South Korea's Quirky Notions About Electric Fans

South Korea's Quirky Notions About Electric Fans

9:54am Aug 09, 2015
A shop at Seoul's Namdaemun's market where electric fans are sold. Despite scientists who tell them it's safe, many older South Koreans believe that it's dangerous to go to sleep with an electric fan on and never do so.
A shop at Seoul's Namdaemun's market where electric fans are sold. Despite scientists who tell them it's safe, many older South Koreans believe that it's dangerous to go to sleep with an electric fan on and never do so.
Ari Shapiro / NPR

It's a hot and humid day, like there's a thick blanket of air sitting on top of Seoul, when I visit the city's bustling Namdaemun market. The place has everything from live eels to military surplus gear, and I go to a corner with rows and rows of electric fans.

Kim Yong Ho has run an electronics shop here for four decades. His grandchildren are running around. And he says he would be very careful about letting them fall asleep in a room with an electric fan sitting next to them on a desk or the floor.

"I would turn the timer on and make sure the winds were blowing very gently," he says. "I'd also make sure the fan head is rotating around the room."

Every culture has its old wives' tales that are unsupported by science. American parents tell their children not to swim after eating, even though there's no real evidence this is dangerous. In South Korea, many older people fear that if you sleep with an electric fan in the room, you may never wake up.

Ah Yun Choi, a 25-year-old shopper, is familiar with this myth.

"I heard that people sometimes die because of the wind, because the temperature goes too low," she says. "But I think that's quite nonsense."

Suddenly her mother Kim Jong Suk, 53, speaks up. You can survive with a fan on all night, she says to her young daughter. But, she adds, for senior citizens it's dangerous.

The South Korean news media and scientists keep trying to debunk this notion, but it won't go away.

A TV ad came out just this summer for a fan called Baby Wind, specifically designed to be safe for children.

"Winds that care about the baby's sleep," the ad says. "As gently as fluttering leaves, free from worries about falling temperature. Automatic off function after two hours, even after mom falls asleep."

Lost In Translation

Do a bit of research on fan death, and you'll find an American climatologist who — at least according to the Internet — says it's a real thing.

That man is Larry Kalkstein of the University of Miami, and he says if you're dehydrated, sitting in front of a fan in a hot room can make you more dehydrated. That can cause medical problems.

But, he's quick to add, "fans do not chop up oxygen molecules in the middle of the night, they can't lead to hypothermia, they can't suck oxygen out of a room. None of those things can happen."

This lost-in-translation moment came a few years ago when Korean journalists interviewed him in Seoul.

"One of the women asked me if I believed in fan death, which I'd not heard of, so I said, 'Yes. Fans can create a problem.'" he recalls.

"But they thought I meant that I believed in traditional fan death, when I did not, so that made a bit of a stir, and that's probably why you're calling me right now, because my name became associated with fan death," he adds.

So for the record, Kalkstein does not believe in fan death.

An Actual Experiment

In 2008, Chun Rim, a professor at the Department of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, decided to actually test the hypothesis.

He says it was hard to find anyone to take part in this so-called dangerous experiment. So he used his 11-year-old daughter.

"Every five minutes I checked her body temperature, blood pressure, and also the temperature of her hand," he says.

She survived the night. Her vitals barely changed. And now, the whole family sleeps with fans blowing on them.

"Not necessarily a very strong fan, but we no longer think that this is a real danger," he notes.

That study got some attention when it came out. But seven years later, it doesn't seem to have done much to make this persistent belief blow away.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've probably heard that swimming after a big meal can lead to drowning. That is an old wives' tale without scientific basis. Every country has beliefs like this that are not backed up by the facts. With the heat of August blasting, NPR's Ari Shapiro looked into one of these legends in South Korea, where many people believe you should never fall asleep with an electric fan running.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This market has everything you could want, from live eels to military surplus gear. And we're in a corner of the market with rows and rows of electric fans. It is hot and humid. There is a thick layer of air sitting on top of Seoul like a blanket. Kim Yong Ho has run an electric shop in Namdaemun Market for four decades. His grandchildren are running around. And he says he would be very careful letting them fall asleep in a room with an electric fan sitting next to them on a desk or the floor.

KIM YONG HO: (Through interpreter) I would turn the timer on and make sure it was blowing very gently. I would also make sure the fan head was rotating around the room.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-five-year-old Ah Yun Choi has heard this rumor. She's shopping in the market with her 53-year-old mother.

AH YUN CHOI: I heard that people sometimes die because of the wind continuously - because the temperature goes too low. But I think that's quite nonsense.

SHAPIRO: Suddenly, her mother, Kim Jong Suk, speaks up. You can survive with a fan all night, she says, for senior citizens, it's dangerous.

Many, many people believe this. But scientists say it is not true. You will be fine.

CHOI: Oh. (Speaking foreign language).

KIM JONG SUK: (Laughter, speaking foreign language).

CHOI: Yeah, she - even though she listens to the scientists theories, she thinks it's quite dangerous because the temperature of our body cannot - cannot afford the continuous wind, she thinks.

SHAPIRO: South Korean news media and scientists keep trying to debunk this rumor. But it won't go away. A TV ad came out just this summer for a fan called Baby Wind, specifically designed to be safe for children.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

SHAPIRO: "Winds that care about the baby's sleep," the ad says, "as gently as fluttering leaves, free from worries about falling temperature - automatic off function after two hours, even after mom falls asleep."

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Do a bit of research on fan death, and you'll find an American climatologist who, at least according to the Internet, says it's a real thing. That man is Larry Kalkstein of the University of Miami. And he says if you're dehydrated, sitting in front of a fan in a hot room can make you more dehydrated. That can cause medical problems. But...

LAURENCE KALKSTEIN: Fans do not chop up oxygen molecules in the middle of the night. They can't lead to hypothermia. They can't suck oxygen out of a room. None of those things can happen.

SHAPIRO: This lost-in-translation moment came about when Korean journalists interviewed him in Seoul a few years ago.

KALKSTEIN: One of the women asked me if I believed in fan death, which I had not heard of. So I said, yes, fans can create a problem. But they thought I meant that I believed in traditional fan death when I did not. So that made a bit of a stir. And that's probably why you're calling me right now because my name became associated with fan death.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) So we're setting the record straight here.

KALKSTEIN: We're setting the record straight.

SHAPIRO: In 2008, a scientist named Chun Rim decided to actually test the hypothesis. He's a professor at the Department of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He says it was hard to find anyone to take part in this so-called dangerous experiment. So he used his 11-year-old daughter.

CHUN RIM: Every five minutes, I checked her body temperature, blood pressure as well - and also the temperature of her hand.

SHAPIRO: She survived the night. Her vitals barely changed. And now the whole family sleeps with fans blowing on them.

RIM: Not necessarily a very strong fan, but we no longer fear or think that this is a real danger.

SHAPIRO: And you are still alive because we are talking to you today.

RIM: Yeah (laughter). Still I am living, yeah.

SHAPIRO: That study got some attention when it came out. But seven years later, it doesn't seem to have done much to make this persistent belief blow away. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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