders under the same conditions seemed to have absolutely no problem landing in a seat and falling asleep before the bus doors had even closed.
  • Korean BBQ – I love BBQ as much as the next guy, and perhaps even a little more. Unfortunately for me, many of my favorite haunts are open-air establishments during the summer months. Grilled meat is wonderful any time of year, but huddling around a screaming-hot grill when the air temperature is sweltering seems nothing short of ridiculous. As with any time I leave the house, I will typically be soaked before I arrive and will run out of sweat fuel about halfway through the meal. What makes this situation even more amusing is that the most acceptable way to rehydrate during BBQ dinner is through soju. It is a situation that has the potential to end poorly, and that potential has been realized on more than one occasion. Somehow Koreans seem impervious to the grill radiance at a restaurant. On the other hand, they seem less impervious to the effects of soju.
  • Hiking – Obviously if I have problems staying dry while sitting, charging up a mountainside is only going to exponentially exacerbate my problems. I, of course, wear dry fit clothing to attempt to tip the scales in my favor, but with a 95% relative humidity nothing is going to evaporate – regardless of the fabric selection. I drink liter after liter of water, but there is always a point a few hours into a hike where I come to the realization that I have lost the hydration battle and am henceforth incapable of further cooling through the sweating mechanism. Just at the moment when I am my most miserable, without fail I will have a local women over 60 charge past me wearing a windbreaker, facemask, and 1% exposed skin.

Under this context I decided it was appropriate to determine if there is a scientific reason that I seem to suffer to an exponentially higher degree than Koreans. To spoil the rest of the story quickly, biology and genetics offer very few answers. After some persistent digging, however, I was able to find a few pieces of data that may behaviorally begin to explain how someone (me, specifically) could get that impression.

Reasons Why Koreans Smell Better and Sweat Less

First, a note on the perspiration process as a whole. All humans have millions of sweat glands, but most only produce the salty and mostly-clear liquid that we would normally associate with sweating. Apocrine sweat glands, which are one specific type of sweat glands, are located in various places around the body – but are most prevalent under the arms. These glands actually produce a more oily substance, which is consumed by bacteria and produces the characteristic objectionable odor. As you can find from any number of reputable information sources (read: internet), East Asians have significantly fewer apocrine sweat glands when compared to people of other nationalities. This singular fact explains why, regardless of the season, a bus in Seoul never has the pungent haze that I have come to associate with any public transport vessel in Italy.

The first behavioral factor is as follows: there is significant linkage between overall activity levels and perspiration response. Specifically, if you frequently exercise recreationally – and specifically exercise to very high heart rates – your body will become conditioned to believe that when you start moving it needs to start producing perspiration to keep you cool. Therefore, your body will start producing sweat much sooner, and will also produce a much greater volume of sweat sooner. Koreans, according to a number of informational sources, do not exercise at a very high rate. One study noted that only 37.5% of Koreans exercised purposefully in 2014. I found other sources suggesting exercise rates being even lower. While low, this number seems at least plausible with my own personal experience. I try to run on a fairly consistent schedule in a ridiculous attempt to offset various unhealthy habits I cannot get away from, but only very rarely do I see Koreans running or jogging as well.

There are some things are person can do as well to lower their overall perspiration level, most of which I am either too stubborn, too old, or too stupid to adopt myself. Koreans seems to have done much better in this respect. The second behavioral factor is general speed of movement. In a study I recently saw comparing the pace of life of many countries around the globe, one of the factors considered was the average walking pace. Without even statistically breaking down the data, it is pretty easy to immediately see that there is a clear trend where people from more northern climates tend to walk at a higher pace than those located in warmer ones. In my foot travels around the city, I am constantly annoyed by how slow the walking gate of many Koreans seems to be and I pass them at every opportunity. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that this practice would have a detrimental effect on my overall body temperature.

The final factor is one that was told to me by a former colleague and I feel gives me some insight into the Korean zeitgeist as a whole. This coworker told me that part of my perception was a cleverly orchestrated ruse. He, in fact, sweats profusely, but wears a lot of extra clothes (typically of darker colors) that cover up the fact that he is sweating. He may be extremely warm at any given time, but refuses to let it show. My mistake is that I futilely pretend that there is anything I can do to reverse my fate. I’m not sure pretending to not sweat would be entirely effective, but it would at least be better than my current strategy of wallowing in misery.

Well, as much as I prefer being right all the time, I must acquiesce to science on this topic. Koreans do sweat. I also sweat, but I sweat hella more. While I was hoping to prove that Koreans have a biological advantage over me in heat tolerance and response, it appears that any differences are almost certainly behavioral. Since I am old enough to be realistic about such things, I readily admit that I am unlikely to make the necessary adjustments to improve my summer comfort level. In that light, if you happen see anyone walking around a subway station with their head craned up and futilely shuffling from vent to vent trying to discover one with airflow, feel free to stop me and introduce yourself.