Fine Dust from China

On Mar 4, 2019, a couple in their thirties, both native-born Americans of Korean descent, take their two daughters, 3 and 1, on a flight to Korea for a 2-week vacation. Upon deplaning at the destination after 12 hours of flight, however, they get immediately engulfed in a thick fog of fine dust, the worst on record, and have to put on masks, to no avail. In a day or two everyone of them comes down with one form or another of respiratory and pulmonary disorder, coughing, wheezing, scratchy throat, runny nose, the worst happening to the youngest, high fever and difficulty breathing from pneumonia. She has to be rushed to the ER by ambulance.

After two weeks of vigils night and day and a succession of pediatric and specialist clinics and labs taking hours to navigate a few blocks, congested worse than in Manhattan, they limp back home, miraculously alive, though the young one seems still to hover on the brink.

“We should make the Chinese pay for this,” mutters K, the 82-year-old grandfather, almost in tears, looking at his youngest granddaughter’s haggard face.

“But they deny responsibility, Dad,” the father points out.

“Deny responsibility when on and you can track real time the dust airborne back to China, ruthlessly deforested and desertified in its quest for rich-quick industrialization?”

“Korea is too small to force China to do the right thing.”

“Don’t go to Korea,” K orders in disgust. “I left it six decades ago because, among other reasons, it couldn’t stand up for itself.”

“But it’s still my ancestral land,” the son declares. “We’ll go back maybe next year when the girls will have more immunity. Even if they don’t, its medical services are superb and cheap, too, one-tenth of the US rates. No wonder they live longer than us.”

Darkest Before Dawn?

Japanese colonial oppression of Korea peaked as World War II was ending in 1945. A 7-year-old kid growing up in Korea, I heard my elders whisper, “It’s darkest before dawn,” and saw it come true with Japan’s withdrawal soon afterwards.

Then, during the last days of the 3-month North Korean occupation of Seoul at the start of the Korean War (Jun 25, 1950 – Jul 27, 1953), I heard the adage repeated among the ordinary citizenry, not in collaboration with the conquerors and starved, in constant fear of house raids and street roundups, futilely diving into makeshift shelters against bombs and shells unleashed from the sky and the sea in support of MacArthur’s landing at Incheon to liberate the capital. Watching the US Marines march into the city, I, a 7th grader, reaffirmed the truth of the dictum, “Darkest before dawn.”

Later, my English studies led me to its equivalents: “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth,” found in Thomas Fuller’s travelogue (1650), probably putting in print what’s already around, or “The darkest hour of all is the hour before day” in Samuel Lover’s Irish Songs and Ballads (1858). Koreans could have adopted the translation from the English, Irish, and American missionaries, the westernizers of Korea, but my cultural pride inclines me to think it a universal motif popping up independently.

Lately, during a Korean high school reunion (class of 1956) of those living in the northeast of America the conversation turned to the threatened Barr probe into the Mueller investigation and, lamenting the spiraling rancor of US party politics, I happened to drop the aphorism.

“We always went out on our penetration missions across the DMZ predawn when visibility was at its shortest,” interjects B, formerly with the Korean Army Special Forces.  

“Because it’s darkest?” I ask, intrigued by this literal vista of the maxim opening up.

“Not necessarily,” offers K, a former air controller. “Thick fog, smog, or fine Chinese dust in Korea can zero out visibility even at midday.”

“Did you mount any of your missions during the day because of zero visibility?” I persist.

“No, always shortly before daybreak,” B clarifies. “Remember it was the late 50’s when there was no smog, no fine dust nor yellow rain, Chinese desertification not starting until a couple of decades later when Deng hugs Nixon.”

Determined to see how much factual validity there was to this old proverb I woke up at 4 a.m. on two successive mornings, Apr 23 and 24, 2019, two hours before the 6 a.m. sunrise in my area to give an hour’s lead to the Irish hour, and watched. At no point, especially at 5 a.m., did any dip, sudden or subtle, occur in visibility or illumination.

Another myth laid to rest (see The Myth of the Pre-Death Panoramic Epiphany, 12-26-2018,!

Instead of triumph, however, I am gripped with grief over our gullibility or need for it. To dramatize and impart a finality to the message, perseverance no matter how tough the going, our collective imagination pounces on a fact statement not likely to be challenged for veracity: acutely sleepy before getting up for the day few would bother to fact-check. I wouldn’t have, either, except for that darn B disturbing my metaphorical serenity. If asked about the success rate of those predawn missions of his, bound to be iffy as the basis is faulty science, he would have attributed it to the North Koreans wising up and getting ready.