Sunday, January 18, 2009

Esquire Magazine Presents: Professor Jeffery Hodges, Fan-Death Expert

"She calls her poor father a squire..."
(Image from Esquire Magazine)

Yesterday -- or was it the day before? -- my helpful friend Malcolm posted a thoughtful announcement of my return to the blogosphere:
Thanks to the kind and generous efforts of my friend Bob Wyman over at Google, Jeffrey Hodges' blog, The Gypsy Scholar, is on the air once again. Go pay a visit.
Being the sort of beast that bites the hand that feeds me, I retorted:
Yes, it’s good to be back. I've been gone so long that Malcolm's forgotten my name! (It's "J-e-f-f-e-r-y," Malcolm.)
But to make up for the painful snap, I imparted some of my wisdom -- implicitly providing a defense of the liberal arts in the process:
I made the most of my time away from the blogosphere, using it to read much of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The novel has helped me get in touch with my feminine side . . . you know, my feelings. It's also helped me to understand the situation better. But I couldn't quite figure out if Google was Wickham or Darcy. For now, I'm going with the Darcy interpretation.
See how useful and relevant literature is? But despite the power of the literary word, my name continues to be a problem, for in a following comment, "the one eyed man" noted:
Jeffrey Hodges is quoted in this month's Esquire (Ask AnswerFella) regarding the mysterious subject of fan death.
Yet, I was suddenly out of the mood for arguing orthography or making snarky remarks about somebody possibly needing a monacle, so I merely inquired:
What did I say?
Not -- unlike Uncle Cran -- that I had been drinking and couldn't recall. Rather, the interview was several months ago, and the details therefore hazy.

In his generosity, "the one eyed man" posted the passage with quotes from the interview:
Jeffery Hodges, a professor at Ewha Women's University in Seoul tells AnswerFella, "I've heard as explanation that the belief originated at a time when Koreans were first able to purchase electric fans and used them to such an extent that electrical systems were burdened, so the government spread a rumor that running them overnight was potentially fatal."

Hodges also shared the following passage from the government issued Cultural Guide to Migrant Workers in Korea. "In some cases, a fan turned on too long can cause death from oxygen deficiency, hypothermia, or from overheating." Some Koreans, he adds, "have outlandish explanations about how the whirling blades of a fan can sever oxygen molecules."
Yes, it all comes back to me now. But I distinctly recall carefully calling Esquire's attention to the correctly incorrect spelling of my current university: "Ewha Womans University." I wonder if "the one eyed man" mistakenly altered that to the incorrectly correct spelling.

The Esquire interview was originally supposed to be conducted by phone, but when my interviewer -- the lovely Ms. Brenna Ehrlich -- attempted to reach me from the States, her call wouldn't go through, so she interviewed me by email, and as you will see, the information that I provided was somewhat more extensive because Ms. Ehrlich asked several questions:
1. When did you first hear about fan death?

I heard of it relatively late, sometime early in this decade -- perhaps around 2002. I first read of it on a blog by some Western expat in Korea. Oddly, none of my Korean students had ever mentioned it to me.

2. What is it?

Supposedly, fan death is the fatal consequence of sleeping in a closed room with a fan running all night.

3. Is it widely believed in Korea? How so if it is?

I'm told that every Korean believes that fan death is real. In reality, some doubters surely exist, especially among Koreans who have lived abroad and spoken to many skeptics. Also, an occasional skeptical report will be published in the papers, so some Koreans are doubtful, it seems.

I'm not sure that I understand your latter question. "How so if it is?" People believe in fan death and warn against letting fans run all night. Do you mean "Why do people believe in fan death?" That's a good question. I'll speculate further below.

But if you mean why is belief widespread . . . I don't know, except that Koreans tend to be far more uniform in their opinions that Americans are. Koreans will often agree on many issues where Americans would express a range of opinions.

4. Does the government warn against it? Fan manufacturers? Schools?

Yes, the government does. For instance, the Cultural Guide Book for Foreigners in Korea, put out by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, warns of fan death:
Dangerous electric fans

In summer, many go to bed with a fan on. In some cases, a fan turned on too long can cause death from oxygen deficiency, hypothermia or fire from overheating. A fan with a timer can help prevent such dangers: you can set the timer before going to bed for one to two hours' run. Do not forget to have the windows open for ventilation. [I linked to the original source, which states this on page 33, but that link is broken]
I don't know if businesses or schools do, but my wife, a native-born Korean, doesn't think that schools do.

5. How often is it in the papers?

Warnings about fan death usually appear in newspapers during the hot months -- late May to early September -- often in conjunction with a 'fan-death' fatality. Someone will have been found dead in bed in a closed room with a fan on (or so we're informed), and this news report will cite Korean doctors or scientists who have 'evidence' for the reality of fan death. This sort of report gets printed several times a year. I guess that some Koreans just aren't careful about setting those timers for that recommended one to two hours' run! Or perhaps only foreigners are informed about that recommended daily dosage of fan-propelled air.

