When The Gobi Desert Ruins Your Shirt: Clothing Mishaps In South Korea

by Lindsay Shapka in ,


Somehow, the left sleeve of my sweater had lengthened while the right had shrunk, and my pants were so stretched out that they were only staying on because I had folded and safety pinned the sides.

I tried to make everything look better by putting on a pair of new heels and some flashy earrings, but after surveying myself in the mirror I was pretty sure that the saggy bum of my pants and the stretched out sleeve of my sweater would not go unnoticed by the extremely appearance-conscious women that I worked with at the English School in Ansan, South Korea.
Since taking it all off and crawling back into bed wasn’t an option, all I could do was sigh and resign myself to the fact that what I was looking at in the mirror really was as good as it was going to get.

The main culprit behind my ill-fitting wardrobe was my washing machine, a large basin filled with spiky plastic balls that banged the dirt out of my clothing as it was spun around at breakneck speed. Clothing always emerged looking like it had fought a war and lost — badly. With no dryer available to nicely shrink my cotton back into shape (dryers are not commonly found in South Korean apartments), I was forced to line dry and hope for the best.

After a few months of using the clothesline (and out of desperation for pants that I didn’t have to hold up with safety pins) I resorted to drying my most misshapen items by laying them on the floor. Our apartment, like the majority of buildings in South Korea, was heated with Ondol heating — basically heated floors.

My roommate came home one afternoon to find the heat blasting, and my laundry scattered across the floor of the apartment like a rumpled puzzle, in my pathetic attempt to put some shape back into my badly misshapen wardrobe.

It worked pretty well, until the yellow dust arrived and ruined everything.

I had left the door of our covered balcony open a crack one night so that my clothes, a load of whites, would be dry by morning and I woke up to find that they had all turned a dirty yellow color. Upset, I flung the balcony door wide open in search of an explanation.

There was a dirty haze over the sun, different than any smog that I had ever seen, which was my first indication that something was amiss.

Leaning over the rail, I could see that cars parked on the street below looked like delicate yellow nets had been draped over them, and a man biking down the road was wearing a hospital mask over his mouth and nose. Like my favorite white blouse, the world seemed to be covered in a thin film of dust. It sat on the leaves of trees, gathered in the gutters and hung heavily in the air.

Apparently, for a few weeks every spring, yellow dust — actually sand from the Gobi desert bordering China — is blown through the streets of Beijing and into South Korea. It travels on the wind and is dumped all over the streets, homes, and even finds its way into the noses of those of us living there.

I had been expecting the dust to come, having been warned about the phenomena by one of the locals, I just wasn’t prepared for the Gobi desert to ruin my clothes!

Why didn't I just go shopping and replace everything, you ask?

I will never forget the first time that I walked into a clothing store in Seoul. The saleswoman met me at the door, looked my North-American-size-6 frame up and down, wrinkled her nose, shook her head and raising her hand told me “no big size”.

Turning red as I realized that all the salespeople in the store were watching us, I could do nothing but utter an embarrassed “ok”, turn and walk out. It was pretty obvious that in South Korea my curves did not fit in.

To make clothing shopping even more difficult, many stores only sold items in one size (usually xxs) and wouldn’t let customers try anything on.

Unless I shopped at a large, overpriced chain store, or played the dumb foreigner and slipped something on when a salesperson wasn’t looking (which actually worked really well most of the time), clothing shopping was mostly guesswork.

Eventually, so that I didn’t lose my mind and shatter what was left of my faltering body image, I gave up on shopping for clothes, bought more safety pins, and turned my attention to shoes instead — I wore the biggest size available, but at least they fit! 

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