“ondolbang” in korea

one of my favorite childhood memories is of our family sitting together on the toasty floor, talking, laughing, and watching TV during cold winter nights. we would crawl around feeling for warm spots and beckon others to come sit: wave, tap on the floor, repeat. my brother mastered this universal signal as a toddler, long before he even knew how to talk.

it turns out that this memory/experience is pretty specific to my growing up in korea, because korea is the only (or one of the few?) cultures that use the “ondol” (underfloor heating) system. traditional korean homes used a kind of a firestove under the thick floors, and modern korean homes have hot water pipes running under the floorboards, which basically gives you the same effect. when i took a tour of the Secret Garden at Changdeok Palace, the tour guide explained that the ondol heating system shaped many aspects of korean people’s daily lives: the way we sleep (on the floor), the way we sit (on the floor), the way we eat (on the floor, with low tables). and that’s also why we always take off our shoes before coming indoors. in fact, most homes in korea have a separate small room/area built into the entrance where you leave your shoes.

this style of floor-living was so deeply ingrained in our family that even when we moved to the US and started living in non-ondol homes, we would spread huge electric rugs in the living room and sit together in the winter. these electric rugs (in picture) are excellent ondol substitutes, and just about every korean family seems to own several of them. they have one in every size and they use them on chairs and couches as well. compared to the american selection of electric blankets and heated pads, the korean ones are super evolved, with all sorts of bells and whistles. some kind are made with special kind of charcoal and stuff  that’s supposed to be good for your health. yeah, i know, i don’t really get it either.

i’m not sure if this is related, but when i was riding around in the subways in korea, i also noticed that the seats are super warm because the heating system is built under the seats. actually, i am totally convinced that this is all related: something about how korean people prefer their heat to come from the bottom or something like that. i dunno, does anyone else have a better (more intelligently articulated) theory?

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5 Responses to “ondolbang” in korea

  1. Bee says:

    I don’t have a theory, but: I was just telling the hubz that I missed the old C/E subway trains in NYC, which used to have heaters blasting directly under your seat and warmed your butt and calves when you sat down. The new trains don’t have anything underneath…except garbage. (Sigh.)

    • eunnie says:

      yes! those butt and calf-warming heaters are the best! that’s basically what the korean subways are all like. it’s so awesome.

  2. ajay says:

    do people get the “mud butt” on the subway?

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