The profound social, cultural and linguistic differences alone are enough to bamboozle any Westerner.
But what is most confronting is the visible environmental degradation and the thick pollution hanging in the air. Heavy smog blankets the endless grey roads and buildings in a thick grey soup, devouring the landscape, the blue sky and the horizon.
The dehumanising and ubiquitous face masks are the last line of defence against this toxic invader. There is no escaping it unless you retreat indoors; the pollution is all-conquering.
Every year spring winds whip up desert sands in China into a large cloud of dust which wafts over China, South Korea and Japan. It’s called the yellow dust and it’s a fact of life in East Asia.
While it has its origins in a natural phenomenon, the yellow dust has slowly turned into a man-made pollution disaster.
Gradually the problem has intensified as rivers are diverted to make dams, and deforestation leads to desertification. However it’s the addition of industrial pollutants into this toxic vortex as it wafts over major industrial centres that has caused the problem to spiral out of control in the past decade.
You really don’t appreciate something as fundamental and elemental as breathing until it becomes difficult. When you’re sightseeing in Seoul every breath feels wrong and you try not to breathe too deeply. It’s something about the smell.
On the TV news I pick up the words PM2.5. I don’t understand it but I know that it can’t be good news. It’s what the residents of Morwell were so concerned about: tiny particulate pollution that lodges deep in the lungs. So much for sight-seeing. But my main concern is for my infant daughter’s health, who refuses to wear a face mask.
While this industrial assault on clean air has political, economic and health impacts (hundreds of Koreans die each year because of the yellow dust), for me it’s a quality of life issue. Pollution is a constant burden, a shadow cast over every aspect of life. Like some dystopian future where everything is grey and lifeless, the yellow dust slowly grinds you down and forces you to retreat indoors, into your shell.
When I step off the plane in Australia the first thing I notice is the warm sun and the beautiful blue sky. Priceless, precious. In the news Tony Abbott is vowing to scrap Australia’s pollution laws. I can only hope his trip to East Asia will open his eyes to the folly that course. But I won’t hold my breath.