I always thought that home smelled like fresh air. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew what it was when I smelled it, and I knew how to seek it out.
When I lived in Seoul, South Korea, I sought it everywhere. I hiked in Bukhansan, the biggest national park. I hiked Nangjansan for the fall festival. I went to the beach. I went to Busan. I went to the top of Seoul Tower. I climbed the old fortress wall overlooking the president’s “Blue House.” I didn’t expect to really feel at home in a country whose language I couldn’t speak. I felt comfortable in my apartment, on the subway, in restaurants, going to grocery stores. These aspects of modern life weren’t home, but they were familiar. The one thing I could not find was fresh fucking air.
Korea, and Seoul in particular, has somewhat of a reputation for pollution. My coworker once told me, “They have nothing on China. I used to walk home in a pollution cloud so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.” It’s not nearly that bad in Seoul, but it’s always disappointing when you find yourself at a high point and unable to appreciate the view because it’s covered in smog.
I didn’t struggle adjusting to wearing face masks during the pandemic because I’d worn N95’s so often in Korea. I downloaded an app on my phone that alerted me to the daily pollution level. A normal day in Colorado, my first home, was in the 30’s, the green zone. In Seoul, a normal day was above 50, the yellow zone. Sometimes, it reached above 100 on the pollution scale, triggering a “red alert” warning. The app wasn’t the only thing that let you know you should wear a mask outside. The government sent out text messages to alert citizens of dangerous air days. A few times, we even reached a point where we were warned to simply not go outside.
The worst part about it was that the most polluted days were in the spring. The bulk of the pollution floats down from China. The winds and the changing weather are why spring, which is supposed to be the most beautiful time of the year, was the dirtiest. The rare exception to this fact of life in Korea was that it was always clean after it rained.
I was there to explore. I wasn’t going to let a little cancerous cloud stop me from doing all the amazing things in Korea that I wanted to do. So me, my coworkers, and every other Korean person in Seoul collectively said “fuck it” and made the pilgrimage down to the Han River to see the impressive line of cherry blossoms in full bloom. We ate candied strawberries on a stick and stopped in the middle of the road to take selfies, pulling off our masks briefly to do so every time. Luckily, and unlike in China, you don’t see the cloud up close. All of our pictures came out crystal clear, and besides, you couldn’t see past the throngs of people and miles of towering pink trees anyway. The festival smelled like good food and flowers, just the way you would want it to smell.
It didn’t stop us from hiking either, and in fall, we took an overly long bus ride to Nangjansan to photograph the changing leaves and Buddha statues. Again, at the base of the mountain, surrounded by red and gold leaves the size of my face, we didn’t notice it so much. As we climbed, the trees in the middle of the mountain began to look a little duller, and the quilt of fall foliage we expected to see looking down from the summit didn’t have the effect we wanted. And still, the air didn’t feel as fresh as I wanted it to.
It didn’t stop my students or their families either. Going beyond weekend activities, those kids were dedicated to moving on with their lives. They faithfully came to school every day with their masks on, government warning or no. They hung them up nicely next to their coats and put them back on at the end of class before they even went outside. Just another day. But even with the air filters on and the windows all shut and locked, the air felt more than a little stale.
It didn’t stop my coworkers from looking so unfairly beautiful. They lotioned up every few hours to keep their hands from looking like, well, mine. They bought quality “pollution cleansing” face wipes, makeup, and shampoo. They bought masks that matched their outfits.
That cancerous fucking cloud stopped no one from living their lives. Every day on my way to work, I would find a construction worker, a traffic guy, or mired office employee out for a break. He would be crouched on the balls of his feet on the sidewalk, pollution filtering mask hanging from one ear, and smoking a cigarette. Damned be the compounding effect it had on their lungs. We all just stubbornly pushed through it like a madman in a snowstorm.
Seoul’s air had its good days and its “red alert” days. Normally, I wouldn’t even look at the app. I would simply look out my apartment window on the 29th floor and, like a groundhog, look for Lotte Tower in the distance. If I could see it, then the air was pretty clear that day. If not, 6 more weeks of masks.
I got used to it. After a while, I was more than used to it. It was the new smell of home. I still got a runny nose on a badly polluted day, and I still sought out the better masks for my walk to the train station. I learned to accept the faint but inescapable smell of pollution and put it aside when I followed my nose to better smells. It fell to the background while coffee, soup, fried pancakes, kimchi, and cherry blossoms took center stage. Any traveler knows to follow their nose to some of the best experiences a culture has to offer. By my second year, I was unburdened by the faintly acrid smell of the air and thought only of Seoul’s other exciting smells.
Korea is truly a beautiful country. Seoul sits in a bowl of mountains, with smaller summits the size of short buildings that jut up like little islands here and there in a sea of civilization. The crowning jewel of them all is Bukhansan in the north. Once, on a clear day, only a few minutes after it had stopped raining, I stopped while walking over the Samgakji bridge. I looked over the bridge to the right as I always did on my walk home. I could see Seoul tower, bright and tall to my right, washed clean in the rain and shining in the sun that was beginning to set. I could see the bold, thick rails of the train tracks flowing under me. To my left were apartment buildings, some of them with gold- or copper-colored windows that I’d never noticed before, framing the setting sun. And straight ahead, following the tracks that ran underneath me, was the peak of Bukhansan itself. It seemed so close, I could even see particular crags and a tree line. And for the first time in a long time, I smelled fresh air. I couldn’t help it: I started to cry.
I didn’t cry because I missed my old home like I had so many other times. I wasn’t sad because the view didn’t live up to my expectations. I cried because it was so beautiful, so clean, and just the way Korea was meant to be. I felt like I was finally smelling the real Seoul. It was not the scent of excitement but the smell of home.
BIO: Alison Auger is a writer and editor who has recently returned to the U.S. from South Korea. She holds a B.A. in English from UC Denver and was an original editor of the journal F(r)iction.
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