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  • Writer's pictureChristensen

Death by Rotating Blades (Fan Death)

Can you imagine the ways a kid in Korea can torture their brother or sister with this? If not, please read below. ;)

Kildong (not his real name) would slip into my room right before I fell asleep and turn off the fan. I sat up in my bed and just stared at his retreating figure and the now silent fan. “Why did he just turn it off?” I would then turn it back on and enjoy the cool breeze blowing away the summer heat. A bit later, Kildong would then sneak back into my room and turn the fan off again. Puzzled, I would turn it back on. He then slipped in a bit later, opened the window and moved the fan away from my face. I would then move it back in front of me. This battle ensued for a while until a fan with a timer was brought into the room. He moved the timer to four hours, and we were both satisfied as I fell asleep with the fan blowing gently in my face.

Let me explain what was happening.

The second summer that I was in Korea, I lived with a family. Thankfully, they kicked their youngest son, Kildong, out of his room and gave me it for the month and a half that I was with them. Though, that room was HOT!!! Even at night, I was sweating in that bedroom unless I had the fan on. I grew up in Houston, Texas, so I’m pretty used to hot and sticky weather…but I don’t like to swelter in it. I do something about it. I turn on the AC or sleep in front of fans. I don’t just lay there in bed sweating.

Though, that is not how things are done in South Korea.

Up until recently, the air conditioning units here sucked so much electricity that families were hesitant to use them. A family might have a standing version in the living room that they might turn on during the hottest days, but they wouldn’t use it that night for fear of having a high electricity bill. So, the usual method of staying cool in Korea has long been the electric fan (I can’t say when that started, but this has been the case even when I first came here in 2001). I’ve never lived in a place in South Korea that had central heating/cooling. In fact, in our place right now, we have a wall unit in the bedroom that keeps the bedroom freezing cold and eventually raises the temperature in the other rooms to bearable. Our unit is energy efficient, but I’m dreading the first summer electricity bill.

So, that summer, when I was living with the host family, we used fans during the day to stay cool. But when it came to bed time, the fans were left in the living room, and the family would sweat it out in their beds. I didn’t understand that. I grew up sleeping in front of a box fan, and so I would scoot the fan into my bedroom and enjoy falling asleep in my usual way during the summer…until Kildong killed that!

What was going on? Fan death.

I love the foot controls on our new fan! Do they have that feature on fans in your country?

Any foreigner who has lived in South Korea has heard of fan death and rolled their eyes. I used to do that. Yet…I have stopped because I realize that there are “urban myths” and “old wives tales” in every culture.

“Don’t go outside with your hair wet. You will catch a cold.” Not true. Not even in winter.

“Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Sounds good, but it is also not true. All you will do by starving is weaken your immune system even more.[1]

“You’ll instantly fall in love with your baby, and the delivery will be a magical memory.”[2] Trust me. We just had a baby. That’s not true. 😉 I was overwhelmed by the experience, but it took some time to really feel love for my child (and on some days, I still struggle with the fact that we are now parents, to be honest). Please keep my little family in your prayers!

So, let’s stop rolling eyes. All cultures have their “wise sayings” that are actually not based on sound scientific fact. And…there is often a grain of truth behind those practices.

This past week, a foreigner brought up this question: “Do Koreans really believe in fan death?”[3] And the teasing and ridiculing ensued. A few brave people spoke up and said they believed it. But where did this belief come from?

Reputable sources!

Up until 2006, the Korean government supported this idea.[4] There were reports of people dying from sleeping in front of fans.[5] I remember seeing articles about this in the newspaper, but it has become too hard to find them with an online search.[6] But here is one in English from 2011.[7]

Come on! If your government and news sources are saying that there are people dying from something, wouldn’t you trust them? Okay…not if you think (1) news sources are “fake news” or that (2) the president is a habitual liar. Though, for most of us, we want to trust the people who are supposedly experts and looking out for us. So, I really understand why the average Korean came to believe this.

Up until recently, all fans in South Korea had timers on them (at least I had a hard time finding on without a timer!). Why? To prevent fan death (as stated on some of the user manuals). Our old fan can only operate for six hours, so I would often wake up in a sweat in the morning.

Yet, I think this has greatly changed from before. When I started teaching here in South Korea in 2001, I would chat with my students about this, and it seemed as if the consensus was that fan death was real. However, now, I find that more and more of my students no longer believe this. But I always try to challenge them from both ends: “How do you know it doesn’t cause a person to die? Possibly, in South Korea, the walls are constructed in such a way that it does actually suck out all of the oxygen. How can you prove me wrong?”

The students who do stand by this do attempt to show me how fan death is real by bringing in news sources and scientific studies. And if they can bring a strong enough case, I support their findings (but still challenge them). Even the EPA has said that fans do contribute, in ways, to deaths during the summer.[8] Though, if you read the recommendations closely, it is not that the fan is causing the deaths but heat. The fan simply is functioning how it should – circulating air. If the air is hot, then it can accelerate your body temperature rising to deadly levels. That isn’t the fault of the fan. That is the fault of the person for not allowing cooler air to enter a room (and sadly, babies, old people and those incapacitated by drugs are alcohol might not be able to do something about this). However, in short, there are logical reasons for believing in fan death.

So, please, my fellow foreigners, please stop using fan death to ridicule our friends and neighbors here in South Korea.

And let’s look at examples where the Korean culture has done some pretty rational and cool things that other cultures should adopt. For instance, why the heck do you Americans insist on wearing shoes in the house?[9] And yo! Come to Korea to see some pretty cool technology![10] I would also say that the US needs to adopt the public transportation system, health care and safety of South Korea (but those are debatable that they are the best in the world).

In short, before you ridicule another culture’s practices, it might be best to stop and realize that your culture is not perfect. And that those practices often come from very logical and rational places…even if you can’t see that.

Pssst…Christensen, you need to listen to your own advice sometimes when you talk about your time in South Korea. You too point out where some practices in South Korea annoy you.

Yeah…I know. ☹











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