6. What do you think of the idea?

I'm extremely skeptical about most of the fan-death 'information'. Of course, one has to be concerned about any electrical convenience overheating and causing a fire -- as the Cultural Guide Book for Foreigners warns in the case of electric fans -- but that's not fan death.

The warnings about oxygen deficiency and hypothermia, however, are typical fan-death 'information'.

Supposedly, fans can deplete oxygen. Some Koreans give outlandish explanations about how the whirling blades of a fan can sever oxygen 'molecules'. I suppose the idea is that single oxygen atoms are useless, that only oxygen atoms bound together into an O-2 molecule can be breathed and utilized by our bodies.

Or . . . fans cause hypothermia by cooling a body down too low. I think that the room would already have to be quite cold for this to occur, but in that case, who would use a fan?

Or . . . conversely, fans cause heat stroke because they dehydrate the body. I am doubtful that this would be at all common, but I concede that if one is already severely dehydrated, a fan might cause further dehydration. But I am skeptical even of that.

Keeping windows open for ventilation is usually a good practice, of course -- so long as the windows have screens to keep out mosquitoes -- so that one bit of advice from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is useful, I suppose. We should thank them for that.

"Thanks." Deep bow to the Ministry.

7. Had you ever heard of it in the US?

Never, but I left the US in 1989 and came to Korea the first time in 1995 almost directly from Germany. Oddly, my wife never mentioned fan death to me until I asked her about it, and we'd been in a relationship since 1992. I think that she just wasn't a 'fanatic' about the belief.

8. Do you know where it originated?

No, not as a matter of fact. I've heard as explanation that the belief originated at a time when Koreans were first able to purchase electric fans and used them to such an extent during hot weather that electrical systems were burdened, so the government spread the rumor that running them overnight was potentially fatal.

I doubt this explanation. It fails to account for the strangeness of the belief. The government could have just explained that fans were burdening the electrical system -- or have warned about fires from faulty wiring in fans.

I wonder if the belief in fan death might have more to do with Korean superstitions about wind. Koreans believe that even a gentle breeze can harm a baby if the baby's head is uncovered. Also, women who have just given birth are supposed to stay indoors and away from wind. My wife told me of this latter superstition, then added darkly that Koreans have a lot of superstitions about the dangers of wind . . . but she didn't elaborate, and I had to hurry off to work this morning.
In other words, I provided a lot to select from, and what they actually selected might imply that I think that the explanation about the government-spread rumor to be the likely origin of the fan-death superstition -- despite my explicit skepticism -- but I suppose that AnswerFella likes to keep quotes short. I still haven't seen the copy of Esquire, for I couldn't find it online, so I cannot link to the AnswerFella column.

By the way, Ms. Ehrlich has her own fine blog, Watching the Detectives, on which she posts material on crime in her hometown of Chicago, among other places, but that link doesn't work for me anymore. Let me know if it works from inside the States, for it looks as though it's still being updated.

Oh, and thanks to Ms. Ehrlich, to research editor Robert Scheffler, to the AnswerFella, and to anyone else involved in this Esquire article. After all my years of studying the Coptic language in order to read the Nag Hammadi Coptic Gnostic codices, I'm honored to have finally been considered an authority on . . . fan death.

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At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think now I've come closer than ever to understanding the Korean superstition concerning wind. And how fans may actually cause some sorts of ill effects, although I too am somewhat skeptical. I only wish you'd posted the interview in full the first time I noticed "fan death" on your blog.

I think I might make a leap here where whirling fan blades disturbing or otherrwise disrupting otherwise stable oxygen in closed spaces.

I once knew this otherwise quite wonderful woman who under most circumstances acted generally rational. However she went totally irrational should she even suspect that "the wind was broken."

I can see where such superstitous belief might develope. Too, if the wind was broken, whirling fan blades would almost certainly pose a danger of any disturbace spreading.

Oh I missed Gypsy! I learn sooo much here.


At 7:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You raise an excellent point, JK, about the possibility that a fan's whirling blades break wind as they make wind. The noxious gases thereby produced could indeed prove harmful, potentially fatal, in a small, closed space such as a bedroom. There may be some truth behind this Korean belief in fan death.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me that someone has been sniffing too much of themselves or others breaking wind, and it is affecting their oxygen levels to the brain, thus producing an inability to think rationally.
But what do I know, having recently recovered from taking in narcotics while, and shortly after, receiving hospital care?

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I learned in today's sermon that we are "totally depraved" . . . so that probably explains a lot.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

Wait... I am confused. So does this mean that you are not a defender of the fan death theory, and that all this time you have been just toying with us true believers? I feel so... betrayed.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

On this tangled issue, I believe that we must avail ourselves of the "double truth" put forward by Averroës (Ibn Rushd).

That should resolve every concern...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the explantions I heard was the fan death was cited as the cause of death then the true cause of death would be too embarassing to the family or the local community. A quick pay-off to the corner gets you "fan death" - case closed.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that's an intriguing suggestion. I've never heard of this one before, but it's plausible.

Jeffery Hodges

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