Jet Lag: Living in the Future


Jet Lag: a Modern Problem

I write a lot about traveling to Europe, but I’ve also spent some time on other continents.  And during Jet Lag Week, it seems appropriate to consider the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced: traveling to and from Korea.  

I’ve taught at several English camps in South Korea.  Seoul is 17 hours ahead of California.  That means that most of the time I was literally a day ahead of what was going on at home.  As I finished my classes at 3pm on Tuesday, my husband would be getting ready for bed on Monday night.  When I woke up on Friday morning, he was finishing meetings on Thursday afternoon.  This made for difficult communication!  It was hard to find a time when two people were both awake and not tied up with work to chat.  Our compromise:  my husband called me in the middle of most afternoons as I was waking up and getting ready for the day.  

But my little brain did not grasp this time difference well.  If it is Sunday morning in Seoul and Saturday evening in California, who is living in the present?  

I know, I know.  We all are.  Right?  Somehow, though, I kept thinking, “Just wait until they get to Thursday!  It is a doozy!”  As if Seoul is actually one day ahead in time itself.  

We are so self-centered thinking that our time is the measure for all.  But, it isn’t.  Pearl Harbor Day in Japan is not December 7.  It is December 8.  September 11 just barely squeaked in before September 12.  I remember those events unfolding as I awoke at 6 am.  My Korean friends heard about the first plane crash just as they were going to bed at 11 pm.  

And then the strangest time experience of all: flying home.  Flying to Korea, I simply lost 8 hours or so.  Somehow that is easy to accept.  I stumbled off the plane after 12 hours, bleary and crazed.  By the time I was driven from the airport to my room and unpacked a bit, it was time to fall into bed.  With a few Tylenol PM, I slept well, only waking briefly at 4 am.  Within three days, I was sleeping through the night without drugs.  

However, flying home from Asia is an entirely different story.  Flights generally leave late in the evening.  The flight attendants feed you, dim the lights, put on a movie, and you are supposed to If you leave Korea at 6 pm on Saturday, you will arrive in California at 11 am -- on Saturday.  You’ve gained back 7 hours lost, and then you have to stay awake ALL day long.  So, a 24 hour day becomes a 31 hour day, and despite your deep exhaustion, napping is not a good idea. 

The jet lag coming home from Asia – it is the stuff horror movies are made of: sleep deprivation, confusion, lack of focus, loss of basic mental capacities.  When I taught at Shattuck-St. Mary’s our Asian students would arrive back from break and would complain of fatigue and sleeplessness both for weeks on end.  The entire faculty chuckled at the melodrama and showed very little sympathy for our sleepy, gloomy students.  

And then I went to Japan and came home again.  

For weeks I woke at odd hours in the night, fell asleep without any control in the middle of the afternoon, and, quite simply, my brain did not function.  It took nearly three weeks to fully recover.  They say that it takes one hour per time zone.  Think about it: 17 hours difference – that’s a 17-day recovery.  Nearly three weeks.  

The pioneers could never have dreamt of jet lag.  Imagine the conquistadors!  Slogging about the globe for months at a time, they adjusted by virtue of the sun and the stars.  And here we are in an age where you can go half-way around the world for two weeks and be home again after just 12 hours in the air.  

What kind of jetlag will the astronauts who travel to Mars experience?  What will time mean to them as they drift further and further away from our planet?  After all, our measures of time and place are arbitrary – measurements only relative to our position in the solar system.  As much as we zip about on our own planet and bounce between yesterday, today, and tomorrow we are all still orbiting the same sun on the same ball of matter at the same speed.  But someday that calculation of time and place may be challenged.  Imagine the jet lag from one planet to the next… 

I am exhausted even thinking about it!

So before you begin to battle jet lag, here are two posts with tips and tricks for beating jet lag: my own solutions as well as tips from other travel writers.